City Opera, With an Originalist Tosca, Rises From Its Deathbed

James Valenti as Mario Cavaradossi and Kristin Sampson as Tosca in the new City Opera's Tosca. Photo: Sarah Shatz

Maybe I shouldn’t make too much of this, but New York City Opera is attempting to resurrect itself with an opera about a botched resurrection. NYCO Renaissance, an entity created by the hedge-fund manager Roy Niederhoffer and the director and producer Michael Capasso, recently won the right to take over the defunct company’s name (and debts). Now it hopes that a six-performance run of Puccini’s Tosca can do onstage what its lawyers accomplished in court. 

Throwbacks abound. City Opera launched in 1944 with the same Puccini opera. This production re-creates the work’s 1900 premiere in Rome, right down to Tosca’s wide-brimmed hat and walking stick. The original, too, was a throwback, a Beaux-Arts invocation of Napoleonic Rome. This revival, in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, is a long-simmering nostalgia stew, with hints of Fiorello La Guardia’s New York. (The production makes one unfortunate concession to the passage of time: The top ticket price is $160; in 1944 it was $2.20, or $30 today.)

The first performance reminded me of City Opera on one of its less-than-glorious nights: light on nuance, heavy on the beat, with singing that toggled between exciting and ragged, the whole thing shot through with invigorating sincerity. The baritone Michael Chioldi* held the three acts together from the middle, singing Scarpia’s Act II efflorescence of evil with a gusto that left his fellow cast members sounding pale. Tenor James Valenti had a rich middle register but looked alarmed every time a high note came barreling toward him, making Cavaradossi come off as even more plangent than usual. Soprano Kristin Sampson, perhaps worried that she wouldn’t be heard, sang with more steel than tenderness. (A different cast alternates performances, starting tonight.) Reproducing Adolf Hohenstein’s painted flats from 116 years ago proved a self-defeating conceit, since the result looked antique without being classic. 

Still, I appreciate every one of those faults, because I prefer an imperfect beginning to a spectacular one-off. New York is still feeling City Opera’s loss, which no amount of Metropolitan Opera Live in HD screenings or miniature chamber-music dramas can compensate for. We’re missing out on young singers, on grand-but-not-bloated opera, on a nimble sensibility combined with defiant ambition. 

And so, in the final minutes, when Tosca kept shaking Cavaradossi’s body in vain, willing him to rise, I hoped along with her. If this were a movie moment, the show would be revelatory and the company’s future foregone. In real life, it’s a tentative first step. Now there’s money to be raised, theaters to rent, casts to wrangle, and an artistic vision to shape. And then there’s the task of winning over all the pessimists who believe that their beloved company was definitely killed off in 2013 and that this new version is just a zombie pretender. When Cavaradossi stays dead, Tosca hops up to the castle parapet to hurl herself into the moat; the new New York City Opera has a steeper climb, hopefully to a happier outcome.

Tosca is at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center through January 24.

*The reference to Michael Chioldi has been corrected.