A Shabby Little Shocker on the Upper East Side – Review

By David Browning

Tosca at Dicapo Opera Theatre Photo by James MartindaleNew York, NY – Dicapo Opera Theatre opened its 30th season with Mr. Puccini’s Tosca, a sure audience draw, on October 6. Dicapo has long been one of New York’s “stepping stone” opera companies—one where young singers gain experience and resume credits, and audiences are happy to see season after season of mostly familiar works, with some unusual or rarely performed works thrown in every now and then for spice. I was happy to see the October 14 performance.

Tosca is based on Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca, in which the famed Sarah Bernhardt toured Europe to great acclaim. The libretto is by Luigi Illica and Giuseppa Giacosa. It is a story of political intrigue, murder, lust, and a jealous soprano. (No, really, this is on stage, not in the wings.) When it opened in 1900, reception was mixed. A Parisian critic wrote that Tosca “is coarsely puerile, pretentious and vapid.” (The phrase “shabby little shocker” actually comes from musicologist Joseph Kerman’s 1956 book Opera as Drama, not from Puccini’s time, as I’d always thought.) Puerile or not, Tosca can always be counted on to sell tickets, and audiences leave humming its melodies. When done well,Toscacan be devastating.

I was already a fan of Kristin Sampson, and quite liked her Floria Tosca. Her sound is rich and full, and Tosca fits her voice perfectly. In a house whose acoustics are known to tempt singers to push, Miss Sampson’s large voice sounded free and comfortable. She is a beautiful young woman and looks every bit the proud and jealous diva, aided by rich costumes and grand coiffures. I have no complaints about Miss Sampson’s performance, and she was by far the star of the show, the best reason to be there, but there were moments when I’d have loved a touch more spark, more of a feeling this was her Tosca, not her teacher’s or coach’s or director’s Tosca.

Tosca at Dicapo Opera Theatre Photo by James MartindaleGuido LeBrón’s Scarpia was also a pleasure. Although he occasionally succumbed to the temptation I mention to push vocally, his singing was resonant and richly colored and more often than not free and impassioned. Scarpia is a cold and calculating man, and it was great to see in Mr. LeBrón’s face Scarpia’s thought processes as he determines the best way to achieve his nefarious ends.

Cavaradossi isn’t the role for Peter Gage Furlong. There were some comparatively nice high notes in his performance, but I don’t think he has the sound or size for Cavaradossi. I also found his acting at times a bit uninspired.

The conductor was Pacien Mazzagatti. Although the connection between the pit and the stage seemed there, and everybody ended at the same time, the orchestra seemed a bit underrehearsed, and at times a little too loud.

I’ve always said I’m all about the singing, and in this case, that’s a good thing. This is a traditional production, not updated to titillate or challenge, but I can’t say I was thrilled with it. The stage at Dicapo is not large, but in this case it was dominated by a turntable to accommodate designer John Farrell’s rotating set. I’d much rather it had stayed put. In fact, the rotating occurred so often, I began to make mental comparisons to the “machine” used in the MET’s Ring cycle—it became another character and I was sometimes distracted by wondering what it would do next. The only thing it contributed that I liked was allowing Tosca to sing Vissi d’arte facing out the window of Scarpia’s chambers.

Tosca at Dicapo Opera Theatre Photo by James MartindaleThe small stage was very busy and seemed cluttered, and I can’t say director Michael Capasso used the space well. The Te Deum at the end of Act I in particular seemed disorganized and haphazard. The idea of having Tosca cross downstage after leaving the church at the end of Act I might have worked had she not been the only character who ever makes such a cross, and had not so much stage business been going on behind her. It added little aside from unintentional amusement as Scarpia’s Keystone Cop-like henchmen followed her, not exactly unobserved as Scarpia had ordered. It worked a little better when she left Scarpia’s chambers at the end of Act II. Such a cross wasn’t required at the end of Act III, of course. Act III seemed a little less hectic, partly because there was less rotating, and partly because there were fewer people involved and less coming and going. (One did wonder why the jailer offered Cavaradossi the services of a priest, when a priest had just been with him in his cell.)

I don’t want to imply I hated everything about the production. There were moments that were clever. In fact, many moments between Tosca and Scarpia in Act II seemed almost magical, including bits of unspoken dialogue between the two. One wanted more magic, more spark. More skill, in fact. One wishes this shocker hadn’t been quite so shabby.

David Browning is a singer and writer living in the greater New York City area.  He is the publisher of the opera blog Taminophile: www.taminophile.com

Photos by James Martindale