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A glorious voice: Lindstrom in Tosca.

Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera

Needs More Sparkle

By B.A. Nilsson

Tosca

Conducted by David Angus, directed by Ned Canty

Glimmerglass Opera, Cooperstown, July 9

Sardou’s 1887 melodrama La Tosca has long since fallen out of even the fringes of the theatrical repertory, and with good reason. Such morbidly sentimental works are played these days, if they’re played at all, for sardonic laughs. What worked for Sarah Bernhardt now looks silly.

Giacomo Puccini’s 1900 setting of the play remains an operatic staple. Sure, it’s emotionally outsized and overblown, and the third act resists credibility, but the parts that work (and there are many) are still compelling.

We don’t go to see Tosca hit the deck at the end—that’s old hat. We go for the high-stakes dance between her and the magnificently villainous Scarpia, and for a few key arias and duets.

The Glimmerglass Opera production that opened last Friday hewed to tradition, thankfully, and gave us a Tosca set in its original time and place (it would be difficult to transplant them), with an almost-stellar cast and a superb orchestra—kudos to conductor David Angus. The only misstep, and it unfortunately was a big one, was with the title role.

As with anything theatrical, the problem probably is shared by soprano Lise Lindstrom and director Ned Canty, who shaped the character into something far less than the larger-than-life persona we expect.

We got off to a good start with the byplay between the painter Cavaradossi (tenor Adam Diegel) and the Sacristan (baritone Robert Kerr). Characteristic of the opera—and Puccini’s work of this period—is the blending of aria into scene. Cavaradossi celebrates the beauty of his beloved Tosca in “Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse!,” but it’s punctuated by the Sacristan’s mutterings and soon eases into the other’s response. There’s no applause point until much later in the act, although the moment was so well done that you had to fight the urge to give them a hand.

In the writing, Tosca is given a star’s entrance. This Tosca didn’t take it. The character is a celebrated diva, but Lindstrom strolled on (in Matthew Pachtman’s drab housewife costume) more like a tourist than star. Where she’s supposed to be burning with jealousy, Lindstrom merely smoldered.

But Lindstrom’s voice was glorious, as we shortly heard in “Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta,” in which jealousy’s passion shifts to desire.

A different intensity characterized Lester Lynch’s bad-to-the-bone Scarpia, the corrupt police chief. He’s on the trail of an escaped prisoner and reasons, correctly, that Cavaradossi is hiding him. Which will serve his desire to get rid of both men and take Tosca for himself, played out in one of the great set-pieces in opera, the act one finale in which Scarpia’s evil musings are played against a stirring Te Deum.

Act two is all about torture, as Cavaradossi’s offstage cries weaken the resistant Tosca. In the midst of this high-passion scene, the dynamics completely change as she sings “Vissi d’arte,” as sudden in its appearance as is “O mio babbino caro” in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. And it’s as effectively memorable, beautifully realized by Lindstrom. By the third act, her character caught up with her manner. She seemed worn down but buoyed by hope, well matched to Diegel’s Cavaradossi in the duet “Amaro sol per te m’era il morire.” But it’s the tenor’s earlier aria that makes the scene: “Una furtiva lagrima.” I’m a pretty firm Bjoerling fan, but Diegel surprised me by shrewdly and effectively underplaying the start of it before giving it the usual big finish.

And it’s a reminder that muted colors can be effective tools on an otherwise brilliant palette—but Tosca herself needs to be part of that brilliance.

 

A Lovely Night at the Opera

Carmen

Conducted by Curtis Tucker, directed by Jose Maria Condemi

Lake George Opera, Spa Little Theater, July 10

It takes a very entertaining, viva cious, flirtatious Carmen to make the Georges Bizet opera of the same name work. She is the center of everything—the free spirited gypsy woman who devours men whole and spits them out when she is done. Without a captivating Carmen things can get ugly pretty fast. On Saturday night mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen delivered a solid performance as Carmen. Her voice was where it should be, she was gorgeous and she had a commanding stage presence—but she didn’t use it all to full effect. She was more schoolyard bully than wild temptress. However, her cast mates made up for that with some wild, tempestuous performances that sometimes went off the rails but kept the presentation true to the opera.

Allison Pohl as Frasquita and Elizabeth Pojanowski as Mercedes were perfect complements to Gladen’s adequate acting as Carmen. Pohl, a soprano, played her role with vigor and glee; her voice was stunning and at times eclipsed the rest of the cast. That isn’t exactly how you are supposed to sing in a chorus, but Joshua Kohl as Don Jose and Darren Stokes as Escamillo sometimes failed to project their voices. They came across as muffled and didn’t always fill the theater.

