It’s the opera that almost wasn’t. Amid the backstage drama and the rapid formation of a symphony, Syracuse Opera opened its 38th season with Giacomo Puccini’s forever-performed little gem, Tosca, last weekend.
Saving the day was the Musical Associates of Central New York, Syracuse Symphony Orchestra’s successor. The new troupe only recently performed for the first time this month, and worked hard at getting its act together for the overwhelming operatic undertaking.
Tosca—one of the most-performed operas of all time—is also a beloved jewel of Syracuse Opera, making its sixth appearance with the company. With many arts organizations facing the struggles of a strained economy, the opera closed its opening weekend on a positive note with voluminous “bravos,” especially for the symphony, conducted by company music director Douglas Kinney Frost.
Although the company ended the first weekend to rousing applause, the performances did leave a little to be desired. The opera, first performed in Rome, Italy, on Jan. 14, 1900, received a facelift here—a stylish 1920s gangster, gothic suave. The henchmen, sporting handguns, wore expensive suits while Tosca (Veronica Mitina) herself donned flapper-esque attire. The mob mentality-inspired production worked well with villain Baron Scarpia (Kristopher Irmiter) as the sadistic Godfather.
The show is revered as one of the most powerful operas ever. Puccini, who also wrote the famed La Boheme and Madama Butterfly (also within the top 10 operas performed at the Met and Syracuse Opera), installed a severe gusto into his work. The composer introduced opera fans of the time to “verismo,” a brash, crude, gritty realism, and Tosca surely contains all of that baggage.
Centering on the celebrated singer Tosca, the opera delivers a tragically passionate score that is musically robust and dripping with palpable tension. Tosca and her lover Mario Cavaradossi (Patrick Miller), a painter, are fervently in love, to the point of it being sickening. As the show progresses, Cesare Angelotti, a political prisoner, is on the run and Cavaradossi hides him in his villa. The plot boils as Scarpia attempts to find the runaway, and the “mobster’s” grimy tactics consume Tosca and her lover.
This dizzying, morose production is famed for having idolized scenes: two murders, two suicides and a vicious stabbing. This story gushes with blood. While belting out in Italian “This is Tosca’s Kiss,” it’s at the hands of Tosca and her fierce blade that Scarpia falls to his death—almost too soon.
Irmiter’s baritone Scarpia is frightening. He’s conniving and cruel, creepy and a true sadist. His role is intensely scary and matched by his two henchmen, Spoletta (Christopher Frisco) and Sciarrone (Jonathan Christopher). Irmiter’s baritone brimmed with murderous vibrato. He provides an entertaining element, so watching him die is bittersweet.
The baritone is only matched by the rich soprano Mitina. The singer, who has played the title character before, has also sung in Madama Butterfly, Le Nozze di Figaro and La Boheme. Mitina had big shoes to fill. The role, most famously performed by Maria Callas, who gave an either love-it or hate-it performance, is notoriously known for its rather gothic overtones. Mitina delivered a shivering vibrato. Her voice, rich and spirited, captured the lifestyle of an intoxicating singer, all the while boasting the not-so-silenced lust and jealousy not usually seen in a devout Catholic.
Her lover, performed by handsome tenor Miller, is soothing, often reassuring Tosca of his love for her. Miller’s Cavaradossi is a passionate man. Standing up for his beliefs, the artist would rather die than give into the evils of Scarpia. The ballads between him and Tosca are captivating and flirtatious. The two reflect the desire each has for the other. It is Tosca that almost gives her body to Scarpia to save her lover.
Standout Jeffrey Tucker (the Sacristan) was the lovable, comedic assistant to Cavaradossi. Quickly pacing about the stage, his bass voice echoed brilliantly throughout the theater.
For an opera that contains a severe level of violent deaths, one important aspect was lacking: blood. The only trace of liquid crimson is upon the face of Cavaradossi after he is beaten. Yet this show begs to bleed. Upon Scarpia’s stabbing, his shirt should be soaked red. After Cavaradossi’s shooting, his body should be coated in blood. It was a missing link that would have given the gritty opera an additional reality.
Among other idolized scenes is Tosca’s death. Before the curtain rises for the third act, the excitement builds: It’s the setting of Castel Sant’Angelo and the rooftop from which Tosca will widely throw her body. After the curtain rose, the image of the statue of Saint Michael and a projection of the night sky were there. It was hard to tell that the scene was transpiring on top of the castle.
Throughout the show, the set, designed by Peter Harrison, was bare, with projections filling in the emptiness. And, for the most part, it worked. Reflecting the gruesome nature of the show, the set, moving from the inside of the church Sant’Andrea della Valle to Scarpia’s quarters, was dark and cold. Hints of crimson were woven into the set, and the skeletal nature meshed nicely with the dismal characters. Ultimately, however, the set was underwhelming. It is in that final act where the set should match the deathly grandiose notes of Tosca. Sadly, it did not.
The month-old orchestra pulled off an impressive task. Even though it occasionally missed the mark of the machismo of the score, the symphony worked well together, and the audience noticed.Tosca is rightfully celebrated and performed. It’s an opera that is ripe with emotional bruises and bloodstained prose, and this performance was almost there.