‘Tosca’ review: Gorgeous singing, warhorse tale at Portland Opera

The singing's terrific and the crowd shouted "Bravo!" But the story in Puccini's 1900 hit can't keep up with 21st century times.

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Portland Opera’s Tosca, which opened Oct. 29 in the Keller Auditorium with many of its 3,000 seats empty, possesses the makings of grand opera, including a stellar cast and creative team, many of whom were making their PO debuts. Added to that are opulent sets and costumes, moody lighting, and of course, Giacomo Puccini’s irresistibly sweeping melodic music. 

The opera, which premiered in 1900, embodies a romantic plot designed to stir us up with politics, treachery, love, religion, hairpin reversals, and tragedy. The characters, as they should be in grand opera, are excessive and unfailingly over-the-top. The principals include drama-queen diva Tosca, performed by dramatic soprano Alexandra LoBianco; dissident artist Mario Cavaradossi, sung by knockout tenor Noah Stewart; and manipulative dirty-old-man Scarpia (baritone Gordon Hawkins). Along with a deft supporting cast, including Portland tenor Katherine Goforth as the guiltily duplicitous Scarpia sidekick Spoletto, they play out a circa-1800 thriller-turned-tragedy in Rome, hemmed in by the Catholic Church, a corrupt local regime, and tri-corner-hatted Napoleonic invaders. Tosca, if feisty, can’t control fate. Everyone important dies.

Tenor Noah Stewart as rebel artist Mario Cavaradossi and dramatic soprano Alexandra LoBianco as Tosca at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

All of these accomplished singers in this production, which has a final performance on Saturday, Nov. 6, have a chance to show off their pipes with Puccini’s arias. Tosca’s classic “Vissi d’arte,” (“I loved for art, l lived for love”) in Act Two as she tries to fend off Scarpia and protect the rebels’ secrets, will always be exquisite as long as a soprano of LoBianco’s talents and range sings it, especially if she performs it in a puddle of a blood-red velvet dress and glittering jewels, as she does in this production. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic called her “true Verdian voice” one of “velvet-covered steel,” an apt description.

Noah Stewart, with his crystal-clear, bell-like tenor, performs Mario Cavaradossi’s third-act aria, “E lucevan le Stelle” (“And the stars shone”) before his character is executed, and his virtuoso turn adds to why he emerges as the show’s star. No matter what he does on stage, despite his beaten-to-a pulp body (the poor guy falls down a lot during  the final two acts, due to his torturers), he does it with grace.

But. 

Tosca is a warhorse, and it hasn’t ventured far out of its comfortable stable with this production, despite PO’s newly crafted mission to stage more “inclusive” operas about us, about people today. Though you can find parallels to everyday 21st-century life, such as Scarpia putting Tosca through Me Too agony, and the existence of torture to force intel (we’ve recently heard about the disgusting, gut-wrenching CIA torture of an alleged terrorist now being tried in court), it’s a stretch to say this is an opera for and of today. Tosca is old-fashioned — like your grandmother’s Christmas lasagna. Its taste lingers with us because of  its music, not for any spice in the sauce — that is, story, libretto or character development, and in this case, a rather conservative presentation.

A circle of fate: The Catholic Church is part of life in “Tosca.” Photo: Cory Weaver

The libretto, written by Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa, is often hilariously dated. In the second act, Tosca leans into a red-lit room in Scarpia’s place where her lover Mario Cavaradossi is being systematically abused by Scarpia’s cops, and sings, somewhat sweetly, “Mario, are they still torturing you?” 

Perhaps this warhorse has just been trotted out too much in the 30 years I’ve covered opera, and now finds itself up against some fantastic current operas that I’ve seen this year. They include Journeys to Justice, staged this spring by Portland Opera with its Resident Artists; the all-Black-cast Blue (see my Oregon Arts Watch review), named the Best New Opera by the Music Critics Association of North America in 2020, and performed in September in Detroit’s vast Aretha Franklin Amphitheater; and jazz trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard’s stunning Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the 2014 Charles Blow memoir, and the first Black opera produced by the 149-year-old Metropolitan Opera. Not to leave out this summer’s Frida, about the offbeat and intriguing Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which gave us a fresh fusion of music and visual art. Though a Michigan Opera Theatre production, the 95-minute piece was beautifully staged by Portland Opera on the outdoor Jordan Schnitzer Stage near OMSI.

