in: Reviews

February 26, 2010

Surprisingly good Tosca from Harvard’s Lowell House Opera

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Lowell House Opera presents the perennial favorite, Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, through this month and on March, 3, 5 and 6 at 8:30 p.m. Directed by Harvard junior Michael Yashinsky, who chose to set it in Rome during the rise of Fascism, and musical direction by Channing Yu leading a large orchestra, this is a fully staged and costumed production, with well-coordinated English super-titles.

The principal roles were surprisingly effective. The double cast on this Black-Tie opening night featured soprano Michelle Trainor as Tosca, tenor Jeffrey Michael Hartman as Cavaradossi, and baritone Greg Kass as Scarpia. All were strong vocally and dramatically, especially the tenor. Bass-baritone Seth Grondin sang a strong Angelotti, and baritone James Dargan lent his considerable talents to the buffo role of the Sacristan. Both men are in the masters program at the Longy School of Music.

Operagoers are familiar with the story of Tosca and are comfortable with different settings other than the Napoleonic 1800 given to the premiere in Rome, 1900. That said, the original setting is historically rich, but the niceties of historical fact are difficult to convey when you’re writing an opera. The Queen of Italy, many heads of state, and several composers were at opening night, including Pietro Mascagni and Francesco Cilea (respectively composers of Cavalleria Rusticana and Adriana Lecouvreur.)

Audiences have always liked Tosca’s tragic sense, evident in the opening music. But it is leavened by the Sacristan’s humor with Cavaradossi, typified by the aria “Recondita armonia.” Puccini alternates moods throughout the opera until the devastating conclusion. Scarpia’s music always depicts his intrinsic evil.

It was a little difficult to imagine the Roman countryside in the preparations for Act III, especially since the prop man was having trouble keeping the Viva la Morta banner up. (It was opening night, after all; or maybe it was intentional.) Eventually he threw it backstage in disgust. For a moment I thought I was in a Hasty Pudding production. Can’t Harvard get good velcro? It fell down once again for good in the midst of Act III.

In jail Cavaradossi pens a farewell letter “E lucevan le stelle” (And the stars were shining) unbeknownst that Tosca has killed Scarpia and arranged a mock execution. But Scarpia prevails; the guns were loaded. Tosca is engaging in a little humor before realizing that Cavaradossi is indeed dead. Before the violent end, the orchestra intones forte the introductory music to “E lucevan le stelle.” Puccini is full of such dramatic and musical references.

The Lowell House Dining Hall has no orchestral pit. From my seat to the left in the second row, I saw most of the action through harp strings. Given the limitations of the venue, the direction had some good points. There was a ramp above the main stage, creating depth and pleasing visual effects. Effective use of lighting and shadows prevailed in Act I. In the program book the Stage Director’s message was overwritten, but he clearly knows what he is doing. The mostly amateur orchestra members sounded remarkably good. I knew some players in past productions, and they spoke highly of Channing Yu. My only complaint was that the tubular bells were too loud.

The oldest continually operating opera company in New England, the Lowell House Opera spells out its mission in the program book — basically to educate students at Harvard University by putting on productions involving students and young professionals in the Boston area. Judging by this one production, it succeeds admirably.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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