Music Review: ‘Tosca,’ With New York Grand Opera, in Central Park

June 29th, 2012

Richard Termine for The New York Times

Tosca, conducted by Vincent La Selva, with Claire Stadtmueller, far left, and Alejandro Olmedo, behind the firing squad,  in New York Grand Opera’s production in Central Park.

Opera isn’t cheap to produce, so it’s not easy to present free. A couple of years ago the Metropolitan Opera ended its longstanding tradition of offering, gratis, live performances of full operas in concert in city parks; it replaced them with recitals featuring rising singers.

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Yet at least one bastion of free, complete opera performances remains. For 39 years New York Grand Opera, led by its founder and conductor, Vincent La Selva, has put on fully staged performances of classic works.

The company’s greatest coup was an eight-year complete cycle of Verdi’s operas, a priceless gift to the city that wrapped up in 2001, but its work, and Mr. La Selva’s, continues. This season he has turned to operas far less esoteric than Verdi rarities like “Il Corsaro.” According to New York Grand Opera, 2012 is “a Puccini summer.”

On Wednesday, with perfect evening weather, Mr. La Selva conducted a scrappy but expertly paced “Tosca” at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. Albert Bergeret’s simple sets blended well with the neo-Classical half-dome of the band shell, lighted atmospherically (particularly in Act III) by Roberto Stivanello, who also directed a restrained, effective performance. Never luxurious, the production always let the melodic surges and pulpy brilliance of the opera shine through.

Tiny foibles are part of the game in outdoor opera with a modest budget. There were the candles that the wind blew out during Act II, as well as the moment in the Act I love duet when Tosca (Claire Stadtmueller), tapping Cavaradossi (Alejandro Olmedo) affectionately on the chest, inadvertently pounded his body microphone.

But even those little idiosyncrasies have great charm when they occur during a stirring opera on a gorgeous evening. And who would say no to the spectacle of Tosca chugging a bottle of water in the exposed backstage area?

Raemond Martin, singing with an insinuating, hooded baritone, was an imposing presence as Scarpia, all the more menacing for his reserve. Ms. Stadtmueller wavered on some notes but acted with affecting clarity; Mr. Olmedo muscled out big high notes.

There were rough patches in the orchestral performance but also some memorably polished ones. The brasses were excellent throughout, and small moments were treated with love, like the acute plucked strings after Scarpia orders that Cavaradossi be given a fake execution. At least Tosca thinks that it’s fake, but that’s another story.

New York Grand Opera performs Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” on July 18 at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park; (212) 245-8837, newyorkgrandopera.org.

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