Living for Art Gives You Arias to Resort to in Your Time of Need
by Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times, March 24th, 2008
Different governments disagree on what constitutes torture and when such interrogation techniques are justified. But the psychological abuse in Act II of "Tosca" would surely run afoul of the Geneva Convention. In Mark Lamos's stark staging for the New York City Opera, which updates the story to Fascist Rome, the sadistic police chief Baron Scarpia and his henchmen are dressed in intimidating uniforms and boots, making the threat of cruelty all the more ominous.
Michael Yeargan's effective sets for this production, which opened its run at the New York State Theater on Saturday evening, also contribute to the general air of menace. With gray metal bars for walls and doors, the church in the opening scene looks more like a prison cell than a place of worship. Robert Wierzel's artful lighting further heightens the tension, particularly when Scarpia and his men burst into the church, shining flashlights and searching for the fugitive Angelotti. Branch Fields vividly conveyed the desperation of the fleeing convict.
But the level of singing and acting didn't always match the production's potential. In the title role, Anna Shafajinskaia, with a dark and powerful if occasionally shrill soprano, easily cut through the thick orchestral textures. She vividly showed her jealousy toward Cavaradossi, her lover, sung here by Raúl Melo. Though persuasively ardent at times, Mr. Melo seemed stiff, and his tenor was sometimes underpowered.
The chemistry between the two often felt more like that of a long-married and indifferent couple than that of fiery young lovers. While dreaming of their future happiness in Act III, the pair lacked an essential spark.
Act II was the most compelling dramatically. Bright interrogation lights shone from a cross on the ceiling, and red and black lighting effects evoked totalitarian insignias. Todd Thomas illuminated Scarpia's depravity with chilling menace. He toyed with Tosca with cruel deliberation, although vocally he occasionally seemed underpowered next to Ms. Shafajinskaia, who was despairing and rebellious under her torturer's machinations. She sang " Vissi d'arte" with wistful poignancy.
Peter Strummer was a genial Sacristan, providing lighthearted relief amid the grim drama. Jeffrey Behrens as Spoletta and Ross Benoliel as Sciarrone made effective City Opera debuts as the two henchmen. The conductor, Steuart Bedford, elicited a lively, nuanced performance and kept the pace flowing.