BWW Review: An Opera Grows in Brooklyn, Part I - LoftOpera Takes on TOSCA

Eleni Calenos as Floria Tosca and Gustavo Feulien as
Baron Scarpia in LoftOpera's TOSCA. Photo: Robert Altman

On the surface, LoftOpera and Regina Opera couldn't be more different--the former turning away hipsters in East Williamsburg (call it Bushwick), the latter providing a matinees-only environment for a family audience. But these two Brooklyn institutions do have one important thing in common: They respect the classics (TOSCA and LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, respectively)--do them up simply and well, and reach their audiences without gimmicks (or high prices). And, I found, their performances were more enjoyable than recent big-name outings of the same titles in New York, with performers who stood up well against better known names.

LoftOpera, about three years old, is a darling of hip opera lovers of all ages in New York, as well as the mainline media, and its recent performances of Puccini's TOSCA make it easy to see why. Reaching the former truck repair facility on Randolph Street that serves as their current home, I walked through empty streets from the Morgan Avenue stop on the L train that reminded me of the Little-Vavrek apocalyptic opera DOG DAYS. But it didn't stop anyone from finding the place--and I heard that they were squeezing in extra walk-ins just a few days later.

The company performed in street clothes, in an unfussy production directed by Raymond Zilberberg with a game cast that put the emphasis on the art of singing--with a couple of pretty impressive performances that left the audience rapt. Most notable was soprano Eleni Calenos who embodied the petty jealousies of diva Floria Tosca without detracting from the opera itself. Her soaring voice and compelling acting provided thrills that left the audience cheering. I'm not quite sure why she sang "Vissi d'arte" kneeling on a table top--the floor was admittedly a bit moist and rough-hewn--but she pulled it off effortlessly.

Calenos was well paired with the sadistic Scarpia of baritone Gustavo Feulien, his rich voice growing in intensity as he demanded that the beating of Cavaradossi (tenor James Chamberlain) become "piu forte" (harder). There was real chemistry between this Scarpia and Tosca, one of the few instances when one wondered whether these two might pair off. Chamberlain had his moments, but his burly, baritonal voice sounded like it might be better suited to TANNHAUSER than Puccini.

Jordan Pitts did well as a properly slimy Spoletta, one of Scarpia's henchmen (Joel Herold was the other). Joseph Beutel as Angelotti and Stefanos Koroneos as the Sacristan sounded fine but could have reined in the campiness. Erich Schuett was a standout as the Shepard Boy in the plaintive start to Act III.

The orchestra, under Dean Buck, had its ups and downs, understandable under the confines of limited rehearsals for a complex score. He nonetheless kept things moving along and, amazingly, worked the old building's acoustics to good effect, with the orchestra catty-cornered to the performing area.

The trappings of the opera, from set designer and executive producer Daniel Ellis-Ferris and lighting designer Joan Racho-Jansen, were pretty modest. (Two notable exceptions: a spectacular winged statue in the Castel Sant'Angelo scene that, unfortunately, was too big to take center stage, and the ingenious use of lighted, red Solo cups, which was a smart addition to the end of Act I.) That was the right idea, leaving the opera itself room to breathe and show the sturdiness of its musical foundations.

I kept wondering how they were going to handle the denouement--usually Tosca hurls herself from the top of Castel Sant'Angelo--and was genuinely surprised at the alternative universe that LoftOpera provided, in their attempt to create "a new culture that is still true to the art form... making opera affordable, interesting and new."

TOSCA has three more performances at 8 pm on March 17, 18 and 19.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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