Leah Crocetto is having an epic season. While performing at Glimmerglass in upstate New York late this summer, she got the call as a late replacement for the Washington National Opera’s “Aida,” which she squeezed in just prior to her triumphant role debut last night as Tosca with the Pittsburgh Opera. If that last minute opportunity to portray Verdi’s final great heroine interfered with her preparation for perhaps Puccini’s most dramatically demanding role, she never let it show. Well, maybe just a little, when she shook with visible relief while taking her curtain call, a reminder to the audience that her performance was nowhere near as easy as she had made it look. From her opening offstage cries to her final pledge to justify herself before God, every vocal inflection and gesture was deeply considered to convey the passion, piety, fear, and rage Tosca experiences moment to moment in this rapidly paced drama. She was magnificent.
Miss Crocetto’s instrument is simply huge. I got the sense in Act one that the she needed only the slightest tap on the accelerator to fill the Benedum Auditorium with her rich, full sound, and couldn’t wait to air it out in the second act. Then for good measure, late in the third act, just in case anyone thought all she brought were gorgeous big notes, she spun out a lovely, heartbreaking pianissimo that would have made Montserrat Caballé proud. I would love to hear her at the Met, where she debuted last season as Liù; her voice has the kind of weight and force that should really make an impact in that vast hall, and the kind of beauty that should fill seats.
As Traditional as it Gets
Director Garnett Bruce’s production, which opens the Pittsburgh Opera’s 79th season, is entirely traditional, right down to the classic red velvet and brocade armor that has weighed down countless divas singing “Vissi d’arte.” Erocle Sormani’s sets are relatively spare, with the details of the interiors being largely conveyed through painted backdrops, until he and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski (who also worked on Pittsburgh Opera’s inspired 1950’s Hollywood Barber of Seville a few seasons ago) pull out all the stops in Act three. Conductor Antony Walker, in his twelfth season leading the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra, was in complete command from the opening crashing chords of Scarpia’s theme, and secured an especially sensitive performance from the brass section, which cues so many crucial moments in the story.
The curtain opened to reveal a church interior with a small altar on stage left, and half dozen stairs on stage right leading to the platform with painter Cavaradossi’s portrait of the Attavanti, the bannisters covered with charcoal cartoons of her face that will fuel Tosca’s fire. We are quickly introduced to Cavaradossi’s friend, the escaped political prisoner Angelotti (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Andy Berry), who is seeking the disguise left for him in the chapel by his sister, as well former Resident Artist Matthew Scollin’s Sacristan. Both men provided valuable comic relief in this otherwise dark drama, with Berry getting a big laugh for his reaction to the disguise, and Scollin taking full advantage of a gangly frame to appear largely arms and legs, even in his robes.
Argentinian tenor Thiago Arancam strode in looking every inch the romantic artist Cavaradossi, with thick, curly hair that required a quick swipe of the hand in even his direst moments. I tend to give tenors a pass on “Recondita armonia,” his Act one aria. It’s my least favorite of the big Puccini tenor arias, as even top tier tenors, if not properly warmed up, can sound pinched and strained and strangled by the tessitura. I usually just hope they redeem themselves in the third act with “E lucevan le stelle,” one of my favorites.
Queen of the Night
But all is merely prelude to the entrance of the star of the evening. I always listen closely to Tosca’s offstage opening cries: has the diva found the most beautiful way to sing her lover’s name and merely repeated it three times? Or has she found a way to bring a different meaning, a building urgency, an early glimpse into her turbulent emotions, to each one of the iterations? A great Tosca must sings beautifully, yes, but also passionately and dramatically, meaningfully. Crocetto successfully established her musicianship before even setting foot on stage.
Rushing in, suspicions aroused because of a locked door and hushed voices, Crocetto took command of the stage, by turns imperious, coquettish, jealous, and devout. Having established her relationship with Cavaradossi, she must exit briefly to clear the stage for one of the great entrances in all of opera, the Baron Scarpia, the villain who will, in addition to catching the escaped prisoner, plot to bed Tosca and kill her lover.
