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NYC Opera Renaissance

In Review NYCO Renaissance Tosca hdl 216
NYCO Renaissance's production of Tosca, featuring Michael Chioldi's Scarpia in the Te Deum
© Sarah Shatz
In Review NYCO Renaissance Tosca lg 216
Kristin Sampson and James Valenti in Act II of Lev Pugliese’s production of Tosca
© Sarah Shatz

TOSCA, THE MAIDEN EFFORT OF THE resuscitated New York City Opera, made a shaky case for the new management’s stewardship. If the city needs a second opera company, it does not need another Tosca—a work that local operagoers often have occasion to encounter, thirteen times this Met season alone. Using sets derived from the Adolf Hohenstein designs for the work’s 1900 world premiere, the NYC Opera Renaissance mounting, which bowed January 20 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, seemed intended as a rebuke to the Met’s abstract Luc Bondy production that was much-unloved at its premiere in 2009. But this new Tosca was too indifferently staged and haphazardly executed to argue convincingly for the contrasting approach. 

Lev Pugliese’s direction forwent any implicit claim to historical authenticity right at its very start: a superfluous dumbshow for Marchesa Attavanti destroyed the effectiveness of Puccini’s smashing musical “curtain-rise.” In Act II, Scarpia mounted Tosca on the floor before she acceded to his bargain, then moved in for some tongue action before composing his letter of safe conduct—both deeds dissipated the scene’s steady, excruciating rise in sexual tension. Later, Spoletta carried out Cavaradossi’s execution single-handedly (no room on stage for a firing squad?). These moments of dubious directorial invention aside, Pugliese’s work consisted of traffic management, the performers striking appropriate poses, but seldom conveying any sense of dramatic urgency.

Perhaps no real theatrical momentum was possible under the musical guidance of Pacien Mazzagatti. The orchestra, its personnel largely consisting of City Opera veterans, sounded fine, but Mazzagatti led his forces as if afraid of losing ensemble at any given moment. The whole evening proceeded sluggishly; at times it seemed as if everybody was on the verge of lying down and going to sleep. 

NYCO fielded two casts for the production; among the opening-night principals, only Michael Chioldi, the Scarpia, delivered a convincing portrayal. His police chief was very much in the Tito Gobbi mold—sardonic, self-satisfied, amoral. An appropriate hint of a snarl colored his vocal tone. With Scarpia dominating, Act II was easily the most effective portion of the evening. At times, Chioldi may have scored his points too emphatically, but you had to admire his attempt to add some oomph to the lackluster proceedings. 

Although Kristin Sampson’s vocal equipment may be somewhat modestly scaled for the title role, she plowed through the evening without disaster. But with its wiry top and sandpapery lower register, the voice itself had little allure, and her deployment of it offered no compensatory musical insights. The production did her no favors: she is a short, zaftig woman, and the “authentic” ensemble foisted upon her in the first act—plumed hat, clutch of roses, lime-green purse and sash, tasseled walking stick—made her look like nothing so much as an ambulatory wedding cake. Meanwhile, Pugliese’s slack directorial control seemed to leave her stranded: this Tosca had neither grandeur nor pathos. 

James Valenti had an awkward outing as Cavaradossi. The kindest explanation for his vocal estate in the first two acts would be that he was suffering from some kind of indisposition. Phrase endings collapsed from lack of breath support; his top had no presence except at climaxes (“La vita mi costasse,” “Vittoria!”) where he planted his feet and slugged away, seemingly hoping for the best. Otherwise, the timbre was dark and covered, with no trace of tenorial gleam. He regained a modicum of vocal composure in Act III, delivering a creditable, if not transporting, “ E lucevan le stelle.” Dramatically this Cavaradossi was a cipher. Although Valenti is easily one of the best-looking men in opera, he was an uncomfortable stage presence, as if unable to relax into his own body, or unbend enough to portray the painter’s passion. Among the comprimarios, only Blagoj Nacoski, an aptly saturnine Spoletta, displayed the kind of stage savvy you’d expect from a participant in a cosmopolitan opera presentation.

A giant question mark hung over this whole endeavor. Given the importance of the occasion, and its implicit role as statement of purpose, you would have expected the new City Opera to lead off with the kind of unusual repertory choice that in the past was the company’s hallmark—an American opera, say, or a bel canto rediscovery. Even allowing the choice to stay within the standard repertory, the new management should have offered a glimpse of executive capabilities that would truly enhance the city’s cultural life. This Tosca did nothing of the sort.  —Fred Cohn 

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