New York City Opera has officially launched its “renaissance” at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater last night with a production of Puccini’s Tosca that should please a lot of older, conservative audiences, if not the adventurous operagoers that City Opera courted in the past. 

The show heralds the company’s rebirth in the wake of widely reported financial difficulty; with the help of its reboot team, NYCO Renaissance, this production appears to take the old Renaissance notion of Ad fontes (“back to the sources”) quite literally. In a nostalgic move, the company has decided to stage the same work that commenced its very first season in 1944.

And to summon more ghosts, this Tosca, directed by Lev Pugliese and playing at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center through January 24, is notable for recreating the original fin-de-siècle designs and costume sketches of Adolfo Hohenstein. (They are lovingly revived here by John Farrell and Ildikó Debreczeni.)

The result is a pleasant, if somewhat prudish and circumspect Tosca, a Tosca for the museum: lovely, sure, but lacking in danger. As if still reeling from turbulence in the company’s recent history, the title heroine is assigned a walking stick in the first act. (I kept waiting for her to declaim, “You will not pass!” or “Let my people go!”) This safety-net production invited me to peer back through time to an age of opera performance unthreatened by the vulgarity of Regietheater.

Let’s be honest: this is not necessarily a bad thing.

But what kind of message is NYCO sending through such overt insistence on classical production values? Is the show entertaining? Yes, but mainly as a novelty reckoning of the past—like all those quaint retrospective shows on VH1. Does it challenge operagoers, revealing latent aspects in the music, drama, and lurid subject matter? No, not really.

With a New York scene hip to classical music’s edgy, futuristic potential (Loft Opera and Beth Morrison Projects, anyone?), there is something fetishistic in such rigid, canonical reverence for the past. However ham-handedly, even the Met is reaching toward the future.

Against this cityscape, NYCO Renaissance makes a very confusing statement with its 1900s Tosca throwback, a statement that may raise important questions about the state of the art form itself. What does it mean to be “the people’s opera”? Does “renaissance” imply “relic?” Why a walking stick? And, in what kind of opera-going community is a daguerreotype production of Tosca enough?

Beyond this ambivalence, one is left with the music—and what glorious music it is. The orchestra, under the direction of Pacien Mazzagatti, was superb: at turns aggressive and supple. The singing, at least at this performance, was somewhat less consistent. As Floria Tosca, soprano Kristin Sampson was exciting, if at times thrillingly unhinged. In certain key passages, she managed to enact Tosca’s fear, desperation, and ferocity with an admirable abandon.

As her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, James Valenti certainly looked sexy (hipster moustache included), but failed to sing beautifully throughout: his sound was rich in the middle, almost baritonal, but strained and precarious above the passaggio.

Yet the real star of the evening was Michael Chioldi as Scarpia. Vocally commanding, he was able to expand the role beyond the one-dimensional villain archetype, avoiding cliché and overacting. His Scarpia was both frightening and pathetic, and I’m pleased to report that he successfully melded religious apostasy with sexual surrender.

But such reasons to recommend the production were colored by the acute ghostliness of the evening’s proceedings, I’m afraid. In a recent article on political correctness in Opera News, Philip Kennicott writes, “opera is a complex, historic art form, with its own arcane formal language. Rather than think of it as entertainment, it makes more sense to conceive of it as a vast archive of emotional, historical, social and theatrical data.”

If I were to take Kennicott at his word, then New York City Opera Renaissance’s production of Tosca is an unqualified success—an archive for the past, a repository of what has gone before; let us bow and worship. But, there is an eerie quality to the archives, no? Archives always lead one back to the grave. Regarding NYCO Renaissance, is a retro Tosca the way to live?

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