Saturday, March 12, 2016

Opera Gangsters in Bushwick

Puccini’s Tosca
Bushwick, Brooklyn
March 10, 2015

Cannot miss O P E R A in Bushwick
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
In usual LoftOpera fashion, we got off a subway stop in deep Brooklyn and walked our way through a far west of abandoned warehouses, decrepit storefronts and shady dealings in parked cars. We knew we were close when we saw yellow cabs (definitely Manhattanites) dropping off patrons in front of an unassuming and unmarked entrance. There were groups of people gathering around and buzzing... about a five letter sign that read “O P E R A” in bright lights, under a clutter of graffiti. We were definitely there. Charming and bubbly LoftOpera General Manager Brianna Maury welcomed every single patron at the door with a smile, a one-page program and a paper clip – to trade for a free drink at the bar.

Castel Sant'Angelo
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The space was a huge white-walled raw loft, a converted former Chinatown bus workshop. A scaffolding structure holding a huge winged statue (Castel Sant’Angelo anyone?) lead the way to the rectangular “stage,” framed by two corner walls and facing rows of benches on the other two sides. We got there 30 minutes before start time and it was almost impossible to find a seat, as the over 100 mostly under-30 crowd had already firmly settled in, swilling their beers and chatting idly. Not to worry, though, one can always plop down on the floor, front row, where all the juicy action is anyway – you may even get hit by a squirt of Scarpia’s blood.

There was an electric party vibe and a sense of anticipation in the air. And then, the lights dimmed, silence fell and the 33-member roaring orchestra lead by Dean Buck erupted into the sweeping, action-packed overture of Puccini’s Tosca. LoftOpera may be unassuming and relaxed but their craft is dead serious and top quality. The Tosca cast had impeccable Italian and was strong across the board, both vocally and acting-wise; the direction was contemporary yet faithful to the story and the libretto.
The loving couple
Photo credit: Charles Kessler
Tenor Dane Suarez as Cavaradossi displayed a handsome, full voice. His is a warm and robust tenore spinto. Suarez’s Recondita armonia in Act I was beautiful, soaring, and moving. He brought down the house (and moved me to tears) with E lucevan le stelle in Act III, rendering the magic of the pure earth-shaking lyricism of a man deeply in love about to die. Soprano Carolina Castells was the heroine of the dark drama. Her interpretation of Tosca was intensely fierce. The Santuzza-like fits of jealousy she threw amidst the love duets that punctuate Act I were charming, but she really knocked it out of the park in Act II. Fearlessly stripping down to her skivvies, she offers herself to the corrupt Scarpia only to then deliver a most gut-wrenching Vissi d’arte (as she convincingly stabs the villain with his own steak knife). Her soprano is earthy and powerful and her acting talents superb. Baritone Kevin Wetzel as the villain Scarpia was appropriately snarly, rendering his character with a threatening viscerality that I think it’s still haunting some of the public in the first rows.
Things get Tarantino-esque
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Bass Joseph Beutel delivered the fugitive Angelotti with a deep sense of urgency that left me wanting to hear more from him, though he exits the scene early in the action. Baritone Stefanos Koroneos was a convincing Sacristan, displaying the right comic touch without mugging or overdoing it. Tenor Jordan Pitts as Scarpia’s sidekick Spoletta had charismatic stage presence and a handsome confident voice. Finally, the 14-member chorus did an amazing job with the Te Deum at the end of Act I, and Eric Schuett was an enchanting shepherd. While playing with toy soldiers in the opening of Act III, the boy soprano delivered the lyrical lullaby Io de’ sospiri with an ethereal otherworldliness.  
Yes, the action is that close to the public
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The sets were simple, really two white walls, and a handful of props: a Mary Magdalene mural and lots of votive candles for Act I, a long sleek white dining table in Act II (doubling as the platform for the attempted rape and subsequent murder), a vintage school desk in Act III. Overall, Raymond Zilberberg’s direction took us to a place somewhere between the neorealism of Rossellini (Tosca reminded me of Anna Magnani in Roma Città Aperta, particularly in the finale) and Tarantino’s splatter-noir (replete with blood, guns and gangsters).

Cavaradossi right before the torture
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
There were nice touches, some more intentional than others. Cavaradosssi swiped through Floria Tosca’s pictures on his iPhone while singing Recondita armonia, a real water faucet was used by both Angelotti and Tosca to wash out blood from their hands. And last but not least, the rumble of trucks or motorcycles passing outside the venue during Act III did not bother, rather, it heightened the intensity of the last scenes of the opera in a way that I can only describe as cinematic.  

A Tosca with a touch of neo-realism
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
LoftOpera treated Tosca as if it was the hottest new thing on the indie scene, never performed before, or, at least, never in front of an audience like this. In fact, the show’s program, instead of the usual detailed account of the whole plot, presents just a broad summary of the setting and the action, without any spoilers. It actually worked: the public may not have known or cared about the nuances of the arias but the sense of discovery was palpable, as they followed the action of the plot like their life depended on it. They giggled at Tosca’s jealous fits, cheered enthusiastically when she sunk her knife into evil Scarpia’s chest, gasped at the tragic finale. And this is what opera is all about. The most emotionally gripping, gut-stirring story-telling through music. LoftOpera gets over a hundred people to a raw warehouse space in the middle of Bushwick and they all sit in rapt religious silence through a three act Puccini opera (well, there’s the occasional beer bottle tipping but that’s part of the local soundscape). Their events are cool, sexy and unassuming to the extreme. Opera is old and stuffy? Throw some free beers at it, let people sit on the floor and have the gorgeous music do the rest. All you need are a few walls, great performers and smart direction.

As we walked out singing raucously Cavaradossi’s climactic aria, E lucevan le stelle (dolci baci e languide carezeeeee…. Muoio disperatoooooo…..non ho amato mai tanto la vitaaaaaa!!!!), behind us other happy patrons were also humming bits and pieces of the Puccini score and talking enthusiastically about the show. Because, yes, opera is grand, emotionally infectious and timeless. In the right setting, today’s generations still get it, love it and will come back for more. Next up in LoftOpera’s 2016 season are Rossini’s Le Comte Ory (June), Mozart’s Così fan tutte (September) and Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny (December). There’s a lot to look forward to!

- Lei & Lui
Logo design: Doug Smith at Penmanships
Orchestra led by Dean Buck
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco 
Scarpia's dining table
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

1 comment:

  1. It was a truly amazing production! As an FYI, the Shepherd Boy was played by Erich Schuett -