Singers, CSO deliver thrilling 'Tosca'

James Conlon
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

Riccardo Muti may claim the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as his prized operatic "pit band" during the downtown season, but the privilege of employing the orchestra in concert guise during the Ravinia season reverts to its summer music director, James Conlon. These Conlon-led opera performances are invariably among the highlights of the hot-weather months here, giving the CSO a chance to kick back in repertory it doesn't get to play very often.

So it was on a muggy Saturday night at Ravinia, where a huge crowd turned out to hear Puccini's ever-popular melodrama "Tosca," in what my British colleagues would call a jolly good sing. It could hardly have been otherwise, given the A-list principals the festival enlisted for the occasion, including Metropolitan Opera stars Patricia Racette as the titular diva, Salvatore Licitra as her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, and Bryn Terfel as their police-chief nemesis, Baron Scarpia.

Conlon, who is never more fully engaged than when conducting opera, drew a vivid, high-powered reading from his singers, choruses and the CSO. You could see and feel the orchestra relishing its rare opportunity to moonlight in one of Puccini's great scores.

Because this was strictly a concert "Tosca," dramatic verisimilitude went out the window. The male soloists sported uncomfortable-looking formal wear while Racette modeled a succession of diaphanous gowns. There was no attempt at staging, no knifing, no firing squad, no suicide, just singers assuming their places behind microphones at the stage apron.

At one point, I half-imagined our heroine grabbing the baton from Conlon and running through Scarpia with it. Fortunately Racette and Terfel are intelligent singing actors and experienced stage animals. Between them they generated more than enough sizzle to carry the deadly cat-and-mouse game between Tosca and Scarpia on purely vocal terms.

If any single artist dominated the evening, it was Terfel. The Welsh bass-baritone, a giant of a man with a rich, robust voice he unfurled generously on Saturday, has been conspicuously missing in action at Lyric Opera, where he last appeared as Don Giovanni way back in 2004. The Met's new Wotan makes a fascinating Puccini villain, and Ravinia's video screens conveyed nuances of gesture and facial expression you would miss in the theater — Scarpia's contemptuous sneer, piercing glance, the amused flick of his fingers with which the sadistic baron ordered his henchmen to resume their enhanced interrogation of Cavaradossi.

It's good news that Terfel will be back in Ravinia's Martin Theatre on Tuesday night for a song recital vocal connoisseurs won't want to miss.

Tosca is a relatively new assumption for Racette. The curiously underrated American soprano commands the right vocal heft, weight and color for the role, even if her big, vibrant sound turned a bit squally on top Saturday. This intelligent artist gives her all to every performance, and this was no exception. The soaring phrases of "Vissi d'arte" boasted a seamless legato and touching expressivity: the cri de coeur of a great diva and devout woman at the end of her emotional tether. Racette conjured lyrical dreaminess for the scene in Act 3, during which Tosca envisions the happy new life she and Mario will share once they escape Rome.

Licitra's big breakthrough came in 2002, when he made his Met debut in the role of Cavaradossi as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti. Since then, he has made his name mainly in Verdi roles (under Muti and others) and is, in fact, due to return to the Lyric next season as Radames in "Aida." He was slow to warm vocally on Saturday, singing sharp and suffering constriction at the upper end of his range early on. But later on, the hero's impassioned cries of "Vittoria!" rang with clarion focus, while his bel canto phrasing in "E lucevan le stelle," as Mario recalled Tosca's embrace, did the job nicely. This marked the Italian tenor's Ravinia debut.

The supporting cast included several Lyric favorites, including Dale Travis' bumbling Sacristan and Ryan Center alum Rodell Rosel's bright-voiced Spoletta. Morris Robinson boomed mightily as Angelotti, as if it were a starring role. Jonathan Beyer sang Sciarrone, Yohan Yi the jailer, and Henry Griffin, an 11-year-old boy soprano from the Chicago Children's Choir, sang adorably as the shepherd boy. The Apollo Chorus of Chicago and the Chicago Children's Choir upheld their end of the proceedings with gusto.

Another great thing about this concert "Tosca" was that it put Puccini's masterful orchestral writing literally front and center.

Quiet music such as the closing pages of Act 2 and the symphonic evocation of dawn breaking over the Eternal City at the beginning of the third act came across more effectively than you almost ever hear in a staged production.

The audience went wild.