In Reimagined ‘Tosca,’ Grand Opera Is Shrunk To A Raw Cabaret Vibe

Anush Avetisyan sang the title role and Chad Kranak portrayed Cavaradossi in the Heartbeat Opera production of ‘Tosca.’ (Photos by Russ Rowland)

NEW YORK — Eight of the hardest-working people in New York City on April 11 were the members of Heartbeat Opera’s band at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, tasked with approximating Puccini’s lush orchestrations for Tosca. This was made far more challenging by the fact that arranger Daniel Schlosberg chose not to include any violins or violas.

I use the word “band” advisedly: The collection of three cellos, piano, flute/piccolo, French horn, muted trumpet, bass, and piano brought to the proceedings the rawness of cabaret music in pre-war Berlin. Under the baton of Heartbeat’s new artistic director, Jacob Ashworth, the musicians blew and bowed and banged their hearts out but did not sound like an orchestra. Most of the time, that seemed purposeful.

In accordance with Heartbeat’s mission statement, this was not a straight-up production of Tosca, but a rethinking. The concept — a production of Tosca is under threat by a modern-day dictatorial regime that deems it illegal — was described in a program reached via QR code. But this extraneous angle was presented so subtly onstage that those who hadn’t bothered to read about it might have missed it altogether. Still, the idea was a good one, since Tosca itself is about protecting an escaped political prisoner.

Joe Lodato as the escaped prisoner Angelotti and Chad Kranak as the painter-activist Cavaradossi

This co-adaptation by Ashworth and Shadi G, a director of Iranian heritage, has secret police lurking backstage and in the dark balconies, so they are barely seen by the audience. In her program note, Shadi G urges us to “Listen to what the actors’ eyes say” and “Pay attention to the unlit corners of the theater.” One might argue that if such urging is needed before seeing the production, the idea may be too minute for a big genre like live opera.

True, the first thing shown on the supertitle screen (which offered translations of the Italian into English and Farsi) was a list of rules of this not-so-fictional dystopian society, such as prohibiting women from revealing their hair or dancing alone. And at one point Tosca sang an added line about her hair showing. But basically, this was just Tosca, with the cast giving each other worried glances most of the way through. Even the sets (Reid Thompson) were standard, except for the fact that the huge Crucifixion painting in the church was askew, as if the building next door had been bombed.

The costumes by Mika Eubanks were initially as expected, but in Act II, Tosca showed up in a glittering cape and headscarf over black jeans and t-shirt. The audience was left to guess why. Did the thugs toss her dressing room? And if the police were already watching from the shadows, why didn’t they just burst in and stop the production of this supposedly banned work instead of letting it run nearly to its end?

It was a relief when the concept finally became overt at the end of the opera. Cavaradossi — now in sweats and a dirty t-shirt — was executed by the dictator’s men on the roof of the theater in which they’d performed Tosca. Just before she leapt from the building, Tosca pulled off her scarf, revealing her long hair in a sign of bitter triumph.

Gustavo Feulien, as Scarpia, “was an intriguing presence with a supple voice, allowing his character to slide craftily from charming to terrifying and back.”

The essentials of Puccini’s opera were all there, but the work had been slimmed down in length as well as instrumentation and number of singers. There was no chorus. Nor was there an intermission, at least not for the audience. Instead, we watched the cast set up Scarpia’s apartment while they sang a song (a folk song in Farsi, presumably) over and over. With all their moving on and off stage, they got so out of sync that the tune nearly lapped itself and turned into a round. One of the cellists grinned in spite of herself.

Artistic license aside, Tosca is nothing without a powerhouse soprano. They certainly had one in Anush Avetisyan, whose voice soared with passion and pulsed with darkness. While she and tenor Chad Kranak, as Cavaradossi, had believable romantic chemistry, their voices were not well matched. Kranak started out with a thin, nervous sound, but he came into his own in Act III, when it mattered most.

As Scarpia, Gustavo Feulien was an intriguing presence with a supple voice, allowing his character to slide craftily from charming to terrifying and back. And as Angelotti, the political prisoner, Joe Lodato offered a rich and sensitive baritone. It was thrilling to hear such full voices in the small Rose Nagelberg Theatre.

Although Ashworth’s leadership was always musically intelligent, the eight musicians were not always up to the challenges placed before them. There were frequent intonation problems, and some of the trickier passagework lacked clarity. The most distinctive sound in the orchestra was undoubtedly the muted trumpet; muting not only makes the sound quieter, but also gives it an eerie distortion. Trumpeter Clyde Daley often veered toward jazz as he swooped into his notes. It was a bizarre but fascinating effect in this context, somehow bringing what is usually ethereal music into the real, rough-and-tumble world.

“Cavaradossi — now in sweats and a dirty t-shirt — was executed by the dictator’s men on the roof of the theater in which they’d performed ‘Tosca.'”

The lack of Puccini’s orchestrations was most obvious during arias. There were affecting Puccini-substitute moments, as when the horn doubled the tenor in the Act I aria “Recondita armonia.” Declared Schlosburg in his program note, “My orchestration does not hide its gaps and holes.” Sometimes that worked. But then the single muted trumpet was expected to stand in for the obbligato clarinet and the gushing Puccini violins in “E lucevan le stelle,” and the loss was keenly felt.

The fact that the instrumentation was consistently more noticeable than the alternative dramatic context is a telling feature of this production. As a film, in which the camera could zoom in on frightened faces or a threatening presence offstage, the modern dystopian angle might be very effective. Before the final (modern) scene, Lodato sang a stirring poem (presumably in Farsi, since the surtitles in that language disappeared) that began “In the name of woman, in the name of life, there will be an end to this oppression.” He was accompanied by an Iranian bowed instrument called a kamancheh. Now that could have been an excellent starting point for its own opera, with no aid from Puccini.

Tosca is being presented in repertory with a creation called Lady M, adapted by Ashworth and Ethan Heard and directed by Emma Jaster. Originally subtitled “an online fantasia on Verdi’s Macbeth” when presented on Zoom in 2021, this reconstruction of the Shakespearean story features electronically manipulated instruments in a score arranged by Schlosberg.

Heartbeat Opera’s Tosca and Lady M continue through April 23. For tickets and information, go here.