Saturday, April 9, 2016

Shabby little shocker in the Big Easy

On Friday evening I saw the opening of New Orleans Opera's lush and luscious Tosca at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans. (I just love that the theater is named after a gospel superstar!) Yes, I've hit the road once again to see and hear some opera, and it was well worth it!

Jennifer Rowley
Photo: Ariele Doneson
Tosca is a story of political intrigue, murder, lust, and a jealous soprano. (No, really, this is on stage, not in the wings.) A Parisian critic wrote after its 1900 opening that Tosca “is coarsely puerile, pretentious and vapid.” (The popular phrase “shabby little shocker” actually comes from musicologist Joseph Kerman’s 1956 book Opera as Drama, not from Puccini’s time, as I’d always thought.) Puerile or not, Tosca can always be counted on to sell tickets, and audiences leave humming its melodies. When done well, Tosca can be devastating.

Scott Hendricks as Scarpia
Jennifer Rowley as Tosca
This Tosca truly was devastating, largely due to the singing and acting of its star, Jennifer Rowley. Her Tosca was jealous, of course, but also impetuous, loving, fearful, dominant, and a thousand other conflicting traits, often at the same time. This Tosca felt like the very young woman Tosca really is. For example, at the end of Act II, after Tosca has killed Scarpia (sorry if that's a spoiler), the act of setting up candles around his body and making the sign of the cross has a truly devout feeling to it, not ironic. Nearly every vocal moment was like spun gold, with a rich sound and a legato worthy of the golden-age singers of the mid-20th century. I have never heard or seen a more effective "Vissi d'arte"--we could feel Tosca's defeat and humiliation, along with her determination to survive. Miss Rowley's vocalism in this aria was exceptional--well shaped phrases, tasteful dynamics, rich sound.

Noah Stewart
Cavaradossi, Tosca's lover, was sung by Noah Stewart, a handsome young tenor with an impressive list of credits. I found his singing quite likable, especially his ringing high voice. His high notes sounded free, powerful, and pleasing in timbre--a rare combination among today's Cavaradossi-sized voices. "Vittoria! Vittoria!" sent chills down the spine. His acting was passionate and convincing. Scarpia was Scott Hendricks, another handsome young man with an impressive list of credits. His singing was bold and effective, and one looks forward to hearing more of him in the future.

Visually, this opera was a treat. The scenic design by Constantine Kritikos was quite beautiful, especially the Act I chapel scene. Acts II and III were quite effective, too. However, the moment in Act II where closing the window ends the cantata is less effective without an actual window. On the left side of the house no window was visible.

The costumes by Julie Winn were rich and beautiful, especially Tosca's dresses. Although wigs and makeup by Don & Linda Guillot were usually good, they didn't flatter Mr. Stewart as much as they did the other singers. In the dark lighting of Act III, he almost looked like a zombie.

The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra played well under Robert Lyall, but one wished for more togetherness between the pit and the stage.

I regret that there is only one more performance of Tosca, but I encourage anyone who reads this before Sunday afternoon to see it.

No comments: