Something funny happened to me during this Saturday’s performance of Tosca by the Pittsburgh Opera. I would consider myself to be a “scribbler.” I carry a tiny, black Moleskine diary with me nearly everywhere, lined with blank music-staff paper on which, ironically, I have never written a single note of music. Instead, it is filled with my immediate reflections, sparks of ideas, verbally articulated concepts for pieces to compose and in-the-moment observations to contribute to articles like this one. Toward the magnificent conclusion of the first act, in which the villainous Scarpia dictates his plans to bend Tosca to his will against a glowing backdrop of choristers poised like a Caravaggio painting, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t written a single note. In fact, I hadn’t even taken my notebook out of my pocket. Indeed, if there is a single phrase by which I could summarize the effect that Saturday’s performance had upon me, it would be something like “the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Tosca reminds us exactly why we love the opera.”
In short, I so enjoyed the production I felt no need to do anything but sit back quietly and soak it in; to take off my critical hat and drink up the night’s drama. Puccini’s brilliant “get to the point” score and orchestration, employing three dramatic chords punctuated by a whack of the bass drum (instead of a drawn out overture), illuminates the urgency of the story and reminds us of the impending doom as these same chords creep in and out of the lyrical passages, like that burning tingle of anxiety at the back of your neck. As I have come to expect, Antony Walker’s orchestra played beautifully, though there were some moderate issues with the intonation somewhere in the third act, in what sounded like an octave unison between the cellos and violas.
As Tosca, Angela Brown, in her Pittsburgh Opera debut, sang effortlessly and magnificently, often exceeding a more labored performance by tenor Hugo Vera as Cavaradossi, another newcomer to the Pittsburgh Opera. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, however, it was Mark Delavan’s transcendent Scarpia that stole the show. From the moment he entered the stage to his final gurgling demise at Tosca’s hand, Delavan held my attention thoroughly and, in short, scared me out of my wits. His composure was so natural, particularly during the second act during which we enter his private apartments, that I felt drawn in to the time period, as though I were not sitting in an opera house, but were a fly on the wall. Due credit must also be given to Ercole Sormani’s fabulous sets, which enclosed the world of the drama beautifully and roused considerable applause as the curtain rose on act two. The final brick in this strong foundation was Kristine McIntyre’s strong and effective stage direction.
Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists Adam Fry, Kyle Oliver, Juan Jose de Leon and Stephanie Lauricella made up for a great supporting cast, complemented nicely by basso buffo Kevin Glavin’s delightfully entertaining Sacristan. I must also make special mention of the Children’s Festival Chorus, prepared by interim conductor Shawn Funk, who performed beautifully as the choristers and altar boys of Sant’ Andrea della Valle.
Over all, I had a hard time deciding how to feel about many of the audience members reactions during the third act. As Tosca prepares Cavaradossi for what she believes to be a fake execution, the audience chuckled and laughed awkwardly; presumably because they knew what was going to happen. I have to say, while there is clearly an element of comedy woven into Tosca’s politically charged and heavy-handed storyline, knowing that Cavaradossi is going to die and poor, jealous Tosca is only deceiving herself, it was my sense of dread and angst that became amplified, rather than a pitying flippancy toward Tosca’s foolish trust in Scarpia’s false order. Sure enough, when she rolls over Cavaradossi’s body only to discover a bullet-ridden corpse, letting out a well-tuned soprano shriek, the hair on my arms arose and a sudden pang of sadness ejected a tear from my eye (as usual). I would have loved to have been in Rome in 1900, when the opera was premiered, to observe the behavior of Puccini’s contemporary audience. Perhaps, rather than an evolving element of our zeitgeist, it is simply human nature that is to blame.
In any case, to the players of the Pittsburgh Opera, my closing statement is simply, “Bravi!”
Photos: David Bachman