Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the ‘Standard Repertory’ of opera

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Sondra Radvanovsky is a Radiant, Transcendent Tosca – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2013

May 20th, 2013

There were winners all around at Los Angeles Opera, when Placido Domingo conducted a stellar performance of Puccini’s “Tosca”. The winners included the opera’s leading men – tenor Marco Berti as Cavaradossi and Lado Ataneli as Baron Scarpia. “Tosca’s” several important comprimario roles were well-cast also.

The winners included the brilliant stage direction and production design of John Caird, the supportive conducting of Maestro Domingo, and, for that matter, Giacomo Puccini, the composer of the highly dramatic and brilliantly theatrical music of “Tosca” -

But ultimately, the evening belonged to soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who has joined the ranks of the great Toscas of the 113 years of its performance history.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Tosca

Tosca is one of the roles on which a dramatic soprano’s career is judged. It is both vocally and histrionically challenging, requiring the display of a range of emotions and behaviors – jealousy, ardor, anger, suspicion, vulnerability, resignation, calculation, confusion and terror. An effective actor, Radvanovsky displayed the required voice of power, but also a voice of great beauty.

Over the past several years I have reported on the Illinois native’s brilliant successes in the Italian repertory, ranging from Donizetti (The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008) to Verdi (21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010) to Puccini (Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008).

[Below: Sondra Radvanovsky as Floria Tosca; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

TOSCA RADVANOVSKY

Still in her early 40s, one expects (and, in every occasion I’ve observed, invariably gets) a Radvanovsky performance to be a memorable operatic event.

The audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion got such a memorable performance, and showed its appreciation with lengthy and tumultuous applause at the end of her affectingly-sung showpiece aria Vissi d’arte and a standing ovation for her at the opera’s end.

Marco Berti’s Cavaradossi

A great Tosca is at her best when she is complemented by great voices singing her lover Mario and her adversary Scarpia.

Italian tenor Marco Berti is one of the finest artists currently performing the spinto roles that require large and expressive voices.

[Below: Marco Berti as the Cavalier Mario Cavaradossi, edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

BERTI

Berti dispatched his two great arias – the first act Recondita armonia and the third act E lucevan le stelle - impressively . He proved himself vocally worthy in his duets with Radvanovsky.

Lado Ataneli’s Scarpia 

I had remarked on Lado Ataneli’s characterization of the sinister Baron Scarpia in a traditional production [See House of Puccini: Striking San Francisco Opera “Tosca” with Pieczonka, Ataneli and Ventre – June 14, 2009].

[Below: Lado Ataneli as the Baron Scarpia; edited image of a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

SCARPIA'S LOOT

One of the great singing actors from the Republic of Georgia, Atalneli possesses a robust baritone, that is full and rich.  Ataneli easily met the expectations of this iconic villain role.

John Caird’s Directorial Concepts

I had reported at length on this Houston Grand Opera-owned production in its debut season [see A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010.] Although it is a non-traditional production, in the sense of its organization around a unit set and its inclusion of a surreal spiritual element, it was true to the basic storyline of Puccini’s thriller.

[Below: Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky, center) attempts to comfort the tortured Cavaradossi (Marco Berti, prostrate on floor), as, from far left, Sciarrone  (Daniel Armstrong), Spoletta (Rodell Rosell) and Scarpia (Lado Ataneli, center, behind Radvanovsky) look on; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

CAVARADOSSI TORTURE

Over the years, the opera “Tosca” has had its musicological detractors (one or two even quoted in the provocative “scholarly essay” contained in the opera’s program), but the opera’s international popularity has never diminished. Now even the academic community has begun to show its appreciation for Puccini’s genius in composing this opera, Puccini having won the critical support of such musicologists as Julian Budden, the preeminent authority on the operas of Verdi and Puccini.

Its attraction to the British director John Caird, much of whose whose career has been associated with performances of the Bard’s plays and with the London legitimate stage, confirms the solid theatricality of the work.

The drama is fast-paced, yet filled with detail – all of which supports the story. In the few hours after the escape of a political prisoner (Angelotti) from the Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo, a series of events will lead to Angelotti’s suicide; the execution of a left-leaning nobleman (Cavaradossi) whose path Angelotti happens to cross; the murder of Scarpia, the Roman chief of police by Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca; and Tosca’s leap to her death.

