Category Archives: Reviews

A New Take on “Tosca”

“Tosca”
Merrill Auditorium
July 28
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera artistic director Dona Vaughn has done it again, with a fresh look at one of the most popular operas in the repertoire: Puccini’s “Tosca.” I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, which went off (almost) without a hitch, providing a good sense of what can be expected from the final version on Thursday.
“Tosca” is not one of my favorite operas. Puccini seems to have taken a leaf from Wagner, with heavy brass, leit-motifs, high drama and few arias that one can go home whistling. The entire plot is an exercise in futility. Once the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (and his chef’s invention of a new chicken dish), reaches Rome, Scarpia and his minions should have burned their papers and taken ship for the colonies instead of pursuing their victims to the death and beyond. But self-preservation is never a strong suit of tragic opera.
Vaughn, while faithful to to the libretto, emphasizes Tosca’s evolution from self-absorbed diva to tragic heroine, with religious overtones that echo the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s recent production of “Dialogs of the Carmelites.” During the first act, one is almost sorry for her lover Cavaradosi, to be burdened with a jealous, demanding, insecure and apparently insatiable partner. He certainly doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about another tryst at the cottage.
When things begin to go downhill, and she must overcome her religious scruples to kill Scarpia and save Cavaradosi, Tosca begins to show true strength of character and love rather than infatuation. Finally, her suicide becomes an act of faith, confident that God will judge in her favor over Scarpia.
Vaughn also emphasizes the point made by A.E. Housman in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” that after the height of bliss experienced by the lovers, any kind of everyday existence would be an anticlimax.
The opera is not fully staged, but in costume, with a few simple props placed in front of a full orchestra. A platform at stage right serves both as an artist’s studio and the parapet from which Tosca flings herself in the final scene.
In spite of a lack of stage settings, Vaughn has a lot to work with. Alexandra LoBianco, as Tosca, and Adam Diegel, as Cavaradosi, have powerful, well controlled voices offering a wide range of dynamics and a certain cutting edge. They are well matched and their final duet, a cappella, is marvelous.
The orchestra, under Stephen Lord, leaves nothing to be desired. It could be transferred to the pit of the Met and no one would know the difference. Members of the Choral Art Society and a children’s chorus under Sarah Bailey, gave fine performances.
James Morris, as Scarpia, provides an astonishingly good impression of the Devil as gentleman, expecting every snap of his fingers to be instantly obeyed. His lust for Tosca emphasizes the once-and-done nature of passion, while his physical approach reminds one of Dr. Johnson’s observation about sex: “The position is ridiculous, the pleasure fleeting and the expense damnable.”
The scene in which Tosca stabs him, twice, with a table knife, is worth the price of admission. As Scarpia begins to disrobe for his intended conquest, he seems to inflate, like a balloon or a tumescent organ, and then to deflate just as rapidly when punctured, as he mutters “Killed by a woman,” in sheer amazement.
The supertitles were good, in spite of some anachronisms, but they did not seem quite bright enough to be easily legible, at least from the side of the auditorium.
The single glitch in the dress rehearsal provided some comic relief, when the timing was off for Tosca’s discovery that Cavadarosi is really dead and not play-acting. To repeat the scene, the corpse had to roll over.
As of this writing, there were a few seats left for Thursday’s performance. Now would be a good time to snap them up. And it would also be a good time for an angel to step up and finance a fully-staged version of say, “Porgy and Bess.” What couldn’t Vaughn do with her own set designer?

BIMF Monday Showcase Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20
by Christopher Hyde
The combined concert of the Ying and Pacifica String Quartets, Monday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, one of the premiere events of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was sold out weeks in advance.
As often happens, the outcome was something of an anti-climax, in spite of two standing ovations from an audience determined to be entertained.
I had hoped, because of two works for octet on the program, that it would be possible to hear a kind of dueling banjos between two prominent string quartets with very different styles. Instead, eight very good musicians played individual parts that had nothing to do with their ordinary relationships in a family of four.
It would be educational, in some future concert, to hear quartets alternate movements within a well-known example of the repertoire, say Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet.
The first work on the program was certainly well-known— Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major (K.515), for which the Ying Quartet borrowed violist Masumi Per Rostad from the Pacifica. It was beautifully played, with a combination of clarity and ensemble that is rare, but occasionally differences in style made themselves felt, even leading to some slight mistakes of intonation during the andante.
After the Mozart, things went downhill, beginning with the Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11, by Dmitri Shostakovich, which began with a wailing gypsy violin and ended with a chromatic glissando leading to a gallop that sounded more like a drum solo than an octet.
The two pieces are part of a suite that was never completed, begun when the composer was 17. His teacher didn’t care for them and expressed the hope that when the composer was 30 he would no longer write such wild music. I love Shostakovich, but his teacher was right. The writing verges on the maniacal.
Another youthful effusion, the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 20, written when the composer was 16, followed after intermission. The first two movements make one want to seize the young man by the scruff of the neck and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that it is okay to complete a phrase in a banal manner, as long as you complete it.
As for the scherzo and presto, St. Cecilia appeared to me in a dream and revealed that her protege had become infatuated with rapid triplets after playing the Haydn Sonata in C (Hob. XVI/32) too many times.
The combined string quartets performed the work as if they were the musicians assembled in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy household for one of their musical afternoons, enjoying themselves while humoring their host. I was distracted from the excitement of the last two movements by the facial grimaces of the first violin, which exerted a morbid fascination.
Both the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn received long standing ovations.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net or www.maineclassicalbeat.com.