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Agonies and ecstasies (continued)

THE ENDEARING Teatro Lirico d’Europa, based in Bulgaria, was back on a 46-city cross-country tour. In La traviata, except for the tenor, several costumes, and parts of the set, nothing seemed a bit tired or worn. Audiences love it when things go awry in opera. Here, when Violetta’s dinner bell didn’t ring, she did what any self-respecting opera heroine would do: clapped for her maid instead. Her taking a swig from a champagne bottle when her guests had gone was a less felicitous choice. Costumes ranged across the centuries — periwigged footmen delivered the mail while bohemian party guests wore ties. Violetta’s deathbed was big enough for a racquet-ball tournament.

If the first-act party scene was something of a shambles, the more crucial second-act confrontation between the courtesan Violetta and Giorgio Germont, her lover’s bourgeois father, really percolated. Young Bulgarian soprano Veselina Vasileva (incorrectly identified in the inconspicuous cast list in the Majestic lobby) made you feel both Violetta’s dignity and the low self-esteem that allows Germont to talk her into giving up her true love. Her small voice was never muffled by the orchestra, and she could pump out climactic high notes when she needed to. In the last act, Violetta’s dwindling strength, her outbursts of despair and hope, and her final collapse were all the more believable, and heartbreaking, because of Vasileva’s good theatrical instincts and her vocal delicacy.

In Lithuanian baritone Vytautas Juozapaitis, last year’s devilish, dark-toned Don Giovanni, Teatro Lirico has a powerful singer with an impressive stage presence. Sparks flew because Vasileva and Juozapaitis created such emotional tension: she more nuanced than the usual submissive heroine, he more sympathetic than the stock villain. Brooklyn tenor Cesar Hernandez’s big voice was more often than not out of focus, and as the passionate Alfredo, his acting was wooden — he seemed to want to avoid Violetta. I wished she had run away with the elder, not the younger, Germont.

It was good to have Metodi Matakiev back in the pit after his outstanding job with Boris Godunov two years ago. The expert secondary singers, the vigorous chorus, and some surprisingly good dancers added to the pleasure. But what makes this opera-by-the-seat-of-its-pants company so worth seeing year after year is that despite its budgetary limits, its priorities are always right. Opera, especially 19th-century opera, exists to melt our hearts — and Teatro Lirico does just that, every season almost without fail.

WHEN IN DOUBT, try sex and violence. There’s certainly no other pressing need for the Boston Lyric Opera to give us yet another version of Tosca, Puccini’s melodic melodrama machine (at the Shubert through April 11). The BLO’s third Tosca in less than 15 years gets a C+ for passable qualities, but it has none that completely satisfies.

The central role — an opera diva who murders the evil chief of police when he bargains not to execute her patriot-lover if she will give herself to his lascivious desires — can work with either luscious singing (think Leontyne Price or Shirley Verrett) or with great acting (think Maria Callas or Magda Olivero). Soprano Lisa Daltirus gives us a diva of girlish giggles but no bearing. She needs to learn how to move in an Empire gown (though costume designer Michael Stennett puts her in one that’s neither becoming nor easy to negotiate). Stage director Neil Peter Jampolis has her pitching a flower at her lover (overhand!) in jealous anger and kicking off her shoes as she gets onto the bed the villainous Baron Scarpia intends to join her in. Is this what a glamorous Roman opera star circa 1800 would do? I didn’t believe her for a minute. Daltirus seems always to be in the throes of acting rather than showing something resembling human feeling. She also needs some language coaching. Tosca’s ironic remark after she stabs Scarpia, "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma" ("Before him, all Rome trembled"), sounded like a reference to some mobster named Louie.

What Daltirus has going for her is a voluptuous voice, with both brassy chest tones and also a capacity for delicacy. The bad news is that as it gets louder and higher, it turns pinched and shrill. She has potential, but she could scream herself dry if she doesn’t get some help.

