Reliably radical NYC opera company Heartbeat Opera is again mounting fully staged productions after a brief hiatus occasioned by the departure of its founding artistic directors. The company is staging not one but two bold new productions this month: a reimagined, streamlined version of Puccini’s Tosca, and a feminist take on Verdi’s Macbeth entitled Lady M. Last night I saw the first performance of the former; next week I’ll be covering the latter.
Heartbeat’s Tosca carries both a conceptual framing device and a shift in setting, but neither makes a decisive impact. That this is a worthy production is thanks mainly to the gleaming voices, the exceptional acting, and Puccini’s endlessly wonderful music – here re-scored for a small chamber band.
Finding the Heart of ‘Tosca’
Trimmed to a lithe 100 minutes and imaginatively staged, the production conveys the opera’s heady story in an easily digestible form that retains the drama. Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth and the production’s stage director, Iranian-born Shadi G., have set the tale in a repressive authoritarian regime where actors performing Tosca are taking the deadly risk of performing an uncensored version. That information comes from the program, but it’s pretty subtle – until Act III, anyway.
It’s true that from the set design we can tell we’re not in Rome in the year 1800. We could be almost anywhere authoritarianism did or could exist, and that’s literally anywhere. Reid Thompson’s impressive scenic design includes a stunning painted backdrop that unfurls for Act II. A satellite dish makes an appearance. And the costumes are all over the place, from operatic splendor to Kafka-esque anonymity and contemporary urban grit.
But the music sucks you in right away, and you’re experiencing Tosca itself.
Daniel Schlosberg’s sharply distilled orchestrations never fail to impress, and here they support some fine vocal performances. Chad Kranak is an exceptionally likable Cavaradossi, delivering the high notes with strength and burnished lyric clarity. Gustavo Feulien is a chilling, bearish Scarpia, especially frightful in the harrowing assault scene, his smooth baritone sounding effortless throughout.
Anush Avetisyan makes Tosca darkly magnetic, giving the character depth and gravitas while remaining vocally limber and energetic. Opening-night nerves perhaps contributed to some pitch ambivalence when she had to sing slumped against a wall; still she, like Cavaradossi after singing his final song blindfolded and from the floor, drew well-deserved applause.
I particularly liked Joseph Lodato’s noir-esque, steely-voiced Angelotti. His man-out-of-time portrayal made we want to hear more from the character, know more of his story.
I would have enjoyed the production even more had I been able to read the English supertitles. (Farsi ones were also projected.) I’m not sure how much to blame my poor vision and how much the size of the text, but I had trouble even from my privileged seat in the second row. Either way, unless you know Tosca extremely well, I recommend finding a detailed plot synopsis to read beforehand. I was glad I had.
Tosca and Lady M together form Heartbeat Opera’s Spring Opera Festival, running through April 23 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in NYC. Tickets are available online.