Not Quite The Opposing Force
Sung by local favorite Mark Delevan (previous appearances with the Pittsburgh Opera include the title roles of Nabucco, Rigoletto, and Falstaff, as well as a prior run as Scarpia in 2012), the Chief of Police was made up to appear like John Lithgow as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and thus stripped him of the sexual tension with Tosca that makes the relationship more interesting than one in which she is simply repulsed by him. The Te Deum should soar, as the choir strains against Scarpia’s profane oaths; I like to see a little motion, too, to emphasize the uplifting music: pillars pulled back, scrims flying up and away; some physical manifestation of the stirring sounds. This Te Deum was static, which was perhaps for the best given the blocking issues with the boys choir. At one point, one of the boys stepped directly into the path of a fearsomely pacing Spoletta (Eric Ferring), forcing Scarpia’s right-hand man to veer off course to avoid a collision. I suppose it would have been asking too much for him to have stayed in character and bowled the kid over. The biggest disappointment of what should have been a great Act one finale was Delevan’s inability to project his final line (“Tosca, you make me forget God!”) over the thundering orchestra and chorus.
If the production lost its way after Tosca exited in Act one, Act two offered a fresh start. Scarpia’s apartment was furnished simply, with a writing desk to one side and a small, private dining table on the other; that Scarpia habitually dined alone was underscored when a stoic Sciarrone (Benjamin Taylor) had to bring a chair for Tosca to join him. The tension built as Scarpia toyed with Tosca, using the tortured cries coming from Cavaradossi offstage to bring his sadistic plan closer to fruition. Just before breaking down and agreeing to satisfy Scarpia’s evil desires, the action stops for the opera’s most famous aria, “Vissi d’arte.”
It can be awkward to stage when the Scarpia has been acting like a rutting bull and now has to find something to do before proceeding with his rape. I’ve even seen him sent over to the bar to polish glasses, which seemed particularly out of character. Here, Delevan’s more controlled performance paid off, as he sat quietly at his writing desk while Crocetto ravished the audience. So quietly that at first I thought he was playing it as a freeze, where only moments pass in real time as Tosca sings her private thoughts; I’ve often thought that might be the best way to account for the abrupt halt to the action. But if my focus drifted to Delevan at the start of the scene, it didn’t stay there long. “Vissi d’arte” is such a familiar piece one can forget just how exhilarating it can be when sung live by a powerful artist. Crocetto handled the long, soaring phrases with oxygen to burn, and I swear had plenty of reserves in the tank for even the largest crescendos. Her emotional rendition was masterful, and a delighted audience stopped the show with shouts of approval.
Solid Final Move
The third act was the most technically demanding. An enormous statue of a sword-bearing winged angel dominated the ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo; the dome of St. Peter’s a bare outline against the pre-dawn sky. The stars twinkled in the background as Arancam reminisced (although vertical tears in the black curtain at the back of the stage gave more of a “Matrix” effect than was probably intended). Imperceptibly, dawn broke, and by the finale all of Rome lay at Tosca’s feet. The “mock” execution of Cavaradossi was particularly well handled; when Mr. Arancam fell, it was on his side with his back to the audience, revealing the bloody, fatal exit wounds to us, making Tosca’s joy anticipating their escape that much more tragic. Once she realized the horrible truth, having lost everything, Crocetto climbed to the edge of the tower, unleashed her final, powerful vow, and fearlessly hurled herself off, throwing in a half-twist for good measure. There was nothing tentative or fearful about her demise, just as there had been nothing tentative or fearful about Crocetto’s performance. I was really only reminded that tonight was her role debut by the genuine emotion she showed at the curtain call, in which Delevan very generously insisted she continue taking additional much-deserved individual bows before joining hands with the company to bask in the thunderous ovation from an appreciative audience.