Before the full ensemble of musicians took the stage to perform last Saturday, Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra president Gabriel B. Walker ’13 welcomed the audience and remarked that the night’s presentation of Acts II and III of Puccini’s “Tosca” was a first for his group. The orchestra had never performed two acts of an opera before, let alone with a trio of professional singers supported by student singers filling the other roles. Despite a few issues of tone and sound balance, the concert was a resonding success due to the interplay between the singers and orchestra.
“Tosca” is one of the most frequently performed operas by the popular early 20th-century Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. It tells the tragic story of painter Mario Cavaradossi (Brian Landry) and celebrated singer Floria Tosca (Kate Mangiameli) two lovers in 19th-century Rome. Their romance becomes complicated when Cavaradossi’s dissident political leanings make him a target of Baron Scarpia (Jake Gardner), the ruthless Roman chief of police. The lyrics to “Tosca” are all in Italian, which can make it challenging for an English-speaking audience to appreciate the story. However, the HRO employed a simple solution to this problem by projecting a superscript translation on a screen above the stage as the opera progressed
The singers’ expressive interpretation of Puccini’s songs and arias were a highlight of the performance. Gardner conveyed the duplicitous character of Scarpia through nuanced vocal expression, using a commanding voice while interrogating Cavaradossi and switching to a gentler cadence while attempting to charm Tosca later in the act. Mangiameli’s physical communication beautifully supported her voice. She casts a knowing smile when she informs Mario of her plan to help him escape Rome’s most notorious prison, the Castel Sant’Angelo, and this says more about her cunning than the libretto alone could allow. Landry was captivating as he sang, “E lucevan le stelle.” However, his voice was both a strength and a weakness. For instance, at one point in the opera, Cavaradossi learns that the royalist regime has lost a major battle and exclaims triumphantly “vittoria!” These defiant cries of victory were sung with great gusto by Landry but were a bit sharp in pitch.
The orchestra was effective in establishing the mood of different scenes in the performance and heightening the drama. During times of tension between characters, such as Scarpia’s attempts to proposition Tosca, the strings played a sustained and suspenseful note. Incidences of violence were heralded by a timely crash of a cymbal. Given that there was no backdrop, the harp and flutes enabled the audience to envision a pleasant vista when the windows in Scarpia’s quarters were opened. The instrumentalists worked to complement the singers by matching the vocalists’ crescendos and decrescendos. They were effective in doing so most of the time, but there were a few dramatic moments, such as when Tosca is forced to listen Cavaradossi being tortured, during which the orchestra became so loud and powerful that it was impossible to make out the words the vocalists were singing.
The performance was not entirely devoted to “Tosca.” Before Act II of the opera, five percussionists, each wearing false mustaches, performed a piece called “Head Talk” by Mark Ford. In it, the five wandered on stage, found several percussion instruments strewn about the floor, and gingerly picked them up and began constructing increasingly complex rhythms. “Head Case” had a distinctively whimsical character, not only because of the mustaches but also because of some gags in the routine. One memorable bit involved one percussionist who would watch the others play for a while, then attempt to join in, only for the others to stop playing and glare with disapproval. As a standalone piece it was entertaining, but it was somewhat odd to witness such a lighthearted work in the same sitting as the tragedy of “Tosca.” The few hitches in “Tosca” involving the balance of the orchestra and the singers and the brief errors in pitch ultimately did not undermine the successes of the night. The impassioned vocal performances with the support of the vivid orchestral accompaniment made for a strong concert. This sort of operatic presentation may not be something that the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra does often, but based on Saturday’s concert it is something they ought to consider doing again.