Tag Archives: John Viscardi

Stunning and Grand, Opera Carolina Recreates the Original Designs of “Tosca”

Review: Opera Carolina Presents Puccini’s Tosca

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Tosca-40 

October 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even in an Opera Carolina production with merely eight solo vocalists in the cast, it was easy enough to see what makes grand opera so grand. Most of the musicians on Charlotte Symphony’s payroll were in the orchestra pit when we entered Belk Theater, tuning up or rehearsing. The program booklets handed to us at the door had the size and stylishness of a glossy fashion magazine, and when the curtain rose on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, we saw the interior of a Roman cathedral, the first of Adolph Hohenstein’s three diverse set designs. By the end of the opening act, the stage was filled with clergy, a cardinal, and a throng of Opera Carolina choristers, all celebrating a mistaken report of a royalist victory over Napoleon’s invading army.

All of these blandishments – and extras – spell out expensive in big, bold capital letters. So it was particularly disappointing to see the Belk’s uppermost balcony completely empty and so many unclaimed seats below. If Hohenstein’s name rings a bell, we can multiply our disappointment, because he designed the sets, the costumes, the props, and the poster art for the original Milanese production of Tosca in January 1900. We can thank the New York City Opera for this meticulous recreation of Hohenstein’s handiwork – by heading out to the Belk Theater and seeing it.2022~Tosca-13

Opera Carolina lighting designer Michael Baumgarten certainly helps to capture the melodramatic spirit of Puccini’s deft adaptation of Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, written for Sarah Bernhardt in 1887. But perhaps disheartened by all those empty seats, the opening night performance didn’t attain its full potboiler heat until late in Act 1 when bass baritone Steven Condy entered as Baron Scarpia, the cruel, lascivious, and unscrupulous chief of Rome’s city police. Until then, soprano Alyson Cambridge as opera diva Floria Tosca and tenor John Viscardi as principled painter Mario Cavaradossi hadn’t belittled the love, intrigue, jealousy, and playfulness of their relationship. Not at all. But against the backdrop of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, tempestuously conducted by OpCar artistic director James Meena from the opening bars onwards, both sounded somewhat underpowered, though they were clearly gifted as actors.2022~Tosca-10

Chasing after former Roman Republic consul Cesare Angelotti, who has escaped from prison and has already been secreted into hiding by Cavaradossi, Condy as Scarpia quickly injected menace and urgency into the drama. Then he cunningly worked on Tosca’s unfounded jealousy to freshen the trail to her paramour’s hideout before the curtain fell. In his tense confrontation with Tosca, Condy seemed to kindle some of the spark we would see unceasingly from Cambridge in the two acts that followed.

Stage director James Marvel takes full advantage of his principals’ gifts as the intricacies of Sardou’s plot come brutally to fruition in Act 2. Tosca has led Scarpia’s spies to Cavaradossi’s hideout, and soon the painter will be in custody while Angelotti has once again escaped. Scarpia dispatches his prisoner to a torture chamber adjoining his lavish apartment, hoping to extract information about Angelotti’s whereabouts. He and his thugs cannot break Cavaradossi, but they don’t have to. Tosca is with him, ruefully aware that her jealousy was baseless, and able to hear her beloved’s outcries as Scarpia’s men inflict their torture. Where the fiend has failed with Cavaradossi, he succeeds with Tosca, breaking her twice. In exchange for stopping the torture, Tosca gives up Angelotti, and to barter for Cavaradossi’s freedom, the price will be Tosca’s virtue.

2022~Tosca-16Beyond having doubted her true love’s fidelity, there was so much more for Tosca to regret now. In singing the famous “Vissi d’arte” aria before nodding her consent to Scarpia, Cambridge drew upon all the additional anguish Puccini had written for her. All of the art she had lived for, all of her passionate love, all her charitable deeds, and all her fervent prayers have been for naught in the face of this perverted monster. God has shortchanged her. With all the grim delight that Condy took in tormenting her in their crackling duets, it certainly seemed so. But Marvel was no less cold-blooded in staging “Tosca’s kiss,” where the diva settles all her debts with the Baron and appends a chilling religious ceremony.2022~Tosca-35

Courageous and bloodied in his brief appearances, Viscardi’s energy jumped nearly as much as Cambridge’s after the first intermission, but he didn’t reach his zenith until he staggered onto the rooftop battlements of the Sant’Angelo Castle in the pre-dawn light of Act 3, sentenced to face a firing squad. Maybe not quite as electrifying as Cambridge’s signature aria, Viscardi filled Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” with sweet lyrical despair that soared upwards into the dawn appointed for his death. Alone for an extended conspiratorial duet, when both lovers grew joyous at the prospect of their coming bliss, Cambridge and Viscardi poignantly lit up the stage one last time before fate cruelly closed its fist on them. Stunning – and grand.

