“The crown! The crest! It’s the Attavanti’s!” Exclaimed the tempestuous diva Floria Tosca, pacing about in a frenzied fit of jealousy after being led to believe by the scheming and lascivious Barron Scarpia that her lover, the painter and maverick Mario Cavaradossi, had been dallying with a Marchesa in the chapel. In fact, no such dalliance occurred, as he had merely been working on his painting of Mary Magdalene.
In Saturday’s semi-staged performance of Puccini’s three-act melodrama, which took place at the Kimmel Center, the image of the pious muse was figuratively drawn out, with the tenor splashing color onto his blank canvas using the higher echelons of his burnished voice instead of a brush. But just because the Madonna’s image was conspicuously absent from this performance doesn’t mean the Roman chanteuse had nothing to be envious about. Throughout the performance, the Philadelphia Orchestra, brilliantly led by the ebullient and modish Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, not only stole the limelight but was also the guiding force that breathed life, passion and terror into Puccini’s tantalizing tale of love, lust, murder and sacrifice.
Indeed the orchestra not only provided an undercurrent of support for the singers, who were somewhat awkwardly elevated above the stage, in the conductor’s circle. More importantly, it provided dramatic impetus during key moments in which the physical tension between the three protagonists is underscored by the chill-inducing harmonic tensions in Puccini’s orchestration. Scarpia’s motif, for instance, which we hear in the opening three chords, consisting of a dissonant tritone, known as the diabolus in musica, or the devil’s interval, forms a diagonal line of sonic horror running from the B flat of the double basses to the E natural of the piccolo. New versions of this tritone are repeated throughout the opera in different forms, and each time Nézet-Séguin colored this motif differently by accenting certain notes more or varying the tempo and dynamics. These passages certainly foreshadowed the impending doom that would befall Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi but they also provided a deliciously rich palette of harmonies and tonal variations to revel in. But, to be sure, these effects weren’t achieved at the expense of the singers as they were always perfectly audible and their voices blended seamlessly with the orchestra throughout the performance.
Having the orchestra as one of the main protagonists also proved to be useful given that some of the dramatic elements were drawn out through the music rather than physically staged in this concert performance (Tosca, for instance, does not jump to her death; rather, her death is more metaphorical, as she walks up the stairs, slowly exiting the hall while holding hands with an angel shepherd boy). There were also a few added dramatic effects that were ultimately misguided, such as a sheet screen that clumsily rolled down during the last few bars of music, projecting various unrelated images, including a ship or vessel, a pair of eyes, the interior of a church, a manuscript with spilled red ink and even a picture of Puccini himself. These images were superfluous and distracted from the visceral impact of the music itself, played to rousing heights by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Although the best singing of the night came from Ambrogio Maestri, who boasted a beautifully clarion and potent baritone, a larger-than-life stage presence and, predictably, the best Italian diction of all the principals, the two other leads also acquitted themselves admirably.
In the role of Floria Tosca, soprano Jennifer Rowley, who was able to step in at the last minute to replace Bulgarian Soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who had succumbed to an ear infection, provided a solid vocal interpretation and interesting portrayal of the Roman diva. Although she started out sounding a bit dry and underpowered, once she warmed up, her voice revealed a piercing upper register complete with rock solid high Cs, ample legato phrasing and chest for days. She also moved well onstage and had a clear sense of how to make Tosca appear more sympathetic, playing her with a spontaneity and youthful earnestness that downplayed the character’s volatile temper. The way she handled Tosca’s temper tantrum about Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene in Act one was particularly clever and charming, as each insistence that the Madonna’s eyes be black instead of blue was performed with a different sense of dramatic irony each time, turning the first one into a moment of metatheatricality as she purposefully turned to the audience, and shrugged it off laughing, as if to say, yes I live for art, I live for love, but I am also a theater gal who loves to tease and nag (#sorrynotsorry). The second urging was done in a more capricious, child-like manner, complete with pursed lips and puppy dog eyes. These small details added up to a refreshing take on a character that oftentimes becomes a vapid caricature of an opera diva.
