The Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras' annual semi-staged opera, Puccini's "Tosca," was really more like a fully-staged production with an added bonus: an on-stage orchestra of talented young musicians. The limited stage space, which did not seem to impede the singers in the slightest, was a fair trade-off to see the Boston Youth Symphony at work.
To compensate for lost stage-space, the drama sometimes spilled over the stage and into the theater, namely during the immersive "Te Deum," in which the chorus filed in towards the stage from the theater's many aisles. This staging gave some of the hardest work to conductor Federico Cortese, who juggled admirably between the orchestra before him and the singers behind.
The opera's cast was all around strong, but the action was grounded primarily by Kristopher Irmiter's dynamic Scarpia. Irmiter, who generously took on the performance despite illness, did not sing the typical barking tyrant, but a more persuasive and cunning villain. His elegant singing was bitterly mocking and made his harsher outbursts all the more menacing by contrast.
Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin, in the title role, fed off of Irmiter's magnetic and energizing stage presence. During the opening scenes of Act I, Baldwin's clear tone seemed almost too sweet for Floria Tosca, but midway through Act II, the fiery diva had emerged. Despite a tendency to overshoot her high notes, Baldwin maintained the overarching dramatic flow with her powerhouse of a voice and emotionally drenched phrases during her Act II duets.
A much subtler demeanor characterized Yeghishe Manucharyan's rendition of Mario Cavaradossi and his accented, though unquestionably beautiful voice. His smooth, honeyed tenor lacked Mario's usual ardor and possessed instead a steady and contemplative quality. This pensiveness was particularly poignant during Manucharyan's solemn rendition of "E Lucevan Le Stelle." Through his final moments, Manucharyan played Cavaradossi as a man aware of his fate and sang his words of comfort to Tosca with an underlying sadness.
Tenor Neal Ferreira made a lasting impression in the brief role of Scarpia's spineless henchman, Spoletta. His gloating presence was appropriately loathsome and his sound bright and alert. The Handel and Haydn Society Chorus and the chipper Boston Children's Chorus played their short, but memorable roles skillfully.
Even with the best cast of singers, Puccini's "Tosca" would not have flowed without the Boston Youth Symphony's full-bodied sound. They filled out Puccini's luscious harmonies with the facility of a professional orchestra and, along with Cortese and their fellow musicians on stage, navigated neatly through the musical and logistical challenges for an afternoon of breathtaking music and passion.