While the Metropolitan Opera was staging Puccini’s Tosca at Lincoln Center, to predictably glowing reviews, a smaller company put up its own modest and arguably more daring production on the other side of town. The upstart Heartbeat Opera did an impressive reimagining of Beethoven’s Fidelio last year, putting it in the current day and in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. This season, they’ve sought to bring new relevance to Puccini, placing his tragic opera about an opera singer in a land where women have been banned from singing. 

Anush Avetisyan (Tosca) and Chad Kranak (Cavaradossi)
© Russ Rowland

The Armenia-born soprano Anush Avetisyan shone in the title role, conjuring convincing chemistry with Chad Kranak as Cavaradossi (or “actor playing Cavaradossi”, as the meta-billing for all the characters had it) and to the other extreme Gustavo Feulien’s Scarpia, and was almost startling in the power of her voice. 

The small but fierce octet-orchestra under Jacob Ashworth delivered Daniel Schlosberg’s arrangements with a wallop. Slight dissonances raised the tension. Clyde Daley’s muted trumpet solos gave an unexpected jazzy touch and bassist Milad Daniari doubling on the stringed kamancheh helped bring the scene into the Middle East, although for the most part the story remained in its native Rome, and a bit confusingly so. 

Gustavo Feulien (Scarpia)
© Russ Rowland

The show opened with edicts onscreen about women keeping their heads covered (as, indeed, the women in the orchestra did) and moral codes being observed. Supertitles were projected in English and Farsi. It was an imagined production being presented in Tehran and not a statement so much as an unasked question. The question not being asked wasn’t entirely clear, however, and Tosca, ultimately, got lost in its travels. 

It came somewhat together in the end with a sort of fourth wall takedown – not the wall between the stage and the audience but the one behind the players, revealing the Tehran skyline. But ultimately, it wasn't set in Tehran, it just could have been, as if it were a proof of concept, and to that extent a convincing one. 

Chad Kranak (Cavaradossi) and ensemble
© Russ Rowland

But criticism is easy and context is everything. It’s only been seven months since 22-year-old Masha Amini was arrested in Tehran for not wearing a hijab and subsequently died in police custody. Director Shadi G (who adapted the Puccini’s opera with Heartbeat’s artistic director, Jacob Ashworth) is from Tehran, and doesn’t use her full name out of fear of reprisal against her family. Heartbeat’s Tosca is bold and imperfect. To be fair, Puccini’s opera has never been accused of making too much sense to begin with.