‘Tosca’ Soars In Intimate New Britain Setting

By JEFFREY JOHNSON, Special to The Courant

The Hartford Courant

5:08 PM EDT, May 14, 2011

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It is becoming increasingly rare to hear live opera in small halls, so it was wonderful to walk through the town center of New Britain on the way to hear “Tosca.”

Connecticut Lyric Opera, in cooperation with the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, performed this Puccini masterwork in the Trinity-On-Main Arts Center in first of a run of performances that will also include three other venues: New London (May 15), Waterbury (May 20) and Middletown (May 21).

The performance space, with its beautiful vaulted wooden walls and ceiling, has become a breathtaking venue. It did, however, present some sonic balancing challenges unique to the opera medium that seemed all but impossible to surmount.

Ideally, the orchestra would have played from a pit. When the music comes from below the singers, it provides a different kind of vocal support, and a pit smoothes the burning edges of orchestral sound. The Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra had to set up in front of the singers because there was no pit for the musicians. Even though they were slightly off to the side, the music frequently covered the singers, even during relatively quiet passages. The singers also heard a much different sound than the audience. As a result, they had a tendency to under-balance vocal parts in passages that they could not hear as well as we, in front of the orchestra, could.

And yet this intimate setting made us feel that we were a part of the unfolding drama itself. Even with the challenges created by this particular physical space itself it was still a very enjoyable evening of opera.

The sheer intensity of Puccini’s “Tosca” also can make us forget how effectively this opera is scored. In this performance, the orchestra, conducted by Adrian Sylveen, created a riveting presence with bright orchestral colors, sharply articulated rhythmic energies and gorgeous solos. The location of the ensemble in relation to the singers gave the instrumental music a powerful advantage, and the sound was thrilling.

The singers had beautiful moments in the first two acts but made the strongest impression in the third act. Tenor John Tsotsoros, who sang Cavaradossi, could have stopped time itself the way he sang the famous aria “E lucevan le stelle (And the stars shone).” His voice took on shades of the lyrical clarinet solo and from that moment to the close of the opera he had won our affection.

Soprano Jūratė Švedaitė effectively transitioned between moments of dramatic explosiveness and delicate richness. She performed “Vissi d’arte (I lived for art)” with an elegant combination of these qualities in a scene that broke away from the second act to create a memorable sonic oasis. Švedaitė and Tsotsoros had a good chemistry and were particularly effective in developing subtle connections during “Quale occhio al mondo puo star di paro (What eyes in the world can compare)” in the first act, where they were able to personify the chromatic key changes that brightened the progress of the music.

Bass-baritone Luke Scott sang Scarpia with an attractive voice filled with rich and powerful resonances. He needed to more fully explore both extremes of the character in order to have taken Scarpia to the frightening level required. Scarpia needs to be charming and persuasive, and then suddenly monstrous and dominating. Scott relied on an aristocratic middle ground that seemed too refined and repressed for this character that we love to hate.

The chorus, dressed in vivid red and white robes, made an impression each time they sang, both on and off stage, and several of the minor roles, including Laurentiu Rotaru as Angelotti, and Daniel Juarez as Spoletta, made an impression.

The opera was well-received by the New Britain audience. This production engaged the audience and conversations about the music and the plot bubbled up all over the lobby during both intermissions. Several couples were already thinking about how to get tickets for next season as they made their way out onto Main street.

“Tosca” will be performed again May 15, at 4 p.m., at the Garde Arts Center in New London; May 20, at 8 p.m., at the Palace Theater in Waterbury; and May 21, at 7:30 p.m., at Middletown High School Arts Center.