Is Puccini’s Tosca the best opera ever written? Houston Grand Opera’s 2015-16 season opening-night performance was compelling evidence that this just might be the case.
Now, this is the way to open a season.
I feel as if HGO has really put “the opera” back in “opera.” That might sound strange, but I cannot remember a season premiere from the company in many years that was this engaged, this powerful, and this entertaining. With a riveting cast, a traditional yet nuanced production, and a powerfully precise and expressive orchestra, this Tosca is a triumph in every regard.
If you have ever seen a good Tosca, you know that there is nothing indifferent about the opera. The only place I have ever seen a tenor actually booed off a stage for inadequate vocalization was in Rome. It was the late 1980s, and what was he singing? Cavaradossi’s “Vittoria! Vittoria!” from the second act of Tosca! Italians take their Puccini seriously.
If you cannot get him right, it’s best to just leave. At least, that is, in Italy.
It is also important to remember that when this opera premiered in Rome 115 years ago, the narrative was anything but distant. Political unrest had prolonged the premiere for at least a day. The average working-class Roman could easily relate to the story. Likely, he or she could understand the urgency of Tosca’s plight.
How would this story transfer to contemporary Houston? Imagine a scenario centered on an artist commissioned to make new paintings for St. Anne’s on Westheimer. His lofty images of the Madonna look strangely similar to his lovely girlfriend, a rising star at the Alley Theatre. In trying to help his troubled friend, a political prisoner from northern Mexico, he is sentenced to be executed by the state of Texas.
A corrupt and selfish Houston judge promises freedom and deceives his girlfriend. In her bewilderment, she murders the judge. The state of Texas kills her boyfriend anyway, and she cuts her own throat before jumping into the Buffalo Bayou.
With material this overwrought, everyone has to be on board. What a brilliant cast HGO has brought for this production! Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska is a formidable Floria Tosca. I had the sense that she has transcended the plain label of “soprano” and become, rather, “diva.” That is saying a lot.
This has to do with her commanding presence as well as her voice, which is at certain times angelic and at other times, wildly heroic. The lower register is stunning, equal in volume and color to her high notes. Her vibrato is controlled, she is never drowned out by the orchestra, and her intonation is rich and luminous. The woman gives me goosebumps, and I mean that in a good way.
If there is only one thing I hope she will choose to extend in subsequent performances, it would be that Monastyrska should take a few moments more to sing the stunning second-act aria, “Vissi d’arte.” This morning I looked at the score, compared the dynamic markings to her interpretation, and found her compliant in every regard.
When I thought more about the words, however, about the fact that she is really admonishing God for abandoning her during her greatest need, I wondered if she couldn’t have sung these thoughts with more room around them. Those brilliant E-flat arpeggios in the orchestra! Really, when the singing is this good, as listeners we just need a little more time to revel in it.
Siberian tenor Alexey Dolgov, as Cavaradossi, was never booed off stage. On the contrary, his singing was bright and passionate, and he was off and running from the very first notes. He looks the part, as well, poetic and idealistic. He has the right energy for this role. Part of Puccini’s gifts to opera are his stunning duets and ensemble passages, Dolgov voice was always discernible during these moments without dominating the ensemble.
Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber is a terrifying Scarpia, with a stage presence that can make you forget his terrific voice. This is his HGO debut and it would be thrilling to see him return, particularly in a late work of Verdi.
Bunny Christie’s sets and costumes are seemingly non-experimental, until you look closely. The fractured, disembodied portrait of Tosca-as-Madonna in the first act is somewhat reminiscent of Magritte, for example. The crated statuary in the second act gives Scarpia’s world a certain Citizen Kane-like twilight.
When a spotlight suddenly finds the Madonna in the back of the room, it’s a kind of revelation. The third act, with Duane Schuler’s varied lighting design, suggests a kind of redemption.
Christie has avoided clever anachronisms and clunky metaphor. There’s something refreshing and intelligent about her straightforward yet imaginative approach.