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‘Tosca’ hits home the old-fashioned way

October 16, 2012

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    October 16, 2012
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    Opera Carolina News

‘Tosca’ hits home the old-fashioned way

This is no disrespect, just fact: As a prime example of Italian opera at its blood-and-gutsiest, “Tosca” can nowadays look a little over-the-top. The proof is in the way Opera Carolina’s audience sometimes reacted to it Saturday. But if everyone gets swept up in Puccini’s music, “Tosca” grips them nevertheless.

The opening-night audience proved that, too. Yes, giggles bubbled up in the Belk Theater as the opera’s heroine, promptly on entering, took off on a jealous interrogation of her sweetheart simply because she heard an unseen someone’s footsteps as she approached. There were more chuckles as the evil police chief Scarpia, scheming to get his hands on Tosca, issued orders to an obsequious henchman.

But when Scarpia finally closed in on his prey, with Puccini’s thunder and melody driving home Scarpia’s blood lust and Tosca’s despair, the laughter had been driven away. Chalk up another one for “Tosca.”

Opera Carolina’s staging, directed by Jay Lesenger, goes at it the unabashedly old-fashioned way. The sets, dating back to the 1960s, are traditional and literal, from Act 1’s church to Act 3’s castle parapet. After Tosca saves herself by stabbing Scarpia, she places two candles and a crucifix with his lifeless body, obeying a Puccini instruction that some directors jettison. Before the killing, in a nod to history that may or may not have been intentional, Tosca and Scarpia almost exactly re-enact a famous photo of a spread-eagled Maria Callas portraying Tosca’s same sufferings.

The success of all that depends on a cast that can sell it. Opera Carolina has one.

Jill Gardner doesn’t always deliver Tosca’s outcries on pitch, but she embodies Tosca’s flirtatiousness, jealousy, warmth and desperation through her lively demeanor and substantial voice. As Tosca’s nemesis, Todd Thomas may not command voluminous tones, but the etched-in-acid impact of his singing captures Scarpia’s menace. Thomas also relishes the role’s histrionics, from running his hands down his body as Scarpia fantasizes about Tosca to settling back in his chair in delight as the police boss’ psychological games wear Tosca down.

Gardner’s switching gears in the midst of the torments and singing tenderly to Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, is one of the most telling ways she colors Tosca’s emotional kaleidoscope. Raul Melo’s Cavaradossi only begins to show tinges of such gentleness in the last act, when it’s time for his big aria. He delivers it fervently, too. Most of the time, he’s focused on clarion brilliance, peaking when bad news for Scarpia’s political regime sets off Cavaradossi’s cries of “Vittoria!” They blaze.

The Charlotte Symphony, led by James Meena, helps fan the flames, especially when the brasses cut loose in Act 1’s big finish. But Meena and company also give Puccini’s kaleidoscope a few turns. They magnify Tosca’s playfulness when she isn’t consumed by jealousy; the lovers’ surges of passion before Scarpia’s closes in on them; Scarpia’s courtliness when he turns on the charm; Cavaradossi’s heavy-heartedness as he thinks back to happier times.

Amid all the opera’s traditional trappings, though, the staging does include a few uncommon strokes. In Act 1, for instance, Meena and Lesenger cut most of the romp for the church sacristan -- played by Donald Hartmann -- and the children’s choir. While that violates the letter of Puccini’s law, I guess, it isn’t necessarily a huge loss. It lets the story -- and Puccini’s fireworks -- get under way. Those are really what “Tosca” is about.

By Steven Brown The Charlotte Observer

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