Volcanic and Unique, Tosca at HGO Dazzles With Masterful Singing and a Driving Plot

Filled with blood-red emotions: Tosca at Houston Grand Opera
Filled with blood-red emotions: Tosca at Houston Grand Opera Photo by Lynn Lane

No matter how many times you've seen Puccini's warhorse opera Tosca, there are always some things new and exciting that reveal themselves to keep this masterpiece fresh, exciting, and relevant. Maybe it's a musical phrase you hadn't heard played quite that way before; perhaps a bit of actor's business that refreshes the character's motivations; maybe a new take on the standard mise en scene that surprisingly illuminates.

Houston Grand Opera's penultimate production of its 2022 season certainly has all of these, even though this is the dreary John Caird version, co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago, previously seen in 2015. Those iconic Rome locales conjured by librettists Illica and Giacosa (La Bohème, Madame Butterfly) – the grand nave of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the sumptuous Palazzo Farnese, the parapets of Castel Sant'Angelo – have been reduced to a broken gray shell ringed by clerestory windows and a ruined oculus. The Farnese Palace looks like the final scene from Citizen Kane or Raiders of the Lost Ark, littered with crates, classical statuary, and a Caravaggio or two. And the portrait of the Madonna our hero Cavaradossi is working on in Act I has been deconstructed into three immense sections on three levels of scaffolding. We are not in Franco Zeffirelli's ultra-realist territory anymore.

While we can turn our gaze away from this director's wayward vision, what does reveal itself, gloriously so, in this latest reiteration are two strengths not witnessed before: soprano Tamara Wilson's sumptuous Tosca and tenor Jonathan Tetelman's intense Cavaradossi. What a pair they make.

This is Wilson's debut in the demanding lead role and Tetelman's debut at HGO. Both are exceptional, full of fury and fire, passion offset with tenderness, drama with a capital D, and voices to raise the roof. This duo ups the ante of Italian verismo, which this opera possesses in spades.

Tosca is lurid, full of blood-red emotions, and never fails to arouse. During the opera's composition, Giacosa complained to Puccini that there was nothing but plot. That's exactly why Tosca works its magic. There's not a dull spot anywhere. It moves inexorably forward, a juggernaut of high-end emotions: jealousy, lust, sadism, revolutionary fervor, sex, religious ardor. It's quite a panoply. What an opera to paint with music.

And Puccini created a masterpiece with primal swaths of his patented lush melodies, chromaticism, and absolute theater know-how. Like Verdi, he instinctively knew what worked on stage. Sex and violence knows no age and always works.

Wilson is utterly impressive, large of voice with radiant beauty of tone. She can belt out an unconquerable “Vittoria” (“Victory”) with Cavaradossi and then melt hearts with a plangent “Vissi d'arte” (“I lived for art”), one of the quintessential of all soprano arias in the rep. This might be her first foray into Tosca, but she's already conquered. With impeccable diction, she brings the hot-headed diva into full-blooded life.

Tetelman equally impresses, perhaps more so since we haven't heard him before. What a voice. Looking like a combo of Tyrone Power and Kevin Kline at their prime, he pours out radiant phrases, ringing top notes, and purrs his romantic declarations "Recondita armonia" (“Hidden harmony”) or dreamy reverie "E lucevan le stelle" (“And the stars shine”) with effortless aplomb and stirring conviction. If he's leading a revolution, we'll willingly follow. Return anytime, please, to HGO.

Baritone Rod Gilfry, as Scarpia, the libidinous head of Rome's police, is gruff and sexy, a lively foil to the jealous Tosca and passionate Cavaradossi. When he corners Tosca during their late-night supper expecting to seduce her, the music drama goes into overdrive. He removes his coat, covering the statue of the Virgin Mary with it, and slips off his suspenders, awaiting her pleasures. It's a picture of absolute debauchery. At the close of the first act, his “Va, Tosca” (“Go, Tosca”) ironically paired with a gloriously religious “Te Deum,” captures his unbridled lust set against the august church processional. Puccini at his best.

The subsidiary roles were ably sung by bass-baritone Nicholas Newton, as the Sacristan; bass Daniel Noyola as firebrand revolutionary Angelotti (whose dead body ends up hanging around during the third act and even during the curtain call – not a good idea, Caird); tenor Matthew Grills, as evil henchman
Spoletta; baritone Luke Sutliff as police agent Sciarrone; bass Corey McGee as Jailer; and young treble Peter Theurer as pristine-voiced offstage Shepherd at the beginning of Act III, whose “Io de' sospiri”
(“I give you sighs”) adds a sweet note to the brutal execution to come.

Maestro Benjamin Manis, a former HGO resident conductor, whips up the orchestra into furious climaxes or subtle love coos, always finding the correct balance between lust and love, leaving the artists on stage with just the right amount of breathing room before the next outburst.

If you've never experienced the power of Puccini's Tosca, this production from HGO is the one to see. Wilson, Netelman, and Gilfry, with great assist from conductor Manis, bring this enduring masterpiece to vibrant life. Volcanic and one of a kind, there's nothing like it in the rep.

Tosca continues through May 5 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Tuesday; and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Sung in Italian with English surtitlies. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $20-$250.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover