Arts opera review

Boston Lyric Opera opens its season with a compelling Tosca

A touching production of Puccini’s classic opera


Presented by Boston Lyric Opera

Conducted by David Stern; Directed by Crystal Manich
Music by Giacomo Puccini; Libretto by Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa

Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre

219 Tremont St

Playing through Oct. 22


Tosca tells a tale of feminine strength and power in a masculine world. The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) stages a traditional interpretation of Puccini’s famous work, setting it in 18th century Rome, replete with vying political factions and a towering religious edifice. Our eponymous (meta) heroine, Floria Tosca (Elena Stikhina), is a passionate opera singer determined to save her lover, Cavalier Cavaradossi (Jonathan Burton) from the clutches of Baron Scarpia (Daniel Sutin). We have the satisfaction of seeing the vain, jealous Tosca of Act I transform into the decisive and brave Tosca of Act III. She asserts herself despite all odds and, although we know it will not end well, we are cheering for her the entire way.

In order to accommodate the full orchestra that the opera required in the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the BLO made the ingenious decision to merge the orchestra with the set design by placing the musicians and conductor on a raised tier on stage. Veiled coyly by a shim, the audience can see the conductor and can only catch tantalizing glimpses of the orchestra. This arrangement has the added effect of making it even more apparent how the action on stage and the plot are not the centerpiece, but are conduits for our appreciation and interpretation of the musical score. Because each character is paired with a distinct melody, a leitmotif, in Puccini’s score, the orchestra and singers dance a synchronous duet.

Although this theatre is not the permanent home of the BLO, it was an excellent host — the acoustics were wonderful and the soaring notes sailed cleanly to all corners of the theatre. Elena Stikhina’s voice, debuting in the U.S., was especially notable, with a piercing, heart-wrenching quality, at times coalescing with the instruments and at other times, vibrantly striking out on its own. When Floria Tosca is faced with the decision of giving up her body to the repulsive Scarpia or seeing her lover put to death, the agony of this moment is transmitted to us through a powerful (Mozart would have termed it “golden”) silence which rises to a crescendo, finally to be broken Elena Stikhina’s exquisite execution of the "Vissi d'arte" aria. I got chills, and it wasn’t because I was cold.

Daniel Sutin played a solid Baron Scarpia but seemed a bit subdued compared to the way Scarpia is often portrayed. There is not much that is sympathetic about Scarpia, as is the case with many villains in grand opera, so I feel that it is perfectly acceptable for the singer to embrace the vileness of the character in full. For Tosca’s victory to be triumphant, she must face a worthy opponent. There is something in Scarpia to be pitied. He is jealous of the freedom and joie de vie that Tosca and Cavaradossi. Head of the secret police, Scarpia possesses significant political power, and yet, he cannot charm a woman. He sings that he prefers to take women by force ("For myself the violent conquest"), for that is what he enjoys, but perhaps this is simply a protective layer of self-delusion in a man who cannot get women any other way.

Baritone David Cushing was superb as Angelotti, and I only wish he could be allotted more stage time. Jonathan Burton, as Cavalier Cavaradossi, makes an equally great happy, playful lover and tortured prisoner. The final scene was understated and touching — not something one always encounters in grand tragedies. Tosca’s shriek on discovering her lover’s fate struck deep. I unreservedly recommend this staging of Tosca to those familiar with the work and those new to opera, alike.