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Review: American Soprano Jennifer Rowley Conquers Tosca at Met Opera

Fall Preview classical music

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, January 15, 2018

Up and coming American soprano Jennifer Rowley has boldly claimed for herself a new, career-changing role. Puccini’s Tosca is a monumental climb for a soprano, a career-defining mountain if, perhaps, not the toughest vocal peak. The opera greats, including Callas, have used the role to cement a career. Rowley, taking on the role at the Metropolitan Opera House for a night between Met favorites Sonya Yoncheva and opera superstar Anna Netrebko, becomes not a soprano to watch, but a soprano to see.

Jennifer Rowley as Roxane and Roberto Alagna as Cyrano in ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ at the Metropolitan Opera; photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Rowley received solid reviews for last season’s debut as Roxanne in the Met’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Appearing as Tosca for one night this season in a run between performances by Yoncheva and Netrebko, speaks impressively to the singer’s daring as she appears in the Metropolitan Opera’s sumptuous new production shrewdly directed by Sir David McVicar.

David McVicar’s ‘Tosca,’

David McVicar’s ‘Tosca,’ set design by John Macfarlane; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera Company.

The Met’s ill-received, abstract 2009 production was roundly booed at its premiere, and eventually Peter Gelb publicly acknowledged it as a mis-step. In a gesture of conciliation, John Macfarlane’s new set design returns to a conservative approach. The large, realistic sets are not as grandiose as Zeffirelli’s. But they provide gorgeous environs for Puccini’s earthy, tuneful score. The effect is like being immersed in the detailed chiaroscuro of a Romantic oil painting.

Backstage drama threatened to upstage the production with a parade of withdrawals. Maestro Emmanuel Villaume replaced MeToo victim James Levine, assuredly and, perhaps more appropriately conducing this work that speaks to brazen sexual predation. This, not surprising given his recent work with New York City Opera’s La Fanciulla del West.  Villaume worked hard to infuse the Met Orchestra’s already rich score reading – admittedly, a perfect, thrilling ensemble performance, every solo exquisitely played, each texture as refined as ever.

Occasionally, vibrant singers brought vivid, fresh energy. Villaume managed the resulting, exciting tension with aplomb.

As Sacristan, a honey-toned Patrick Carfizzi sounded splendid with tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi in the opening, where Puccini’s sublime combination of sweeping ruminative, everyday patter, sets the tone so ominously.

Vittorio Grigolo in Met Opera's 'Tosca;'

Vittorio Grigolo in Met Opera’s ‘Tosca;’ photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Then, Grigolo’s “Recondita armonia” took flight, and brushed gently against the hairs of the audience like an ingratiating breeze. Rowley and Grigolo’s first act duet “Qual occhio al mondo” bristled with the impetuous energy of jealous, young love.

The role of Tosca is a career maker. It is a stepping stone. It is a role that requires, for modern sensibilities, a youthful performer, whose innocence can still be spoiled and whose raw emotions can believably bubble over like a teenager. And it requires a big soprano voice.

Jennifer Rowley is a singer ready to tackle the role. She exhilarates as a precocious young diva experiencing intense love, betrayal, and terrifying choices.

And thankfully, Rowley has the role in her voice – and then some. Her magnificent instrument has clamorous outer reaches. But her voice’s extreme emotive possibilities will temper with experience.

I, for one, am excited to see Rowley develop as an artist. She is an artist of abundant vocal talent, intelligent technique, and something rare in opera – fearless theatricality.

As Scarpia, Zeljko Lucic has a menacing legato that helps him with the intimidating Scarpia, although the language slides by so smoothly in his singing, it can get lost in this house. Still, the second act titillated from suspenseful start to finish. Rowley’s heartbreaking “Vissi d’arte” dripped with emotion, stopping the show.

Željko Lučić and Sonya Yoncheva in Met Opera's 'Tosca;

Željko Lučić and Sonya Yoncheva in Met Opera’s ‘Tosca;’ photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Grigolo’s third act aria “O dolci mani” was sweet without being cloying, but the tone of the third act in this production, perhaps seeking realistic urgency over stodgy artfulness, does not help elevate Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” from the relative absurdity of its final plot points. Tosca, giving acting notes to her doomed lover as the execution squad closes in, certainly within earshot (as staged here), strains credulity.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley,

Soprano Jennifer Rowley, who made her Metropolitan Opera role debut as Tosca this week; photo: Matthew Hill.

But, never mind. this entertaining production of Tosca keeps the audience in the palm of its hand. With exciting voices like these on the roster, it might represent the best approach to new productions of the repertoire’s warhorses. Appease the eyes and ears of older audiences, but keep the energy current and vibrant enough to excite, and properly exhibit, the new generation.

ZEALnyc reviews the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Tosca here.

Click here for ZEALnyc’s complete list of New York City classical music performances.

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Cover: Jennifer Rowley; photo: Catherine Pisaroni.


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