DiChiera’s “Cyrano” Throbs With the Power of Love

Review: Cyrano

By Perry Tannenbaum

Since making his Charlotte debut at the end of 2001-02 season, directing a triumphant Barber of Seville, Bernard Uzan has been a key part of the Opera Carolina story for over 15 years. His artistic contributions to numerous productions – including The Marriage of Figaro, Così Fan Tutte, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, Carmen, Lucia, Nabucco, The Pearl Fishers, and last season’s reprise of his Barber – have been among the most memorable during principal conductor James Meena’s tenure as the company’s general director, which began one season earlier.

With the advantage of hindsight, it seems inevitable that when Meena cast about for an adventurous new piece to present, the first contemporary opera at Belk Theater since Margaret Garner in 2005, he would light upon David DiChiera’s Cyrano. Not only has Uzan directed this opera – twice – at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre, where it premiered in 2007, he authored the libretto. Compounding that inevitability, DiChiera commissioned Margaret Garner for Michigan Opera, the company he founded and led.

Adding poignancy to the current Cyrano revival, DiChiera disclosed that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past April, about the same time that he announced his retirement. Yet the 82-year-old composer and impresario was observed sitting next to Uzan at the Student Night preview performance, still tweaking his legacy magnum opus.

Like Henri Cain’s libretto for Franco Alfano’s 1936 Cyrano de Bergerac, Uzan strives to retain Edmond Rostand’s original verse. Predictably, Uzan’s highlighter seems to have fallen upon many of the same passages, but his emphases are different. In the opening scene, where Christian and Roxane first become captivated with each other while Cyrano is dispatching assorted foes, both Uzan and Cain are taken by Cyrano’s enthused exclamations when invited by Roxane’s duenna to a rendezvous the following morning. Despite Cyrano’s preternaturally long nose, he might win Roxane’s love!

Cain and Alfano include the lines where Cyrano proclaims that he now has 10 hearts and 100 arms – where he feels too strong to combat dwarves, calling for giants instead – but Uzan and DiChiera revel in them, repeating them as they bring the scene to a close. Earlier when Cyrano is parrying swords and insults, there is an extended skirmish with a Marquis in the entourage of the wicked Comte de Guiche, who also fancies Roxane. Cain seized upon the unique action display in this altercation, where Cyrano composes an impromptu ballade while dueling the Marquis. Uzan emphasizes the witty preamble to the duel, when Cyrano responds to the Marquis’ feeble insult of his nose by improvising a bevy of insults he should have hurled – in various styles that include aggressive, friendly, kindly, thoughtful, dramatic, and enterprising barbs.

Although the scores were unveiled more than 70 years apart, DiChiera’s music fits into the era of Strauss and Puccini almost as comfortably as Alfano’s, though the newer opera leans more towards cavatina and less toward aria and cabaletta. There are no spiky outbreaks of dissonance or raucous percussion to daunt operagoers, for the orchestration by Mark Flint, newly revised by Steven Mercurio, is both lively and lovely. Better yet, Mercurio is in the pit conducting the Charlotte Symphony, the Opera Carolina Chorus, and the men of the Johnson C. Smith University Choir, giving the music his stamp of authenticity.

The man behind the nose is baritone John Viscardi, who impressed me more and more as the evening progressed. Cyrano’s flamboyant self-caricatures weren’t nearly as spectacular coming from Viscardi as those jubilant exclamations, and I exited the opening scene feeling that we hadn’t sufficiently explored the poet’s yearning for the beauteous Roxane or the critic’s self-loathing for what he finds in the mirror.

If the rendezvous with Roxane in the next scene at a poets’ bakery doesn’t offer ample opportunities for lyricizing while his beloved is revealing her adoration for Christian, the sinuous path of her confession does give Viscardi the opportunity to underscore the fact that Uzan demands real acting from his singers. There is real snap to the ensuing episode when Cyrano’s fellow cadets invade the bakery and our hero meets the newly-enlisted Christian for the first time. Even before he volunteers to write Christian’s love letters, his enthusiasm toward the man Roxane idolizes – despite the contempt he has just absorbed from him – testifies to his own idolatry of Roxane. When he does make his pact with Christian, a spark is lit that burns brightly for the rest of the opera.

