Boston Lyric Opera’s Tosca: A Triumph for Soprano Elena Stikhina

Nélida Nassar  10.17.2017

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Very few performances of Tosca are fully satisfactory, primarily because that requires, above all, a perfect balance between the three protagonists (Mario Cavaradossi, Baron Scarpia and Floria Tosca); in addition, the roles must be filled by accomplished singer-actors who are willing to give of themselves unreservedly. Composed by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the work opened Boston Lyric Opera’s 2017 – 2018 season. The performance, which offered few innovations, remained within the great tradition and did not seek to be a model for the 21st century. The most intriguing and unusual gesture was the creation of a two-floor stage, with the orchestra placed on a platform above the soloists to optimize the singers’ use of the Cutler Majestic Theatre’s small, narrow stage. It was obviously quite a challenge, since several members of the orchestra appeared at times to be unable to hear what the soloists below were saying or singing, but the opera’s main ingredients were all present, so that on the whole the evening was a success.

The performance was dominated by the Boston premiere of Russian-born Elena Stikhina as Tosca, who after few rough notes at the beginning displayed an ample and, at times huge voice, pure and crystalline, even when she stood near the side of the stage (a doubly prodigious feat). And this first impression, combining infinite gentleness and phenomenal power, along with excellent phrasing and exceptional breath control (and what breath!), was confirmed throughout the evening, though at times her diction was less than ideal. Indeed, the opera’s magic simply took hold of the singer. All of Tosca’s fragility and sensitivity emerged with grace and emotion during the aria “Vissi d’arte.” All the determination and mastery of the woman, torn as she was, was expressed with great assuredness in the final duet, wringing tears from half the audience. Its appreciation was reaffirmed by the prolonged ovation and cheers which welcomed the young soprano when the final curtain fell. One thing is certain: a new star has appeared, and we are eager to hear her again.

Baritone Daniel Suttin, tonight’s Scarpia, is at the height of his powers, as one can see from the list of his recent appearances in the great international opera houses; and he is a worthy heir to Piero Cappuccilli, Gabriel Bacquier and Tito Gobbi. Suttin/Scarpia has been in his repertoire for several years, and his training both as a musician and as an actor finds a perfect synthesis in this character. His rich and powerful voice and fine technique are perfect throughout his vocal range, and his breath control is exceptional. Moreover, his stage presence and gestures are excellent. His interpretation of Scarpia, more disturbing by its violence than by its deceit, is very convincing. He made the audience shudder several times, once, of course at the famous entry at the end of the first act.

Jonathan Burton, making his Boston debut as Cavaradossi, was less at ease in his acting than the other principals, never managing to convey any real fire in his character, partly because his voice faded a bit over the course of the evening. He seemed too much at the mercy of events, a sort of puppet that Tosca would be happy to play with. On the other hand, he was quite at ease vocally, possessing the ideal voice for the role, even if he did not convey all the desired nuance. He often tended to slow down, as if listening to himself singing, and thus wound up straying occasionally in his timing. All the same, his duets with Stikhina in Act 1 (“Qual’occhio”) and Act 3 (“O dolci mani”) built to some finely-matched climaxes that soared over the orchestra. He also sang the imprecations of the second act (in a very beautiful “Vittoria! Vittoria!”) perfectly, and he did very well with his two arias and with the hauntingly melodious “E lucevan le stelle” of the third act as he awaited his execution. The latter aria, written in B minor, is one of the most famous in all of opera, and to be honest, I must say I was a little bored with his rendition of it; for it lacked the deeply felt interiority that makes the great Cavaradossis – the greatest, of course, being Luciano Pavarotti. Alas!  In this production there was little attraction between Stikhina and Burton, which meant that their arguments and passionate embraces in the outer acts lacked any real tension or spark.

The other protagonists were quite credible. David Cushing delivered a muscular account of the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Jon Jurgens and Vincent Turregano were fine as Scarpia’s henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone. The sacristan of James Maddalena was excellent. Sara Womble was lyrical and fluent in the Shepherdess’s song at the beginning of Act 3. Still, it must be said that hardly anything that anyone did on stage came across as spontaneous – especially not in the more action-packed second act. The BLO Chorus and children from Voices Boston provided strong musical contributions in their appearance at the climax of Act 1.

The staging by Crystal-Manich was traditional but simple, although it often was misguided and suffered from the fact that the actors moved about relatively little and lacked chemistry among themselves. Innovations were unsatisfactory such as having Tosca shoot herself rather than jump off the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo and jettisoning the pleasures of the three very different settings for a dark and ugly unit set. The use of the stage was generally fine: the crowded scenes in Act 1 moved fluidly and never seemed cluttered; and when just one or two people were to be seen, they employed the whole of the stage to good effect. The staging benefited considerably from the minimalism of Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets: five columns and built-in doors behind functioned efficiently as, successively, a church interior, Scarpia’s lair, Cavaradossi’s jail cell, and the place of his execution.

Deborah Newhall’s period costumes, especially those for Tosca and the chorus, brought color and warmth to the production. And Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting design was subtle and effective, especially the trompe l’oeil effect of rising towards a closed dome open to the sky.

Another happy surprise, despite the peculiar stage configuration, came from the BLO Orchestra, which was at its best under the baton of the inspired David Stern. Rediscovering the nuances of a work that has been heard so many times – revealing all its facets, the clear and the dark, the smooth and the rough, the consonant and the dissonant: that is a major challenge and one that the orchestra and its maestro accepted. They were, however, only partially successfully, perhaps in part because of the handicap of not being able to fully see what was happening on stage. While their performance remained essentially within the traditional bounds, it was more than competent and not lacking in sensitivity.

Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Adapted from the play “La Tosca” by Victorien Sardou
First performed: Rome 1900
Conductor: David Stern
Stage director: Chrystal Manich
Set designer: Julia Noulin-Mérat
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Lighting designer: Paul Hackenmueller

Vocal Cast
Elena Stikhina, soprano: Floria Tosca
Jonathan Burton, tenor: Mario Cavaradossi
Daniel Suttin, baritone: Baron Scarpia
David Cushing, baritone: Angelotti
James Maddelena, baritone: Sacristan
Jon Jurgens, tenor: Spoletta
Vincent Turregano, baritone: Sciarrone
Sarah Womble, soprano: Shepherdess

Photography: LIza Voll