Portland Opera’s Tosca, which opened Oct. 29 in the Keller Auditorium with many of its 3,000 seats empty, possesses the makings of grand opera, including a stellar cast and creative team, many of whom were making their PO debuts. Added to that are opulent sets and costumes, moody lighting, and of course, Giacomo Puccini’s irresistibly sweeping melodic music.
The opera, which premiered in 1900, embodies a romantic plot designed to stir us up with politics, treachery, love, religion, hairpin reversals, and tragedy. The characters, as they should be in grand opera, are excessive and unfailingly over-the-top. The principals include drama-queen diva Tosca, performed by dramatic soprano Alexandra LoBianco; dissident artist Mario Cavaradossi, sung by knockout tenor Noah Stewart; and manipulative dirty-old-man Scarpia (baritone Gordon Hawkins). Along with a deft supporting cast, including Portland tenor Katherine Goforth as the guiltily duplicitous Scarpia sidekick Spoletto, they play out a circa-1800 thriller-turned-tragedy in Rome, hemmed in by the Catholic Church, a corrupt local regime, and tri-corner-hatted Napoleonic invaders. Tosca, if feisty, can’t control fate. Everyone important dies.
All of these accomplished singers in this production, which has a final performance on Saturday, Nov. 6, have a chance to show off their pipes with Puccini’s arias. Tosca’s classic “Vissi d’arte,” (“I loved for art, l lived for love”) in Act Two as she tries to fend off Scarpia and protect the rebels’ secrets, will always be exquisite as long as a soprano of LoBianco’s talents and range sings it, especially if she performs it in a puddle of a blood-red velvet dress and glittering jewels, as she does in this production. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic called her “true Verdian voice” one of “velvet-covered steel,” an apt description.
Noah Stewart, with his crystal-clear, bell-like tenor, performs Mario Cavaradossi’s third-act aria, “E lucevan le Stelle” (“And the stars shone”) before his character is executed, and his virtuoso turn adds to why he emerges as the show’s star. No matter what he does on stage, despite his beaten-to-a pulp body (the poor guy falls down a lot during the final two acts, due to his torturers), he does it with grace.
Tosca is a warhorse, and it hasn’t ventured far out of its comfortable stable with this production, despite PO’s newly crafted mission to stage more “inclusive” operas about us, about people today. Though you can find parallels to everyday 21st-century life, such as Scarpia putting Tosca through Me Too agony, and the existence of torture to force intel (we’ve recently heard about the disgusting, gut-wrenching CIA torture of an alleged terrorist now being tried in court), it’s a stretch to say this is an opera for and of today. Tosca is old-fashioned — like your grandmother’s Christmas lasagna. Its taste lingers with us because of its music, not for any spice in the sauce — that is, story, libretto or character development, and in this case, a rather conservative presentation.
The libretto, written by Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa, is often hilariously dated. In the second act, Tosca leans into a red-lit room in Scarpia’s place where her lover Mario Cavaradossi is being systematically abused by Scarpia’s cops, and sings, somewhat sweetly, “Mario, are they still torturing you?”
Perhaps this warhorse has just been trotted out too much in the 30 years I’ve covered opera, and now finds itself up against some fantastic current operas that I’ve seen this year. They include Journeys to Justice, staged this spring by Portland Opera with its Resident Artists; the all-Black-cast Blue (see my Oregon Arts Watch review), named the Best New Opera by the Music Critics Association of North America in 2020, and performed in September in Detroit’s vast Aretha Franklin Amphitheater; and jazz trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard’s stunning Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the 2014 Charles Blow memoir, and the first Black opera produced by the 149-year-old Metropolitan Opera. Not to leave out this summer’s Frida, about the offbeat and intriguing Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which gave us a fresh fusion of music and visual art. Though a Michigan Opera Theatre production, the 95-minute piece was beautifully staged by Portland Opera on the outdoor Jordan Schnitzer Stage near OMSI.
These operas, other than Frida, focused on Black experience (I am white and don’t pretend to understand the Black experience). But they covered new territory musically and thematically. Art should give us something new to think about.
PO has some exciting new operas coming up in 2022, including Leslie Uyeda’s When the Sun Comes Out and Anthony Davis’s The Central Park Five. To be fair, Tosca was a holdover from the Covid-interrupted 2020-21 season. It is a familiar comfort-food opera to ease into post-Covid life. And it has been proven many times over that opera-goers can’t resist Puccini, this audience included. A five-minute applause period peppered with bravos indicated that people were overwhelmed by the 2-hour-45-minute opera (two intermissions included).
I was not overwhelmed, despite the professionalism of the production, thanks in part to Linda Brovsky’s clean stage direction (no thanks to the messy plot), and to Tiffany Chang’s spirited conducting. With such a massive production, no faux pas occurred, such as Tosca bouncing back above the stage after she jumps over the wall to her death, which supposedly occurred at the Lyric Opera of Chicago when the stage crew replaced the mattress with a trampoline.
And, I do look forward to the rest of the Portland Opera season with enthusiasm and high expectations.