[Below: British Stage Director John Caird; resized image, based on a promotional photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

CAIRD

One needs only to follow Puccini’s stage directions to assure a satisfactory theatrical presentation, but in the hands of a masterful stage director, and John Caird is certainly one, there are abundant opportunities for original ways to present the story.

If one reads my review of the production’s premiere season at the Houston Grand Opera hyperlinked above, the details of Caird’s production are described there. Yet there were noticeable and inventive changes between the Houston and Los Angeles performances, in part, of course, because there was not a single overlap in persons between the two casts. (Caird, as most of the great directors do, tailors his stage direction to the singers who are performing the roles.)

The most distinctive features of Caird’s production is the use of a unit set (designed by British set and costume designer Bunny Christie) and forecurtains evoking innocence, blood and sin, before each of the three acts (each of which is ripped down by the character who speaks the first words in each act.)

Even more pronounced in the Los Angeles performances is the role of the shepherd, in Caird’s concept converted to a spiritual presence. Instead of the shepherd appearing only in the third act as envisioned by Puccini and his librettists, a young girl clad in the innocence of a communion dress, appears in the first act church scene (in the vicinity of the holy water font), then in the second act leads Tosca out of Scarpia’s headquarters after Tosca has stabbed Scarpia to death.

In the third act the young girl appears in the prison, singing the shepherd’s song, then resting in the opening through which Tosca will leap to her death.

The concepts are fascinating and work in performance. (Although the young girl is extratextual, nothing she does interferes with the storyline of “Tosca”.)

Bunny Christie’s Unit Set

There are advantages to a unit set in that scenes can change rapidly so as to shorten the length of performances and the time and expense of stagehands moving sets. I refer to unit sets as “puzzle boxes” whose results can be either salutary or ridiculous, depending on how far of a stretch it is to incorporate the various scenes of an opera within a single framework.

“Tosca” has three scenes, that take place around the alter in a Roman church, in the chief of police’s offices in the Farnese Palace, and in the prison courtyard of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

For purposes of the story’s action, for the first act one needs a painter’s scaffold, an alter, a receptacle for holy water and the entrance to the side chapel of the Attavanti family. For the second act one needs Scarpia’s desk and a doorway leading to a room where torture takes place. For the third act one simply needs an open space in which Cavaradossi can see the stars, and a jailer and firing squad can move about, as well as the ledge from which Tosca will jump. (That jump, of course, has to be believable.)

[Below: Bunny Christie's unit set for "Tosca" , displaying the first act church scene with the Baron Scarpia (Lado Ataneli, upper right) at the top level of the painter's scaffold; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

CAIRD TOSCA

The set’s basic structure is that of the third act’s spacious prison yard. Into the yard, for the first act, the arresting image of a multi-story painter’s scaffold (not inconceivable in a Roman church) has been placed.  For the second act a jumble of art treasures have been piled (said to be paintings and statuary that the venal Scarpia has looted from Roman homes and institutions). The torture room is placed in center stage, although what happens there is shielded from audience view.

In performance, the unit set works, and its elements are continuously interesting.

Notes on the supporting cast and conducting

The supporting cast was excellent. Joshua Bloom was Angelotti, Philip Cokorinos the Sacristan, Rodell Rosel the Spoletta, Daniel Armstrong the Sciarrone and Hunter Philips the Jailer. Fourth grade student Eden McCoy played the young girl.

Placido Domingo, whom I had seen admirably perform the role of Cavaradossi in two separate productions, conducted the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra  with authenticity and a knowing attention to the opera’s vocal demands on the principals.

Recommendation

I recommend this cast and production of “Tosca” unreservedly, both for the veteran opera-goer and those new to opera.

 

For my other reviews of Sondra Radvanovsky, see: Radvanovsky’s Astonishing Anna Bolena Adorns An Admirable Cast – Washington National Opera, October 6, 2012, and also,

Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011, and also,

Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009.

For my reviews of performances starring both Radvanovsky and Marco Berti, see: Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009, and also,

Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.

For my other reviews of Marco Berti, see: An Admirable “Aida”: Hui He, Berti, Smirnova, Kelsey Are Impressive – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 15, 2012, and also,

Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011, and also,

Halevy Triumphs in Ponnelle “Carmen” – S. F. December 3, 2006.

Hvorostovsky, Guryakova, Berti Excel in Houston “Simon Boccanegra” – November 4, 2006.

For my other reviews of Lado Ataneli, see: Power Verdi: Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo” – April 25, 2009, and also,

Power Verdi: Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto” – March 28, 2009.

For my review of another John Caird production, see: Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012.

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