Tosca. Listen, don't look.
You thought park-and-bark was dead.
It’s back. The Boston Lyric Opera’s “Tosca,” which opened Friday evening at the Cutler Majestic Theater, revived the notion that good music, sung by great voices, is quite enough for an operatic presentation.
In a consistently static production, without varying the pace, visual appeal or the set at all, the BLO put to rest the contemporary notion that singers should be actors, and that opera should find a way to infuse its appealing soundtrack with compelling, believable physical interactions.
The voices were outstanding, and the music—Puccini’s through-composed score, with the orchestral part every bit as alluring as the superlative vocal settings—arresting. But this simple, unimaginative production made no attempt to bring Puccini’s melodrama to visual life, and the presentation suffered for it.
Russian soprano Elena Stikhina made her BLO (and American) debut in the title role, and you have not seen the last of this powerful, appealing singer. One only wondered if she would sing the rest of the cast off the stage (she didn’t). Showing a great personal touch, intense artistry and a steadily penetrating lyric tone, she sang with brilliant intensity all evening. One wished the production had taken advantage of her dramatic gifts.
Highlights? The score does offer individual highlights for the heroine (“Qual’occhio,” “Vissi d’arte”), but the appeal of this music is its weave of instrumental detail with lucid vocal lines. Stikhina sang the great arias with clarity and passion—intense passion—but also blended to the scene, and her partners.
Especially the solid tenor Jonathan Burton, her lover Cavaradossi. His performance was even more maligned by the uninspired staging, but he sang beautifully, with a precision of tone that did not waver, even at triple forte.
Tosca’s evil partner, the predatory Scarpia, realized by baritone Daniel Sutin, could have stolen any other stage. He also suffered from uninspired stage direction, but he sang with authority. His “Già, mi dicon venal” was thoroughly venal.
One set—columns separating front from back, pushing all the action upstage—served as Cavaradossi’s studio, Scarpia’s chambers, the lover’s trysting space, and the execution field. It may have been economical, but it was not versatile—or ornamented with enough varying properties. The lighting was blue, and underutilized. It seemed to change only when a spotlight shone on an aria.
A winding staircase, leading up to the second level, was too narrow for solos, and poorly utilized. When the physically tortured Cavaradossi nimbly makes his way up the stairs and off to prison, one could tell not enough thought was put into the visual effect. The wardrobes were period-effective.
The stage did offer a second level, and the orchestra played from above rather than in the pit. That was a winning touch, subtly acknowledging the greatness of the instrumental score.
Only conductor David Stern was visible to the audience—the orchestra played behind a scrim—which ended up just being a distraction. Almost as if he should have been a character in the opera. But the music was a alertly played, and despite not being able to see the conductor—the singers took cues from monitors—seamlessly blended.
It was a shame to bring so many great voices to “Tosca,” and so little attention to the rest of the production.
The Boston Lyric Opera presents Puccini’s “Tosca” through Oct. 22 at the Cutler Majestic Theater. Tickets ($47-$152) are available at blo.org or 617-542-6772.