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Tosca

Austin Lyric Opera brought all the power in Puccini's opera to bear in a staging that pitted heaven against hell

Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 7, 2014

Mardi Byars as Tosca and Ryan Redfern as a henchman
Mardi Byars as Tosca and Ryan Redfern as a henchman
Courtesy of Mark Matson

Tosca

Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Feb. 1

So mighty were the forces at war in Austin Lyric Opera's recent production of Tosca that heaven and hell themselves seemed to be tussling over the fate of the titular singer. From the first notes – which erupted from the pit like a volcanic blast from the underworld – we were thrust into a world of high drama, every scene heightened to an intensity beyond the natural.

Of course, much of the credit for that (or blame, if you consider the opera a "shabby little shocker," as it was once famously dismissed) belongs to Giacomo Puccini, who drenched this melodrama of political intrigue, romantic rivalry, betrayal, and violence in music of monumental passion and staggering turmoil. Still, it takes an artistic team of considerable skill to bring all the power in the score to bear onstage, and ALO assembled one that invested Tosca's love of an artist and pursuit by the sinister chief of the Roman police with a kind of cosmic import. When Scott Piper, as the artist Cavaradossi, declared his devotion to his raven-haired diva, his pure tenor rocketed upward till it scraped the clouds; all he lacked to be a celestial messenger was the wings. As his opposite, the lustful and cruel Scarpia, Wayne Tigges would drop his voice into the lower register like he was bringing down a cudgel on a dissident's skull; though at times he gave in to the temptation to play the villain with a capital V – sadistic laugh and all – Tigges' delivery of the line "Tosca, you make me forget God," was chilling. With the chorus behind him booming the "Te Deum" – kudos to chorus master Marc Erck for drawing forth such an epic sound – it brought the first act to a spectacular close.

As for the woman caught between these paragons of good and evil, she wore her piety as casually as a shawl – at least at first. In Tosca's early scenes, soprano Mardi Byers played up the diva – in the contemporary sense of the word – letting the character's suspicion and coquettishness dominate, so there wasn't much evidence of the truly devout in her or even of much true love for Cavaradossi, save in the beauty of her singing. But as the opera progressed, Byers' Tosca deepened in feeling, and when she reached the aria "Vissi d'arte," asking the Lord why he has "rewarded" her, a faithful servant, with such torment, she projected a genuine air of confusion and abandonment. From that point on, it was clear where her loyalties lay.

Maestro Richard Buckley, however, despite working from a spot down below, was always on the side of the angels. The robustness of the orchestral sound, its richness in communicating drama and character – not only in the heavily weighted sections of the score but also in the lighter passages, which the musicians handled with a notable delicacy and lyricism – revealed just how far Buckley has taken this orchestra in 10 years. It may be fallacious to say the ALO orchestra has never sounded better, but it was certainly as responsible for drawing me into this epic drama and propelling me through it as the singers. And in this cosmic conflict, it sounded heavenly.

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