Christopher Temporelli played Captain Zuniga with commanding authority—his voice boomed through the theater, delivering the heft absent from some of the other principal men’s singing.

Emily Newton as Micaela, the naïve country girl, delivered the most nuanced performance of the evening. Her voice was powerful and captivating, and she was able to communicate both hope and despair.

A lot of the disparity in vocal delivery certainly could be attributed to the fact that the conductor and orchestra were placed behind the singers in a loft above the stage. (The Spa Little Theater lacks an orchestra pit.) A number of the audience members wondered how the singers were getting any cues at all.

The orchestra’s performance was immaculate. I could have closed my eyes and listened to their playing and still felt satisfied.

The set over which the orchestra loomed was utilitarian and nothing more. When transformed into the exterior of the bullring at Seville for the final scene, however, the set came alive with bullfighting adverts and flowers.

In the end—despite some flaws—the opera was a blast.

Maybe it was the summer air, the glee and abandon demonstrated by a number of the performers or the idea that I was able to take a short drive only to stroll across a gloriously green park into a little opera house to see such a lively performance, but whatever it was, I was left feeling that what I might normally feel were gaping flaws only added to the charm of the performance. I left feeling privileged to have spent my summer evening in such a way. Even those very familiar with Carmen could probably get a thrill out of spending a night getting their socks blown off by the Lake George Opera’s flirtatious performance of Bizet’s Carmen.

—David King

 

Broad Humor

Viva La Mamma (Le Convenienze ed Iconvenienze Teatrali)

Conducted by Curtis Tucker, directed by Nelson Sheeley

Lake George Opera, Spa Little Theater, July 11

Farce and opera have become uneasy bedfellows. It’s bad enough in many a musical comedy, where cheap, audience-pandering gags are easy to indulge. In opera, farce seems to offer a license to chase laughs at the expense of the integrity that, yes, even broadly written comedy deserves. Which is why I avoid Gilbert and Sullivan productions: I’ve yet to see one that reveals any understanding of the humor intrinsic to the piece.

But Gaetano Donizetti’s Le Convenienze ed Iconvenienze Teatrali, nicknamed “Viva La Mamma” for modern audiences, is unknown enough to be inviting. And it’s a backstage farce, which holds promise: anything that mocks sopranos has instant appeal.

It started off well, if deceptively. A new intro, devised by director Nelson Sheeley and the musically versatile John Douglas, kicks off with Mozart’s “Voi che sapete,” part of an audition sequence, and gave mezzo Elizabeth Pojanowski a brief, deft, amusingly sexy cameo. Soprano Allison Pohl sang more Mozart in another fine cameo, and then Anna Steenerson, whom we would see later as Luigia, Secondo Donna, warmed us up with a bit from Donizetti’s Lucia.

All of which set the stage for the backstage antics of a company (played in modern dress) whose rehearsal of something titled Romulus and Ersilia is falling to pieces as backbiting and jealousy rules the day.

As the Prima Donna, soprano Elizabeth Andrews Roberts had a delightfully acidic presence and a powerful voice. She’s used to getting her way, and her husband (the obsequious Procolo, sung by Kenneth Mattice) is there to smooth things over. But Luigia’s mother then barges in to be sure her daughter has a duet with the star soprano.

This is the “Mamma”—Mamma Agata—of the nickname, a drag role that set baritone Richard Holmes scampering around in Dame Edna getup. With him came all the hoary old destroy-the-fourth-wall nonsense I was dreading.

Without a firm directorial hand (and a choreographer, much needed here), opera singers—especially the character types—will pull from a bag of tricks accumulated over many years and many productions. Thus it was that each of the leads here seemed, in terms of style and movement, in a separate show.

Not that this Mamma was without its moments. An octet sung just before Agata’s entrance had the musical verve that makes this kind of piece worthwhile, and even occasional rhythmic lapses didn’t mar the overall effect.

Tenor John Tsotsoros was completely believable as a hot-headed German tenor. Also sticking to their roles nicely were William Roberts as the composer, Jeffrey Beruan as the librettist and Christopher Temporelli as the beleaguered impresario.

Once Holmes hit the stage, however, we devolved to tit-grabbing jokes, and it was all played to the gallery from there on in.

The orchestra, under the baton of artistic director Curtis Tucker, did a commendable job with the sprightly score.

—B.A. Nilsson

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