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‘Tosca’ soars under the direction of David Stern

Journal Correspondent

Jonathan Burton as Cavaradossi and Elena Stikhina as Tosca in the Boston Lyric Opera production of “Tosca.” / Performance photos by Liza Voll Photography for Boston Lyric Opera

OCTOBER 19, 2017 – Imagine a tyrannical regime with a corrupt and sexually predatory police chief. Then add a revolutionary artist and his opera diva love struggling for real freedom in a city where religious officials become collaborators. Co-librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa vividly depicted such a dystopia in 1800 Rome for the Giacomo Puccini opera “Tosca,’’ first performed in 1900. Now Boston Lyric Opera is bringing fresh and timely resonance to this prescient 41st year season opener at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre.

Set designer Julia Noulin-Merat has constructed a formidable high pillar two-level façade where malevolent police chief Scarpia – assisted by abusive henchmen – ascends a winding staircase to torture free-thinking agnostic painter Cavaradossi and harass church-attending concert singer Tosca. Clergymen and nuns display religious devotion with no visible compassion and caring for the disenfranchised. Stage director Crystal Manich smartly blocks the ever darker conflicts of what may be Puccini’s most emotionally insightful opera. The result is a staging where hypocrisy and deceit regularly face off against real devotion and true love.

Opera Fuoco (Paris-based) founding director David Stern, now in his BLO debut, richly evokes both the irony and the dramatic highs of that face off as he conducts the production’s 54 musicians – the season’s largest orchestra. He pays careful attention to the contrasting fortissimo stretches and lyrical moments of the opening. Stern’s sharp direction also delineates the disarmingly pleasant passages that contrast with Scarpia’s poisonous manipulation of Tosca.

In a brief interview, conductor Stern had a lot to say about the opera, the BLO and his own work. The veteran conductor (and son of gifted late violinist Isaac Stern) relished the challenge of directing the sizeable orchestra from behind the singers. He submitted that the Hub cast featured “dramatic and very expressive singers’’ while the performers in a staging of the same work for Israel Opera, where he once served for several years as music director, put an emphasis on singing without enough attention to acting. Stern called the work Puccini’s “most violent opera.” He pointed to the authenticity of Scarpia’s “using sexual pressure to get results.” He also compared the opera’s spectator-like clergy to Swiss officials who condoned Nazi actions during the Holocaust.

Stern also praised Puccini’s psychological insight – in particular about Scarpia. ‘’The more beautiful something becomes the more of a threat it is to Scarpia,’’ he maintained. “Scarpia is pure verismo. He’s so horrible because he’s so human.”

Bringing together the riveting poetic elements of the libretto and Puccini’s poignant music are the big-voiced and expressive cast members. Elena Stikhina captures Tosca’s fiery will as well as her profound vulnerability. She delivers the diva’s vividly philosophical aria “Vissi d’arte’’ with a fine blend of clarity and passion. Jonathan Burton is totally convincing professing his love for Tosca. Stikhina and Burton have real chemistry together. Daniel Sutin finds all of Scarpia’s brutality and sadism without losing sight of his real – if twisted – feeling for Tosca. There are strong ensemble efforts – especially at moments of prayer.

Scarpia betrays Tosca. By contrast, the BLO’s timely revival not only proves faithful to the diva’s haunting emotional odyssey but also demonstrates how much this wise opera has to say about tyranny freedom, love and life itself.

“Tosca,” Boston Lyric Opera, Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through October 22. Visit blo.org.

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