The concessions we make for live opera: Tosca goes up at Northern Lights Music FestivalReview
The Northern Lights Music Festival produced the first opera with a live audience in the United States since March. After four months of isolation, I was ecstatic to see a live performance (with lots of precautions in place). I didn’t know how my musical and critical ear had fared over the past months - would I have to lower my expectations for “socially distanced open air opera”?
Absolutely not. The cast and crew of Northern Lights delivered an exciting performance-global pandemic regardless. Tosca played at The Minnesota Discovery Theater in Chisholm, Minnesota July 17 and 19.
First, the safety precautions: All groups in the audience were seated six feet apart (more than that in some cases) and every other row. There were cocktail tables with gallons of hand sanitizer, as if they were a vase of flowers. Only two hundred in the audience and all had masks. The string players were masked and wind instrumentalists staggered in plexiglass cubicles.
The orchestra was expertly led by Gavriel Heine, and the brass section exploded with energy in the infamous opening chords. As usual in opera, the first thing you see is the conductor bring the downbeat. As Mr. Heine began his enthusiastic conducting, I felt the thrill of in person music.
As Tosca, star soprano Leah Crocetto as Tosca was magnificent- the vocal line of this role shows off her impressive instrument. The difficulty of Tosca is her extreme jumping around the staff and her emotional characterization - typical of Puccini’s style. Even though I know the opera fairly well, her immediate and resonant access to the top of her range took me by surprise! (Rafael Davila sang Cavarodossi with steadiness. Daniel Sutin gave Scarpia a snarling physicality, I didn’t even notice the distance between him and Tosca during the climatic second act. Bravo to the three stars!
There were two intermissions, and the cast did their best to keep up energy throughout, as well as battle the relentless moths and mosquitos. The third act lagged a bit, but the final moments were dramatically and musically thrilling. This production was socially distanced in a few noticeable ways; no kissing, more stage cheating away from stage partners than usual, a small ensemble was masked and had recorded choir parts while moving around the stage, and the famous moment when Tosca kills Scarpia was with a gun, not a knife. The director forewent Tosca’s jumping off the top of Palazzo Farnese, to shoot herself in the head. Not to sound weird, but I actually liked that better. It was quite dramatic as Tosca fell on Mario’s body with the final chords, because ya know, Tosca isn’t dramatic enough already.
The production was directed by Chia Patino and was set in modern day Venezuela. Due to the venue I think the sets were limited, but I liked the costumes Ms. Crocetto wore. Honestly the most “COVID” moment of the night was the short love duet in the final act where Cavaradossi sensually unwrapped Tosca’s large scarf and they both held each end of the scarf while singing of their eternal love. Would it have satisfied the new levels of acting on the opera stage in non pandemic opera times? Probably not- but there were audible “awws” from the audience during the scene.
If these minor modifications are what is needed for live music to be presented to the public- I’m all for it. One thing I did notice about myself is I had a little trouble focusing over the two hours. Was this because of the open air amphitheater, said moths, or the fact that we all have just been watching YouTube/social media/Netflix constantly for the past four months? Mostly the latter. I haven’t gone more than two months without seeing a live opera for the past seven years, let alone any live music or theater. Think about it, even in grade school, we all saw live performances every few months with choir, band and theater class.
With no performances scheduled in the United States scheduled for the next six months will there still be an audience? I think so, and I hope so. Cautious performances like those put on by Northern Lights are essential to keeping the spirit of opera alive in the United States. Let us hope for more innovation and live music making in the coming months.