Puccini’s Tosca is such brilliantly effective theater that opera companies could coast on the power of the music and plot and still produce a decent performance.
Florida Grand Opera did much more than this on opening night Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami, with terrific singing in the title role, inspired stage direction and another distinguished performance by the orchestra under conductor Ramón Tebar. Even cheap sets couldn’t undermine the evening’s success.
Although most people buying tickets for FGO are expecting more fantasy than reality, this performance of Puccini’s tale of love, courage and political repression in Rome during the Napoleonic wars offers opera at its most realistic. Under stage director José Maria Condemi, the acting was subtle, natural and convincing, with nothing like the stock, exaggerated gestures so often seen on the opera stage.
Many nice imaginative touches brought the work to life. In Act 1, Tosca flirtatiously seized one of her lover Cavaradossi's paintbrushes and ran off with it, refusing to give it up, as she interrogated him about the woman he was painting. And the physical interplay between Tosca and the villainous police chief Scarpia, as he approaches her menacingly in describing Cavaradossi’s torture, ramped up the intensity of this nerve-wracking scene.
Kara Shay Thomson’s soprano is so plush and sensuous that it must have taken some real restraint to deliver a performance of Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” that was so focused and on the money. But she did, singing in a chaste manner, with feathery high notes, sensitive phrasing and climactic notes that rang through the hall without overpowering the delicacy of the aria. Thomson let loose the richness of her voice in her Act 1 love scene with Cavaradossi, with fervent, ringing high notes. In her scene with Scarpia she was entirely convincing in her wails of pain at Cavaradossi’s torture.
As Cavaradossi, Rafael Davila’s tenor sounded a bit shaky at first but he quickly warmed into the role. Dry, tentative high notes marked his first act aria “Recondita armonia,” although he brought it off with feeling and commitment. His last-act aria “E lucevan le stelle again” showed high notes that lacked a clarion quality, but he convincingly put across the raw desperation of a man facing death. Davila was at his best in his duets with Tosca, where his warm voice married well with hers. As an actor, he communicated with a few nods a loving desire to make Tosca believe he trusted her scheme to rescue him, even if he didn’t really believe it himself.
An art form that features murderous dukes, evil dwarfs and more than one devil has produced few villains as loathsome as Baron Scarpia, the Roman police chief whose pursuit of an escaped political prisoner and desire for Tosca lead him to order the torture and execution of her lover.
Some singers portray Scarpia as an elegant society gentleman or a man with the mock geniality of a gangster boss. Not here. The baritone Todd Thomas’ grim, unsmiling portrait paints Scarpia as a twisted man pursuing a sexual obsession. In his church scene “Te Deum” — in which worshippers gather for a service while Scarpia describes his unholy plans for Tosca — Thomas’s repellent Scarpia fondled Tosca’s white handkerchief in a lascivious frenzy. The baritone’s voice wasn’t always refined, but his singing was menacing and intimidating and his stage presence made him a wholly convincing villain.
Unlike operas that take place in imagined settings, Tosca is set in three buildings that still exist in Rome today: the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle; the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Unfortunately, FGO’s sets from Seattle Opera were dull, tired-looking and low-budget, relying on painted backdrops of columns, windows and walls, with a few pieces of furniture in front.
Under music director Tebar, FGO’s orchestra seems incapable of turning in a bad performance these days. But even in that context, the orchestra’s work was outstanding Saturday, with ominous, atmospheric music in the second act, sensitive accompaniments that provided luster to arias without overpowering the singing, and consistently rich textures and a feeling for Puccini’s long phrases. Under Michael Sakir, the FGO chorus delivered a well-balanced performance.
As the Sacristan, Andrew Funk avoided the usual cheap laughs, instead showing a rich and authoritative bass and giving us a man motivated by pride of office in taking care of the church. Adam Lau was solid as the hunted Angelotti and Jason Ferrante showed the soul of a henchman as Scarpia’s servile assistant, Spoletta.