A pianist friend once mused that as a child, it was easy to enter Bach’s realm, whereas Chopin’s rubato and romanticism were beyond his reach; but once he became a teenager, it was the early music composers that became difficult for him, and the Romantics best served as an outlet and emotional catharsis for his newfound passion. That observation illustrates the kind of leap of maturity the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra accomplished in its superb collaboration on Puccini’s intensely passionate Tosca last Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre.
Rather than go into the history of Tosca’s reception, Music Director Federico Cortese wrote a very short yet deeply insightful and articulate study of the essence of this opera, its themes and emotional drives, and what it demands of its musicians and singing actors. His musical direction reflected well the depth of his literary and emotional understanding of what Puccini intended. Whether compatible or not with Victorien Sardou’s back story in his 1887 play, “La Tosca,” Puccini’s use of those themes and drives as a source of passionate, melodic lyricism continue to speak today; our current media still flares with the misuse of military power for political brutality and torture, sexual coercion—and rape.
Cortese wrote of the shifting paradigm of female heroism at the end of the 19th century, and how this shaped the realism and imperfection of Tosca as a complex woman and flawed human being. Cortese writes:
Tosca operates emotionally and musically between the two extremes of an intense, plot-driven series of events on one hand, and a hyper-romantic, almost lascivious passion on the other. For the orchestra, to follow and obey these two forces, to keep the breathless dramatic pace, to bend the melodic lines, to control the flexibility of the phrasing, to breathe and act with each singer, is a challenge that has no peers in any other kind of musical style. Rigor and freedom live together in every single bar, in every single phrase. Through that very balance and that contradiction, the orchestra describes the true nature of the feelings of the characters and the surge of events. Just learning how to handle such a score is an excellent reason for all the work and time spent by the students in this project. It has been a wonderful, huge effort and I am enormously proud of them.
Judging by the audience’s overwhelmingly positive response and mine, I would have to agree with him that these young musicians have every reason to be proud of their work. Perhaps there were places where melodic voicing could have been drawn out with more brilliance, a few barely detectable squeaks in a couple of wind entrances, but overall, the impression that remained with the listener going home was the firm yet gentle and buoyantly supportive passion of every instrument, especially the cello section, in which there was never felt a single awkward moment in the ensemble between singer and orchestra.
The orchestra supported a superb cast of singers of sensitivity, power, and lyricism, including Elizabeth Baldwin as Tosca, Yeghishe Manucharyan as Cavaradossi, Kristopher Irmiter as Scarpia, Gregory Gerbrandt as Angelotti, and Adelmo Guidarelli as the sacristan. Their vocal qualities were as well suited to individual roles as to the ensemble.
Because Sanders has no flyloft , wings or orchestra pit (the instrumentalists, in black, were placed upon the stage), the show was “partially staged,” : The players were authentically costumed and elaborately blocked, with modest use of furniture and props, including a large easel and Italian statue. What was demanded of the singers in action was equal to any fully staged production.
Stage Director Edward Berkeley’s exploitation of the Sanders Theatre was quite resourceful, especially in Act I entrances and exits from the parterre, downstage side entrances, as well as upstage arrivals from within the orchestra. The high loft behind the stage was also used once very effectively to capture the ethereal quality of Liv Redpath’s beautifully sung, mezzo aria as the boy shepherd in the opening of Act III.
The traditional costumes were meant to suggest the actual time period of 1800 in which the story was set, but in some cases were not well-fitting or entirely flattering. Their use of color, however, was stunningly effective, especially in the final scene of Act I which included the Boston Children’s chorus dressed in white, dancing in playful rings at the base of the stage along with adult members of Convivium Musicum and the Handel and Haydn Society chorus; while downstage center, stood one central figure in a red vestment. The visual effect of the finale was dramatic and the audience’s reception after the first Act was extremely enthusiastic.
Adelmo Guidarelli’s entrance as the sacristan at the beginning of Act I put the audience at ease immediately with his joviality, as he worked his way through the theater with a dust rag, wiping off the woodwork, creating the illusion that everyone was seated in an Italian church. His voice was both deep and powerful, cutting easily through the orchestra with a pleasing timbre. Yeghishe Manucharyan sang as Mario Cavaradossi with passionate lyricism, and his final aria in Act III was both powerful and heart wrenching. Elizabeth Baldwin as Tosca was steadfast in her vocal power, stamina, lyricism and musicianship, but there was something lacking in her acting chemistry with Mario. The opera is the story of Tosca’s tragic, emotional journey, and despite the irony of critics’ dismissals of the opera as a “melodrama,” the essence of Tosca is Puccini’s innovatively modernist and complex portrayal of a lovably flawed woman capable of loving passionately, sensually, possessively and selflessly. She is both seductress and Madonna. And the love she feels for Mario is both deeply soulful and sexual. Baldwin’s characterization and chemistry with Mario was too stiff and stately, and their embraces too careful to make flesh Cortese’s words that “the love that Cavaradossi feels for her is not an artificial ‘theatrical’ love, but a genuine love.”
Baldwin’s physical stamina in the role was extremely impressive; it is one thing for a soprano to sing “Vissi d’Arte” in a recital, it is another thing entirely to make it through the entire opera and still have a voice. She is a full-figured woman who was given very physically demanding stage direction, including kneeling and pulling herself up from a supine position on the floor. If she could do that, there is no reason why she couldn’t emote onstage the sensual allure of a full-figured, hot-blooded, Mediterranean woman, except maybe for fear of cultural stigma. The notion that only skinny people are sexy is a Hollywood myth. Any body type can be sexy onstage with the right costume (the colors and fabrics were great for her, but the bodices were not very flattering), the right physical energy, and the right attitude. This is an invitation to dramatic sopranos everywhere, when the situation calls for it, to just work it!
Kristopher Irmiter in the role of Scarpia delivered a darkly compelling performance that conveyed an emotional intensity upon the entire production. An announcement was made before the performance that Irmiter was not feeling well, and may have to receive some backstage singing help in the role. He made it through vocally with very pleasurable results. What he had to offer dramatically, however, made him the most generous actor in the cast. His air was dark, lean, lascivious, and elegant. There was nothing flat about this villain. He was a multi-dimensional, highly convincing predator. Irmiter was willing to make brutal, full-body contact with his prey, which gave Baldwin plenty to work with and made her more responsive, but also unfortunately created more convincing chemistry between Tosca and Scarpia than between Tosca and Mario. The difference was palpable in a willingness to make lower body contact, and an attitude on Irmiter’s part to embrace Scarpia’s lascivious willingness to devour all of her.
One of the major challenges of any opera is that vocal chemistry must come before acting chemistry, and sometimes begs the question, if there is no acting chemistry, why bother staging the thing at all. But if you must, how do you make it ‘sing’ like a ‘real play?’ Irmiter’s role in this production bridged that gap, and made it into a ‘real play,’ which is what Puccini wanted, and why he strove so hard to marry text with music so naturally, and (as Peter O’Toole once said in an interview about his thoughts regarding the importance of the human voice in an actor’s craft) “make the word flesh.”
This collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Boston was one of several events celebrating the 150th anniversary of modern Italy and Boston’s rich Italian heritage, and was also dedicated to the memory of Dr. Marvin Rabin, BYSO Founding Music Director, who died on December 5th at 97. He is remembered by the BYSO as “an exceptional educator and advocate for young musicians.” They remain grateful to Dr. Rabin “for his vision, devotion, and energy which brought BYSO into existence.”
Janine Wanée holds a B.Mus. degree from the University of Southern California, a M.Mus. from Boston University, and professional certificates from the Boston University Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.