There are both visible and invisible boundaries between the great musical genres. There’s the substance of difference, of course, between say symphony and opera, and then all the peripherals – who prefers what, and what people’s expectations are. Yannick Nézet-Séguin will have none of these. He has made a point of programming semi-staged opera with the Philadelphia Orchestra and this season it is the turn of that most stormy of Italian grand operas, Tosca.

Jennifer Rowley (Tosca) and Ambrogio Maestri (Scarpia) © Jessica Griffin | Philadelphia Orchestra
Jennifer Rowley (Tosca) and Ambrogio Maestri (Scarpia)
© Jessica Griffin | Philadelphia Orchestra

If there are drawbacks to this, there are, equally, certain advantages. We get a chance to experience the orchestra as a character itself, a closer context for the action, once it is no longer sunk in the pit. A bare-bones setting allows us to indulge in a kind of visual impressionism – a suggestion of locale and period, from which we can imagine, if we will, so much more. 

There were few drawbacks, in any case, in tonight’s resoundingly successful performance. Indeed, the traditional placing was replicated in its way, in that the singers were in the choir balcony, still elevated above the orchestra. But the difference was we got to see and hear their rapport with the orchestra with much greater intimacy. Its playing under Nézet Séguin was captivatingly pacy, passionate and excitingly volatile. The orchestra was truly a living, breathing character – or all the characters at once or by turns. It certainly wasn’t a mere onlooker of the drama.

This show is missing a diva, as Scarpia says in Act 2. It happens. Sonya Yoncheva had to withdraw due to illness, and was replaced by Jennifer Rowley, who made a suitably volatile diva, all petty jealousies, tempestuous outbursts and coy pieties in Act 1, (the comedy of the sexes was played to good effect), and in a very different way, tempestuous and passionate in the second and third acts, as avenger, lover and victim. I particularly liked the orchestra’s relationship with her voice: the gusts and the swells of sound seemed marvelously matched. There was powerful theatre between her and Ambrogio Maestri’s Scarpia, including a culminating scream. Tosca’s score often seems to break through from music proper into places where violence seems to violate the score. That danger was never far from the surface tonight.

Yusif Eyvazov (Cavaradossi) © Jessica Griffin | Philadelphia Orchestra
Yusif Eyvazov (Cavaradossi)
© Jessica Griffin | Philadelphia Orchestra

Yusif Eyvazov made for a magnificent Cavardossi, the slightly rakish, charming painter. And oh my goodness, his voice – that ample generosity of tone, the fully enunciated Italian vowels, those powerfully sustained high notes were all remarkable. But there was something more too, the depth of death-defying passion in his arias, “Recondita armonia” and especially “E lucevan le stelle”. The catch of his voice as love (and hopelessness) overwhelmed him was moving to hear. It may be melodrama, but there’s a reason why it gets to an audience every time; for moments, you lose your critical reflection and are wrapped up in the glories of the human voice (and the passions of the human condition).

Maestri was a massive physical presence as Scarpia and, despite not always showing off the full of his vocal heft tonight, his was a mesmerizing presence at the end of Act  1, abrogating to himself divine powers, juxtaposed against the prayers of the choir boys. Milton’s Satan came to mind – evil be thou my God. To confirm the blasphemy, a large thurible descended from above the auditorium, at which he clearly spat towards at the end. It was a shiveringly macabre moment. But along with the macabre and the tragic, there was no stinting on comic relief. Kevin Burdette was a delightful comic presence as the eternally officious, eternally inefficient, alcohol-swilling Sacristan.

<i>Te Deum</i> © Jessica Griffin | Philadelphia Orchestra
Te Deum
© Jessica Griffin | Philadelphia Orchestra

A Georgia-based production company Symphony V which ‘concertizes’ productions for orchestras assisted Designer and Stage Director, James Alexander and Light Designer, Jon Weir, in bringing their production to stage. I really liked the staging – it’s amazing how a choir balcony suits so perfectly as a church, a tribunal, and a place of execution. You can dust down the railings, as the Sacristan showed us; or hang to them as the lovers do – but not jump over them, it would seem – Tosca made her death exit up the stairs, led into eternity by the nice little shepherd boy from the opening of Act 3. Oh well. 

The lighting, which often was focused in two rectangular shapes flanking the balcony, was somewhat lurid, but no matter, it kept things simply schematic. What I did find a distraction was the kaleidoscope of images on a rolled down sheet screen, in the very last few bars – there was some eyes (Scarpia’s?), a gilded church interior, a manuscript (red ink or blood?), Puccini himself, and so on. Confusing and unecessary, just when we wanted luxuriate in orchestra taking us to the end of a superb performance.