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‘Tosca’ dishes up drama, classic music

Opera Review | 3 out of 5 stars

Published: Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Updated: Friday, November 12, 2010 16:11

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Courtesy Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera

In ‘Tosca,’ Floria Tosca (soprano Jill Gardner) makes a drastic decision to protect herself and her love from Baron Scarpia (bass-

I will admit, "Tosca" has never been one of my favorite operas. Puccini's music is lovely — and at many points in the opera even achingly beautiful — but the melodramatic, even pulpy plot, along with some questionable compositional choices, has led many critics to dismiss Tosca, as contemporary musicologist Joseph Kerman put it, as a "shabby little shocker."

The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) has presented a production of "Tosca" that is delightful to watch. The small cast is made up of exceptionally strong singers whose clear and characteristic voices not only do justice to the music, but also add layers of nuance to the plot. Soprano Jill Gardner returns to BLO as the titular diva, Floria Tosca, and her commanding and full voice fits the bill of the jealous, fiery heroine. Her second act aria "Vissi d'arte," arguably the most famous to come out of the opera, was brilliantly sung, and Gardner ably conveyed all the emotions wrapped in the aria without overstepping the bounds of believability.

As wonderful as Gardner's performance was, the standout performance of the evening was Bradley Garvin as the malicious Baron Scarpia. The opera originally took place during the Napoleonic invasion of Italy, but BLO has cleverly updated it to Mussolini's Rome. Garvin appears as a higher ranking member of Mussolini's army, and he looks truly imposing with his tall frame clothed in a dark, sleek uniform.

Garvin was handily the best actor of the bunch. While stage director David Lefkowich allowed some members of the ensemble to wander around the stage distractingly at times and the focus of the singers was often centered more on musicality than believable acting, Garvin appeared ever-comfortable as he strutted around with decisive movements and presented the audience with a complicated and eerie villain, backed with dominating and precise vocals.

Attacks on the other singers' acting may not be entirely fair, though, given that tenor Diego Torre, who normally appears as Tosca's lover, was sick and had to be replaced at the last minute by the Metropolitan Opera's Richard Crawley. Crawley was a wonderful addition to the cast — his third act aria "E lucevan le stele" was a literal showstopper — but some awkwardness must be expected to ripple through a production when an unfamiliar cast member is injected into the production in the eleventh hour.

Aesthetically, the production was a mixed bag. Gorgeous lighting design appropriately enhanced the moods of each individual scene and truly interacted with the plot and the characters on stage. The costumes were rich and also helpful in building the tone of the production — the soldiers' dark, shiny boots and Tosca's luxurious fur stole were visually stimulating and exciting.

BLO may have gotten a little too enthusiastic with their sets, though: An opulent Catholic church, an over-stocked study — with a conveniently placed bed that appeared to exist just to make the attempted rape of Tosca more comfortable for the actors but would normally serve no practical purpose in a military leader's office — and a prison roof equipped with a story-high stone angel all combine to overwhelm the audience.

Levels are always nice to have on stage, but Cavaradossi's painting platform in the church was awkwardly situated such that actors were constantly climbing up and down steps and turning toward and away from the action as they go. With so much drama playing out in the opera, a barer set would have been welcome. Instead, bombarding the performance space with so many unused elements and props made the show come off as trying too hard.

I have been ranting about the dramatic plot of Tosca, but I have to admit that drama is not always a bad thing. This opera will certainly arrest an audience's attention, even if one has seen the show before — a mad cocktail of jealousy, lust, torture, murder, suicide and betrayal, coupled with some truly wonderful music, does tend to go down well. BLO has mishandled some aspects of the play — the sets and some awkward stage direction — but ultimately it isn't the backdrop that matters as much as the sweet, ever-popular music of Puccini, and with that, the production succeeds handsomely.

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