Baltimore Opera mounts lovely, well-cast 'Tosca'


Decent performances of Puccini's "Tosca" are commonplace. The composer and his librettists were first-rate theater men, and the melodramatic effects that make "Tosca" so effective are simple for singers to perform and for audiences to understand. There are only three major roles, and Puccini's vocal requirements -- here at least are not as daunting as Verdi's.

Little wonder that "Tosca" has always been among the three or four most popular operas. And even less wonder that its popularity, along with its fail-proof dramatic mechanism, has made it so scorned by critics (who always hate what the public loves). In the words of one critic, "Tosca" is that "shabby little shocker."

But there is nothing either shabby or commonplace about the Baltimore Opera Company's current production of the opera, which opened Saturday night in the Lyric Opera House. This production -- unlike the somewhat down-at-the-heels "Tosca" that featured James Morris' excellent Scarpia a few years back -- is beautiful to look at, with lovely costumes by John Lehmeyer (who also directed) and wonderful sets by Holly Highfill.

Best of all, the singing was splendid. Relatively simple though "Tosca's" requirements may be, this was the BOC's best-cast production this year. "Tosca" is usually considered a soprano's opera, and in this respect, Elizabeth Byrne did not disappoint. She is a young singer, well-known now, who should become even better-known. The voice is full and attractive; she can sing powerfully or softly and adjusts with ease between the two; and she acts well enough to make her time on the stage linger in memory as particular moments, rather than as merely generic ones. She has the kind of stature that commands the eye, and her "Vissi d'arte," sung with lovely tone and honest feeling, made it easy to understand why Cavaradossi is in love with her.

But Justino Diaz's Scarpia nearly stole the show. I remember this fine singer as a true basso, but his voice now seems somewhat lighter than when he was younger he is now 56 and his potent, smoothly produced, lyric bass-baritone was perfectly matched to Scarpia's villainy. Diaz's portrayal featured more than powerful -- his voice rang out during Act I's Te Deum -- and well-controlled singing. He was always a great actor with a talent for villains, his Iago in Zeffirelli's 1985 filmed "Otello" was the best thing in it and he is an even better actor now. In portraying Scarpia, he did not !chew up the scenery so much as use evil insinuations to create a character we love to hate.

The Cavaradossi of Cesar Hernandez was also very fine. Puccini really does not give his tenor very much to do, but Hernandez was able to make one almost forget this. There was sufficient power for the explosive "Vittoria!" in Act II and a beautifully proportioned "E lucevan le stelle" in Act III, without any pulling-about of phrases and a powerful, sobbing climax. He is also a fine actor, and he brought a winning sense of humor to the first love duet of Cavaradossi, who is an unbeliever, and the scrupulously pious Tosca.

Except for some woefully out- of-tune cellos before the start of "E lucevan le stelle," the performance by the orchestra and conductor Andrea Licata was first rate, as was that of the Baltimore Opera choristers.

Performances of "Tosca" will continue April 24, 26, 27 and 28.

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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