Tenor and former Miami police officer Jorge Antonio Pita hasn’t the vocal heft for Cavaradossi, but he has an elegant tone that is especially touching in his famous third-act aria "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the stars were shining" — which is just what they’re doing in the pre-dawn sky provided by Jampolis, who is also the set designer). This is the only expression of honest emotion in the entire production. Pita’s small voice is often muffled by the Shubert’s dead acoustics, and both he and resonant Canadian baritone Gaetan Laperrière, the sadistic Scarpia, get drowned out by the orchestra, which is led by Keith Lockhart in his Boston opera debut.

This is Lockhart’s second professional opera, and already he seems skilled at eliciting good playing, getting occasionally wayward singers back on track, and dealing with missed cues. But Tosca should have the tension of a coiled spring, and Lockhart seemed to be following the action rather than impelling it. (The most exciting and vividly detailed live Tosca I can remember was with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, the opening season at Great Woods, in 1986.)

Some of the best singing is by bass David M. Cushing in the small part of the political escapee, Angelotti, though with all his racing around the stage, it’s hard to believe him when he says he’s too tired to take another step. Richard Conrad is delightful as the dithering sacristan, and Frank Kelley makes your flesh creep as Scarpia’s slimy chief agent — but would a mere underling caress the cheek of the lady his boss was trying to seduce?

Jampolis has surely directed countless Toscas. Was he too bored to stick to the libretto? This is the first Tosca I’ve ever seen that ignores the crucial stage direction (timed to the music) for Tosca to place candles at the head of the man she’s just killed and a crucifix on his chest, but then again, how could she while she’s carrying her shoes? And where is Tosca jumping when she leaps forward from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo into a hole in the roof? All opera has a degree of silliness. The worst thing about this BLO Tosca is that it lacks conviction. Even the sex and violence seem phony.

ON A HAPPIER NOTE: the marvelous recital by German countertenor Andreas Scholl and harpsichordist Markus Märkl at Sanders Theatre, sponsored by the Boston Early Music Festival. Scholl is a phenomenon. I first heard him at a 400-year-old church in Dresden, and I could swear the foundation was shaking with the volume of his voice (a quality you can’t quite get from his recordings). He’s more than six feet tall, and he must have a column of air that makes his alto voice huge and resonant. I remember when Joan Sutherland first burst upon the operatic scene — no one could believe that anyone who could sing so high and so fast could also have a voice so big. And beautiful. Scholl’s has a glowing warmth, absolutely seamless from the lower depths to the upper reaches. He’s a natural communicator — nothing arch or self-conscious about him. Or arty. But his true art is one of uncommon intelligence and depth.

He sang a series of German Baroque songs and arias. He said when he was making an album for Harmonia Mundi, he was looking for the pearls and there weren’t very many. But he certainly found enough. The composers are obscure to us, partly because most of their work has been lost: Nauwach, Albert, the Kriegers (Adam and Johann Philipp), Hammerschmidt, and Görner. J. P. Krieger’s "An die Einsamkeit" ("To Solitude") was the saddest and most haunting. Hammerschmidt’s "Kunst des Küssens" ("The Art of Kissing") was the funniest, and in the line about "not too slow and not too fast," on the first syllable of the word "langsam" ("slow"), Scholl held on to the note forever.

After intermission, he returned for two Handel Italian cantatas, spectacularly florid early pieces that contain some tunes Handel used again in his operatic masterpieces. Märkl offered warm and firm if reticent support and spelled Scholl in articulate solos by J.P.F. Fischer and Handel, though his most imaginative playing was in his colorful pastoral accompaniment to Scholl’s first encore, the heavenly "Verdi prati" ("green meadows") from Handel’s Alcina. Scholl’s second encore was a heartbreaking rendition, in impeccable English, of the folk song "O Waly Waly" ("The River Is Wide").

Last year, he was in Boston singing Bach with the BSO. Could we please have him back at the earliest opportunity?

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Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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