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Review: `Tosca’

This review by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

July 8, 1998. All rights reserved.

The first two productions in Opera Festival of New

Jersey’s season are as different as two peas in a pod. Sure, Mozart’s

"Marriage of Figaro," the season opener, and Puccini’s

"Tosca,"

the season’s second vehicle, are similar in being dramas where

dialogue

is sung, rather than spoken. But the two productions are shaped from

diametrically opposed visions of opera. While "Figaro"

presents

itself as a uniquely flavored morsel, "Tosca" comes across

as an easily-identified type. The personae in "Figaro" are

three-dimensional characters in a complex comedy, held under control

by a tightly integrated production. The main figures in

"Tosca"

represent abstractions, set in a melodrama that lets its characters

display their prowess in the performance of intense and impassioned

arias. Audiences may favor one or the other approach to opera,

depending

on their taste.

Dejan Miladinovic’s "Tosca," which opened June 27 at McCarter,

is a strong musical statement, both vocally and instrumentally. In

it Elizabeth Byrne, as Tosca, uses her powerful and shapely soprano

voice to display the ramifications of jealousy; Christopher Robertson,

as Scarpia, with his authoritative baritone, depicts the callousness

of unalloyed treachery; and tenor Michael Rees Davis, as Cavaradossi,

singing with warmth and steadiness, reveals the problems that can

grow from trust and loyalty. On opening night, the audience’s

enthusiastic

response to Byrne’s "Vissi d’arte" aria in Act II momentarily

stopped the stage action.

Both diva Tosca and her artist lover Cavaradossi appear in all three

acts of the opera and the demands on their stamina are enormous. Baron

Scarpia, the chief of police, who appears in Act I and is killed by

Tosca in Act II, appears on stage more briefly, but the challenge

of conveying evil incarnate requires an intensity that must be

particularly

demanding for a nice guy to sustain.

A lush orchestral performance, under the direction of Louis Salemno,

contributes both to the mood and the momentum of the opera from its

first captivating, ominous chord to the end of the performance. There

are places where Puccini’s orchestral score seems to presage movie

music, summarizing an entire scene sonically. Somewhat distractingly,

however, the orchestra briefly played prima donna in Act I of the

opening night performance, overwhelming the crowd on stage with the

volume of its brasses.

The supertitles are eminently readable, even from within the first

10 rows of the orchestra. The reward of monitoring the dialogue is

well worth the effort of glancing back and forth between stage and

overhead. The projected titles are summaries, rather than exact

accounts.

For Scarpia they are epigrammatic as they show his intent to release

Tosca’s jealousy "to fly like a falcon," or state his view

that "There’s more to savor in conquest than in consent."

Projected images play a major part in the scenic design. In addition,

shadows bring offstage actions within the visible reach of the

audience,

as they show characters approaching, or depict action that would

otherwise

be heard, but not seen. Particularly effective is the shadow

projection

of Tosca’s singing at the queen’s reception offstage, while Scarpia

is shown at dinner on stage. The team responsible for the visual

effects

is set designer Gordana Svilar, lighting designer F. Mitchell Dana,

and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy. Unfortunately, for a

segment

of the opening night audience, the spotlight creating the shadows

was a glaring presence.

Comic relief is provided in Act I by Steven Condy, as a rotund

Sacristan,

crossing himself excessively, taking a puzzled peep at the painting

on which artist Cavaradossi is working, and helping himself to

something

from the lunch basket he has been entrusted to bring the artist. The

Sacristan is a convincing character. Contrastingly, Bradley Garvin

(Cesare Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner) limps, stumbles,

and falls in an implausible manner. To believe he could have eluded

any pursuer it is necessary to close one’s eyes and pay attention

only to his fervent singing.

Beau Palmer (as Spoletta) and Dominic Inferrera (as Sciattone) ably

portray the evil Scarpia’s evil henchmen, singing and acting with

hardened malice, and acting as surrogates for Scarpia in Act III,

when Tosca discovers that Cavaradossi’s execution was genuine, and

not the mock execution that Scarpia had promised.

Opera Festival of New Jersey opens its third work of the season on

Saturday, July 11. It is Carlisle Floyd’s "Susannah." If OFNJ

runs true to form, audiences will encounter yet a third approach to

opera.

— Elaine Strauss

Tosca, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater,

91 University Place, 609-683-8000. Friday, July 10, 8 p.m. and

Saturday, July 18, 8 p.m.


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