Viscardi burns brightest in the moonlit balcony scene when Cyrano is forced to step in for the handsome Christian and woo Roxane under the cover of darkness. Here Cyrano’s improvisations are so ardent and beautiful that I feared Christian might realize, an act too soon, how much Cyrano adores Roxane and how fervidly she reciprocates. That realization does come on the battlefield after the second intermission, but Rostand compressed the timeline so cruelly there that neither Christian nor Cyrano could disclose the truth to Roxane before her newlywed husband perishes.

Both in his writing and directing, Uzan makes key mistakes in the closing convent scene that affect what Viscardi leaves us with as Cyrano. You would never know that Rostand titled his Act 5 “Cyrano’s Gazette,” for no mention of Cyrano’s gadfly writings remains in the libretto. Nor does Cyrano’s best friend Le Bret come to inform Roxane how Cyrano’s satires have led to his undoing. Yes, Cyrano will read the farewell letter he wrote to Roxane on Christian’s behalf one last time before he dies, but we don’t hear any tasty tidbits from his Gazette to remind us what a witty rogue he was.

Those who are introduced to Cyrano through this opera will need to remember his wit from the opening scene, but surely everyone should be given a firm grasp of the moment when Roxane realizes that Cyrano penned every one of Christian’s glorious letters – and risked death to deliver them. As director, Uzan needs to sharpen the business where Viscardi stops reading that farewell letter and Roxane sees, totally transfixed, that he’s reciting it. Hung over from past encounters with Cyrano de Bergerac, I’m always in tears at that moment, but I’d like to be sure newcomers experience it with the same power.

Aside from that sloppy denouement, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés brought perfect enchantment to Roxane. There was a growth curve to her performance that theatergoers and opera lovers alike will savor. Through her girlish confession to Cyrano, Simard-Galdés is somewhat superficial when she sings, bubbly like a Rossini heroine. But in the moonlight, where she comes to adore Cyrano’s soul through his voice, she is not merely transported. She begins to be transformed, and we hear it in her newly rich responses, when she honestly believes she’s hearing Christian’s true self for the first time.

I’d forgotten that Roxane, with bravery to match Cyrano’s, follows Christian on to the battlefield through enemy lines, drawn by the power of his letters. What a moment! John Pascoe’s original costume designs, lovingly preserved from the 2007 premiere, go a long way toward injecting the requisite glitter into the Parisian scenes, despite the rather generic (and wisely uncredited) set design. The magnificent dress she wears after the second intermission turns her entrance through the encamped cadets into a luminous sunburst, making this tableau reminiscent of those dark gloomy Rembrandts where light is concentrated onto just one shining sector.

Simard-Galdés’s vocals shine in that scene, too, with fresh maturity and warmth. What stands out so vividly here, perhaps more vividly than in conventional stagings of Rostand’s “Heroic Comedy,” is how significantly Cyrano ennobles both Roxane and Christian during the 1640 scenes. Sadly, when the curtain comes down in 1655, he still hasn’t realized what he has achieved with those two souls.

From the moment we first see him as Christian, the power and purity of Sébastien Guèze’s singing seem to flatten his growth curve vis-à-vis Roxane’s. The tenor certainly upstaged Viscardi for me when he first emerged, but he regressed nicely when Christian’s boyish confidence collided with the necessity of saying something impressive and gallant to Roxane in their first tête-à-tête.

Guèze’s best moments come in DiChiera’s Act 3 when Christian has his epiphany after absorbing two earthshaking revelations. First, he learns how bravely, diligently, and devotedly Cyrano has acted in writing to Roxane twice daily. Then he learns that Roxane now loves him for the letters she thinks he has written and not for his physical allure. Guèze lets us see and hear that Christian gets it. Not only that, but realizing what an incredible friend Cyrano has been to him, he reciprocates as best he can, renouncing Roxane and urging Cyrano to claim her. Truly cavalier and very touching.

Worldliness gradually melts away from this story, but while it holds a grip, bass baritone Kyle Albertson as Comte de Guiche is its most malignant force, unctuous in his unwanted attentions toward Roxane and dangerous in his power over the cadets. On the lighter side, tenor Eric Johnston is the jovial baker poet Raguneau, so jolly that he escorts Roxane to the battlefield, momentarily turning the cadets’ grim situation into a block party.

Johnston comes by his enthusiasm naturally, for he played the same role in the same costume at the premiere of Cyrano a decade ago. He, Uzan, Mercurio, and DiChiera are all affirmations that this work is still alive, well, and continuing to evolve. This emotionally satisfying Opera Carolina production affirms that DiChiera’s Cyrano is well worthy of more life and wider exposure.