Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti
Stage Director: Lev Pugliese
Tosca: Latonia Moore
Cavaradossi: Raffaele Abete
Scarpia: Carlo Guelfi
It had all started so auspiciously. Firstly, Tosca was my very first taste of opera and has occupied a very special place in my heart ever since "Recondita Armonia" hooked me up fair and square – and for life – just a few minutes into the performance. Secondly, last week the New York City Opera-turned- the New York City Opera Renaissance was reviving the original 1900 production of it in the Time Warner Center's easily accessible, pleasantly intimate and acoustically friendly Rose Theater. Thirdly, The New Yorker admonishing that "For anyone in New York who loves opera, attendance is mandatory" could only mean that I had to attend, so I dutifully got a ticket for the Sunday matinee.
Then it felt like it all went down from there. On Friday a less than stellar review by The New York Times' unfailingly considerate Anthony Tommasini made me wonder what I had gotten myself into, before realizing that I would hear the other cast anyway. And on Saturday came Jonas (The snowstorm, not Kaufmann, who, incidentally, was a thrilling Cavaradossi at The Met a few years ago) and the two performances on that day had to be cancelled due to the state of emergency that brought the city to a standstill.
By Sunday, however, The Big Apple and the NYCO Renaissance were back in business, and so was I. As a matter of fact, after an entire Saturday cooked up at home, I was only too happy to be outside, even if it meant making my way down Broadway among hordes of undisciplined pedestrians as we were all slaloming between impressive snow hills, huge water puddles and plenty of dirty slush on the warm and sunny afternoon.
A deliciously campy, unapologetically vulgar and highly melodic little affair involving pêle-mêle politics, religion, love, sex, torture and rather gruesome deaths – All three main characters die onstage through murder, execution and suicide – Tosca is extremely hard to resist, which probably explains why the NYCO Renaissance picked it as their first offering: If you present it, they will come. And we did.
In the title role, American soprano Latonia Moore immediately proved that she was blessed with a naturally charismatic presence and a truly beautiful voice perfectly suited for opera's most irresistible diva. Not only did her powerful singing gorgeously fill up the theater every time she appeared, but it was also precise and flexible. Both playful and fierce in her first exchanges with Cavaradossi, she was later able to convincingly express aching vulnerability and unbreakable strength. Unsurprisingly, her "Vissi d'arte" brought down the house.
As her ardent lover, Italian tenor Raffaele Abete had a strongly virile voice that compellingly conveyed the right combination of tenderness, hot-headedness and heroism. His increasingly self-confident demeanor served him well in the more physical scenes and his easy rapport with Latonia Moore made them a totally credible couple. The character can do no wrong, and neither could the singer.
As the villain everybody loves to hate, Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi was as bad-ass as they come. Althoughimpeccably suave and pitiless as the man before whom "all Rome trembled", he smartly avoided becoming a mere caricature of evil, preferring using his voice's ominously dark tones to lay bare his foreboding schemes.
Inspired by the original décors, the sets were mostly painted panels and backdrops along with a few pieces of furniture and props, all resolutely traditional, subtly elegant and easy on the eyes. The costumes were also appropriately attractive, if not sumptuous. Everything was well put together to maximize the space and the performance, and it worked.
As for the music, the blazingly colorful score is a tightly woven marvel of variety and invention that includes a wide range of stunning melodies, memorable arias, clever leitmotivs and one mighty Te Deum. Once the ball gets rolling, the energy never lets off as the whole story unfolds in 18 hours and one single Rome location.
Pacien Mazzagatti conducted the competent orchestra with an eager baton for a generally satisfying performance, even if we experienced some small mishaps such as an occasionally inconsistent pace, a few balance issues and a shepherd's song that was inaudible at first. That said, I still have to attend one performance of Tosca without any balance issues so my slight but persistent pet peeve may very well come with Puccini's territory of intense drama and even more intense music.
Speaking of the popular Italian composer, after serendipitously getting to enjoy two major works of his within one week, I can safely confirm that his legacy is unquestionably alive and well. As for the New York City Opera Renaissance, let's hope that the incredibly bad timing of this comeback of sorts and any consequential hardships will not discourage them from their exciting and laudable endeavor. And I am not just saying that because they still owe me money.