Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Opera review: Tosca at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth
The scenic background designed by Andrew Horn was constant eye candy.
Fort Worth Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca (playing through June 2) certainly had splendid opera bling last Saturday evening. Their Festival Season opener of this well beloved opera at the exquisite Bass Performance Hall boasted 35-foot sets that kissed the rafters - the tallest ever placed on this stage - and also a large orchestra, altar boys, Swiss soldiers, police agents, nobles, citizens, artisans, nuns, and cardinals. An ambitious, but impressive undertaking!
For the city of Fort Worth to contain a company producing a grand opera set in 1800 Rome and at the same time sponsor daily cattle drives of longhorns through its Stockyard District seems so…irrational. Yet, irrational fits right in with Puccini’s Tosca that was once dubbed a “shabby little shocker” by Professor Joseph Kerman, a musicologist. It’s not surprising that 2012 audiences are still devouring the “verismo” operas of Puccini that symbolize emotional realism and are known for shock value.
The story: The singer Tosca tries to save her lover Cavaradossi, painter and Republican, from the evil Chief of Police, Scarpia. To stop him torturing Cavaradossi she tells Scarpia where an escaped political prisoner is hidden. Scarpia tricks Tosca into a false bargain, promising a mock execution for Cavaradossi in exchange for sexual favors. Tosca, repulsed by the idea, asks God why her pious life should be rewarded like this. As Scarpia revels in her anguish and begins to write the fake safe-conduct note she has demanded, Tosca picks up a knife from Scarpia’s dinner table and stabs him. The faux execution of Cavaradossi proves real, and a distraught Tosca, pursued by the guards, leaps to her death from the parapet of Castel Sant’Angelo.
The cast contained two singers who reprised their roles from Fort Worth Opera’s 2005 Tosca. Soprano Carter Scott sang the title role and baritone Michael Chioldi performed Scarpia. Both singers had powerful voices suited to the larger than life characters they portrayed. Scarpia was thunderously sung but needed more threatening sounds at a chilly hushed volume to be truly menacing. The amazing acoustics of the Bass Hall can accommodate a center stage whisper and carry it to the balconies.
I was surprised that even the biggest voices were, on occasion, overshadowed by the orchestra conducted by Joe Illick. Puccini’s masterful composing gave the orchestra sonorous chromatic melodies which the violinist, harpist and oboe handled superbly. However, the volume was not always held to a level that accompanied the singers in the full orchestra scenes.
Tenor Roger Honeywell as Cavaradossi received the most enthusiastic applause throughout the three acts. This was well deserved. His consistent singing and acting were the most genuine in the cast. I never doubted Cavaradossi’s passionate love for the ever-jealous Tosca. On the eve of his execution the painter’s fervent dedication to his lady in “E lucevan le stele (And the stars were shining) was sparkling with sustained high notes and fluid crescendos and diminuendos. After this touching aria, even the dishonest jailer sung by Dewey Reikofski took pity on the painter and returned the ring he’d bribed him with to pass a final note to Tosca.
Scott, as Tosca, shone most brightly in scenes involving jealousy and humor. The audience chuckled when she became a religious zealot refusing to allow her lover, Cavaradossi, to kiss her in front of the Madonna statue. However, the heroine’s most famous aria, “Vissi d’arte” had only limited impact due to distracting staging by director, Daniel Pelzig. Nervous tittering could be heard when horror and pity were more appropriate as the devout Tosca sang the prayerful line, “Nell’ora del dolore, perche, perche Signore?” (“In this hour of suffering, why, why Lord?”).
At that point Tosca’s chest had been visibly fondled by Scarpia in exchange for information about an escaped prisoner. Tosca only resorted to this disclosure to save her lover from torture. In this production after being enjoed by Scarpia, the despondent Tosca lays on her back on a table with her head hanging over the edge as she sings the first three phrases of the famous aria, then rolls off the table to the floor for the next section. Although Maria Jeritza started the fashion of singing “Vissi d’arte” lying flat on the ground on her stomach, this similar interpretation did not have Jeritza’s flamboyant flare needed to pull it off.
Tosca’s violent scene rebelling against Scarpia with a pointy reckoning had a much more successful impact. I overheard one lady in the audience say, “Ah, oh” as she spotted the gleaming knife in Tosca’s hand. Later in the scene, the whole audience startled along with Tosca as the drums began after she placed candles and a crucifix around Scarpia. I shivered as the brave Tosca delicately pulled the safe-conduct note from the clutch of Scarpia’s dead hand.
While the emotional impact fluctuated during the drama, the scenic background designed by Andrew Horn was constant eye candy. The third act set of a gray jail cell with a statue of a winged creature stabbing an animal perched on the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo gave stony reinforcement to the tragedy. I particularly enjoyed the changes in the lighting designed by Kendall Smith that produced rainbows of colors on the gray statue and the starry indigo sky with swirling clouds.
Color also abounded in the costumes designed by Ray Diffen. The red and white lace robes of the altar boys and the ornate cardinal cassocks amplified the formal presentation of the high-church processional.
My favorite scene was when the chorus beautifully sang the harmonies of a cantata backstage while action continued on center stage. The interweaving and layering of the sophisticated music showcased Puccini’s mastery in texturing. The balance of the chorus, soloist and orchestra was at its best at this point in this production.
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