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To Rome With Love: Tosca at New York City Opera Renaissance

One can only hope that New York City Opera Renaissance, headed by impresario Michael Capasso, will go the direction of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in that it gains vitality and innovation as the years go on, because, despite the initial curiosity of recreating the same production that was seen at the opera’s premiere in 1900, the Tosca that arrived at the Rose Theater this week seemed an odd successor to a company that prided itself on artistic innovation on every level.

NYCOR Tosca 4

Photo by Sarah Shatz

Tosca was a symbolic choice more than anything. It was the first opera that the original NYCO performed. In this incarnation, though, NYCO Renaissance obtained the rights to all of Adolfo Hohenstein’s set and costume designs from the the publisher Ricordi and painstakingly recreated the production that was, more or less, seen when the curtain first went up on Tosca at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1900. The painted drops are impressive. Hohenstein’s watercolor designs are well-lit (by Susan Roth) and thoroughly drawn to create an effect that is both pleasing to the eye and effective in creating a false perspective. Lev Pugliese’s direction of the singers was efficient and predictably traditional, if not overdrawn at times (Cavaradossi drew a knife when Angelotti emerged from the chapel in Act I). Though the drops flapped and fluttered every time somebody brushed past them too quickly and sometimes one could almost smell the mothballs bogging down this vintage take on a uniquely layered opera, it was an interesting concept for a production. But I cannot believe that this is the message that New York City Opera Renaissance wants to send. A production like this, though valuable for its historical quaintness, seems just plain regressive to a medium that is constantly making leaps and bounds forward and to a company that will succeed because of the goodwill of the risk-taking patrons of the original New York City Opera. Let’s just say that the Winter Show at the Armory wasn’t the only antique show that arrived in New York City last week, though I would bet that the crowd at each event was the same.

NYCO Renaissance presented two alternating trios of singers in the lead roles. The opening night cast was headed by Kristin Sampson as the diva Tosca. While not particularly distinctive, her voice, with its wide middle, pinched top, and a nice but underutilized chest voice, worked for the part. Her performance improved as the opera progressed, despite an unadorned “Vissi d’Arte,” and a rather timid characterization that made it hard to draw a connection between a Tosca who commands the stage as a singer and commands a relationship as a significant other. The quote “well-behaved women rarely make history” came to mind as this Tosca gingerly moved through the act of and stage business following Scarpia’s murder.

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Latonia Moore and Carlo Guelfi – Photo by Sarah Shatz

The second Tosca was the radiant Latonia Moore. Her voice is big, beautiful, and evenly produced from top to bottom with a strong and consistent vocal line, and she commanded the stage from the moment she stepped on the scene. This was a Tosca that was in control, as serious about her craft as she was about her romances. It was wrenching to watch her as she became increasingly more frantic during her lover’s torture in Act II, desperate to stay in control in some way. Moore has a palpably deep feeling for Puccini’s music, too. She made each one of Tosca’s anguished Act II high notes a sob, a sigh, or a scream. Whereas some singers just wail, Moore allowed each one of Puccini’s high notes to reveal something about the character. I can’t help but think that Puccini, a man of the theatre himself, would have been impressed.

The first cast’s Cavaradossi was James Valenti, whose old-school, self-indulgent stage movements (outstretched hands, lines delivered to the house as opposed to other characters, etc.) jived with the overall “theme” of the production. His Italianate, resonant voice consistently filled the theater (though his voice was far more interesting and expressive when he played with dynamics) and every high note was nailed (and held for a really long time). Valenti’s is a dominating presence onstage, so genuine chemistry between he and his prima donna was hard to come by. Each aria, though, ended stronger than or as strong as it started.

The other Cavaradossi, Raffaele Abete, was quite Valenti’s opposite. His voice is more slender and exacting than Valenti’s robust one, but it rose to nearly every climax. While he seemed musically tentative during parts on the first act and the second act saw him run out of steam a bit, he was in good shape for the tenor arias that bookend the opera. Abete and Moore had much better chemistry than the previous pairing.

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James Valenti and Kristin Sampson in Tosca – Photo by Sarah Shatz

Michael Chioldi stole the show as the Scarpia of the first cast. His voice, a rich and resonant baritone, stood out amongst his co-stars as he dispatched the text with precision and ease. Also, his Scarpia, more of a glutton for pain and pleasure as opposed to the usual straight-up lecher, was a welcome respite from the slimy, distant Scarpia of Luc Bondy’s production that played in revival earlier this season several blocks down at the Met.

The second Scarpia was veteran baritone Carlo Guelfi. Guelfi’s voice has deteriorated over the years to the point where it has become an acidic, legato-less snarl, punctuated by an occasional declamative booming. He moved onstage with purpose, though, and his obvious experience onstage made him a welcome commodity in a production whose concept is so vintage that it was practically foreign to the rest of the singers.

The smaller roles were filled-in competently. Christopher Job was a lustrous-voiced Angelotti and Blagoj Nacoski’s Spoletta was well-sung and had all the necessary sliminess one expects from this pivotal minor character. Kevin Thompson’s booming-yet-sensitive bass was a standout as the jailer. Donald Hartmann brought a worn voice to the over-directed, relentless comic routine of the Sacristan. In her solo as the Shepherd Boy, Daria Hrabova Capasso gave an admirable performance.

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Photo by Richard Termine

Pacien Mazzagattis conducting lacked subtlety, but drew interesting textures and fiery playing from the New York City Opera Orchestra (Yes, the original NYCO Orchestra). Musica Sacra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus were both distinguished contributors to the first act.

New York City Opera Renaissance has a difficult act to follow and a new generation of donors to win over. I personally hope that it is high-quality music-making and boundary-pushing theatrics that bring audiences to NYCOR in the future. But whether or not this new generation of fans and donors will be wooed by a Puccini warhorse staged in a watercolor music box is probably a question better left both unasked and unanswered.

Hohenstein Tosca

Original Set Design for Act II of Tosca by Adolfo Hohenstein

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