These operas, other than Frida, focused on Black experience (I am white and don’t pretend to understand the Black experience). But they covered new territory musically and thematically. Art should give us something new to think about.

Tenor Noah Stewart (left) sings with Portland Opera’s bass-baritone (and now music director) Damien Geter, both of whom play dissidents, in the first act of “Tosca.” Photo: Cory Weaver

PO has some exciting new operas coming up in 2022, including Leslie Uyeda’s When the Sun Comes Out and Anthony Davis’s The Central Park Five. To be fair, Tosca was a holdover from the Covid-interrupted 2020-21 season. It is a familiar comfort-food opera to ease into post-Covid life. And it has been proven many times over that opera-goers can’t resist Puccini, this audience included. A five-minute applause period peppered with bravos indicated that people were overwhelmed by the 2-hour-45-minute opera (two intermissions included).

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I was not overwhelmed, despite the professionalism of the production, thanks in part to Linda Brovsky’s clean stage direction (no thanks to the messy plot), and to Tiffany Chang’s spirited conducting. With such a massive production, no faux pas occurred, such as Tosca bouncing back above the stage after she jumps over the wall to her death, which supposedly occurred at the Lyric Opera of Chicago when the stage crew replaced the mattress with a trampoline.

And, I do look forward to the rest of the Portland Opera season with enthusiasm and high expectations.

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  • A final live Tosca performance will happen on Saturday, Nov. 6, and digital passes for the opera become available Nov. 16 through the end of the year. Find PO Tosca tickets and digital passes here.

About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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5 Responses

  1. Too bad the reviewer is unable to see the chorus in this production, despite the photo… Sad portrayal of Portland art when I have to read the urban myths about trampolines backstage yet one more time. Was our Tosca not interesting enough to write about? Please leave writing reviews of the opera to those who know opera. Warhorse, indeed. The reviewer mentions that the auditorium is almost empty. This review won’t draw people in.

  2. The review seems a list of virtue signaling with an assumption that operas need be pitted against each other in Portland. I was there for the Portland Opera Tosca (quite packed and delightful) and luckily for Frida over the hot summer too. Brava to Portland Opera for efforts to broaden offerings and to stay connected to foundations, both.

  3. You’re nuts! I was first attracted to the verisimo operas of Puccini and Verdi precisely for the reason that they remain so relevant in our times… The issues of jealousy, corrupt police, the catholic church and miscommunication in war are still with us today. A round of applause when Scarpia was stabbed shouldn’t be suprising in a town that has been abused and abandoned by law enforcement.

    We SHOULD have at least two big “old warhorse” operas a year. They are classic, and well loved for good reason. I love it when productions are moved forward in time however
    Tosca is pinned to the date of 1800 and therefore is required to be a “traditional production” You should know this and your comments in this matter discredit your authority as a critic.

    Its sad that such a good show didnt sell out every night, (I’d like to see them sing to a full house three nights a week for a month) Many potential patrons are still concerned with the pandemic, and others are afraid to go downtown. Continued, and increasing outreach and advertising is a must. On the bright side i was able to get a good seat for 35$ at the door last night and see this “old warhorse” twice in a week😍 I’ve seen one production live at the met, plus at least three others online, and Alexandra Lobianco is the best Tosca in my experience.

  4. This production was announced in September for four performances and then, one week later, down to three. Why wasn’t that noted in the review? The performance that was cancelled was slated for November 4th and just happens to be when Andrea Bocelli had a concert booked (since at least May 2021) at the Moda Center.

    Interesting to have a music director who has never been engaged by a company to conduct singing supporting roles in this production.

    Everything ok over there Portland Opera?

    1. Curious, thanks for asking. This was a short-run production, and when the review was published there was one performance remaining. That’s what we reported, for the benefit of readers who might have wanted to buy a ticket while they still could. As for Damien Geter, while he’s best-known in Portland as a singer and composer (and, yes, sang in this “Tosca”) he also has a masters degree in conducting from Indiana State University, as Angela Allen reported in this story: https://www.orartswatch.org/diving-into-the-moment-of-creation-priti-gandhi-and-damien-geter-lead-portland-opera-out-of-covid-and-into-a-new-season/

      Mr. Geter was appointed interim music director after George Manahan left that post recently. It’s unclear right now whether Mr. Geter’s appointment will be made permanent – that’s up to the board and company leadership – but the interim appointment made sense. He has a history with the company, has been deeply involved with it, and in fact had already been serving as co-artistic advisor.

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