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From Bulgaria, a 'Tosca' With Few High Notes

Monday, January 29, 2007

Puccini's "Tosca" embodies the essence of opera as melodrama. With murder, suicide and attempted rape, set against a powder keg of politics and religion, "Tosca" is a love story deliciously over the top. That's why it was once maligned as a "shabby little shocker." And that's also why it has proven irresistible for opera companies great and small for more than 100 years.

Yet some companies perhaps should resist. The Bulgarian State Opera's production of "Tosca," Friday at George Mason University, was mostly a disappointment.

Puccini's vivid score contains some of the composer's most aggressive and bittersweet music, including the show-stopping aria "Vissi d'arte." But much of the drama was marred by the Bulgarian orchestra's collective lack of intonation, highlighted by asthmatic winds and sour strings. Conductor Nayden Todorov's performance bounced along with little sympathy for the drama or his singers.

Soprano Galina Stoyanova's portrayal of the opera diva Tosca was surprisingly subdued. She opted for an evening-long pout and sounded comfortable only when the music sat in handsome middle register of her voice. Her lover, the left-wing painter Cavaradossi, was sung by tenor Martin Iliev, who was similarly reticent and struggled to land his highest notes.

The malevolent police chief Scarpia completes the tragic love triangle. The role is so rich with erotic smarm that a good Scarpia can easily steal the show, which is exactly what baritone Bisser Georgiev did. With aristocratic phrasing and muscular, focused tone, Georgiev's powerful seduction scenes in Act 2 were palpably intense.

The Bulgarians are touring four different operas. Perhaps this enterprising young troupe should scale down and return next year with a single polished production.

-- Tom Huizenga

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