Rowley had more than neat stage tricks to offer though, especially during the grizzly confrontation scene in Act two between her and Scapria. Here, Rowley paced herself effectively so that her actions seemed more premeditated, yet less choreographed. After reluctantly asking Scarpia to name a price for Cavaradossi’s freedom and, horrified to learn that the price is her own body, she walked away from him in disgust, sat down at the dinner table, took a sip of wine and collapsed, with her arms spread out across the table like a lifeless corpse. Then, as the glint of the dinner knife caught her eye, she slowly picked herself back up, turned her entire body to look at Scarpia, who was unsuspectingly drafting the safe passage he had promised as part of their bargain. Turning back towards the table, her gaze fixated on the knife, she slowly placed her hand across her stomach, and then, as the orchestra fleshed out her inner turmoil through the tense harmonic chord progressions, she gently picked up the knife, rose from her chair and as soon as Scarpia walked over to hand her the safe passage, dealt a swift blow to his chest with hit-man-like iciness and precision. Unlike other Toscas though, Rowley was fiercely unrelenting, stabbing him not once but three times, once in the shoulder as he was falling and again for a third time once he was already collapsed on the floor.
Then, seemingly unfazed by the violent act she had just committed, she furiously began rummaging through Scarpia’s desk to secure the safe passage manuscript, not noticing that it was clutched in his hand, and only upon realizing it was not where she thought it was did she begin to sob, as if overcome with a sense of hopelessness. But as soon as she spotted the paper in Scarpia’s lifeless palm, she tip-toed toward him and snatched it away, hear demeanor instantly changing. Overall, her execution of this scene and her performance as a whole was well thought-out and peppered with details that indicated a deeper understanding and more modern sensibility with respect to the psychological complexities of the role, as well as keen dramatic instincts that allowed her to carry them out effectively.
Extended High Notes & More
As the passionate painter Cavaradossi, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, who in real life is the husband of superstar soprano Anna Netrebko, and is therefore no stranger to Prima Donnas, exhibited the requisite heroic singing and charm this role requires, and although he tended to rely on overly prolonging his high notes for dramatic effect, he nevertheless sang with elegant phrasing, and an emotional sincerity and investment that shone through at all times. He also scaled back the voice for the more lyrical moments and sang a tender and beautifully phrased “E lucevan le stelle” that induced all the feels and garnered enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Most notable among the supporting roles were bass Richard Bernstein as Angelotti and Cameron Bowden as the shepherd boy. Likewise, the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir sounded marvelous during the majestic Te Deum chorus that ends Act one, always a musical highlight in any iteration of this opera. Serving as an excellent contrast to that was the Act two literal show-stopping aria “Vissi d’arte,” which here, was given a soft, almost understated treatment, creating a quiet moment of sincere introspection, so much so you could hear a pin drop between the soprano’s final phrases, “ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così,” which she broke up with soft added breaths to great dramatic effect. Here, the orchestra blended with the glistening and passionate legato of Soprano Jennifer Rowley flawlessly, creating a zoetrope effect reminiscent of an old film vignette.
The orchestral highlights culminated with the beginning of Act three, when, during the tragic morning of Cavaradossi’s impending execution, as the melody of his second major aria, the wistful and intense “E lucevan le stelle” begins, the maestro chose a slower, Wagnerian-like tempo that garnered a darker, incandescent sound with more gravitas, evoking a sense of tragic foreboding, as if this was Cavaradossi’s true moment of death.
Overall, it is these moments of sheer musical theatricality which showcase the value of pairing a world-class symphonic orchestra with a timeless operatic classic. The end result is, as Puccini’s librettists eloquently put it, the blending of dissimilar beauties by the mystery of art. In short, this was a great artistic amalgamation that did not disappoint.