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Houston Grand Opera

In Review Houston Tosca lg 116
Dolgov and Monastyrska in Tosca at HGO
© Lynn Lane

HOUSTON GRAND OPERA season-opening performance of Tosca,on October 23, a repeat of the memorably dark and blood-soaked coproduction with Lyric Opera of Chicago last seen here in January 2010, featured Liudmyla Monastyrska, a dynamic and virtuoso presence in the title role. Monastyrska’s manner and soprano voice—resonant, powerful, warm, with a fiery brilliance in her upper range, but also tender and intimate-sounding when the occasion demanded—realized Tosca in all her dramatic colors as fierce, temperamental and even theatrical, but deeply moral and loyal. Tosca is a demanding role in its complexity and depth; Monastyrska did it justice. Tenor Alexey Dolgov, who sang Cavaradossi in the last HGO production, was more than worth hearing again: he has the clear, projecting and supple tenor of an honest and courageous hero.

By contrast, veteran baritone Andrzej Dobber, in his HGO debut as Scarpia, performed unevenly. In Act I, he seemed bellowing and wooden, if effectively fearsome; but in Act II his portrayal demonstrated a full range of emotions, from tersely guttural cruelty to softly crooned erotic desire that brought the corrupt and sadistic police chief more fully to life. The role of Angelotti is small relative to these others, but Dmitry Belosselskiy deserves mention for the dark-chocolate richness of his bass voice. Likewise, David Cangelosi sang with a barbed-sounding tenor just right for Scarpia’s henchman, Spoletta, who, in Cangelosi’s deft interpretation, was pitiless toward his victims, obsequious toward his boss and squeamish and cowardly during Cavaradossi’s torture.

The production, directed by John Caird with set and costume design by Bunny Christie, underscores the violence of the libretto with persistently bleak settings: in Act I, Cavaradossi is seen working on an enormous fresco of Mary Magdalene in three large pieces arrayed on a towering scaffold, apparently blown by wartime cannon fire from the gaping hole in the church ceiling; for the Act II setting in Scarpia’s apartments at the Palazzo Farnese, we see not sumptuous trappings but a warehouse-like lair filled with what seem to be plundered and hoarded artworks; and Act III takes place in a barren prison, whose only decorative feature is the strung-up corpse of Angelotti. And then there is the blood: Cavaradossi glistens with it after his torture; it streams from Scarpia during his assassination by Tosca (a stab, stab, throat-slash affair that lingers a bit on the “kiss of Tosca” metaphor); and Tosca herself spurts it, having slashed her own throat and teetered a moment before falling off the precipice of Castel Sant’Angelo. In all of this, Caird doubles down on the violence in Tosca that has offended some critics of Puccini’s work, but this is not to say the production went merely for sensationalism. Rather, Caird, Christie and lighting director Duane Schuler conveyed in numerous details their perceptive vision of the repressive, authoritarian and decadent political power of the Church in alliance with Bourbon rulers in Naples, along with the deep Catholic (and therefore Marian) spirituality of the Roman populace, Tosca in particular.

HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers conducted the performance and, attentive to the details of Puccini’s score, kept the dramatic counterpoint of orchestral motifs and sung lines in balance, so that the composer’s leitmotif-influenced approach was both clear and compelling.  —Gregory Barnett 

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