Puccini's `Tosca' worth the ticket

Review: Baltimore Opera show lifted by production's dramatic and musical depth.

November 13, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Puccini's Tosca was once famously dismissed as "a shabby little shocker." A century after the opera's premiere, its detractors can still be heard grumbling about its sensationalism and over-the-top flourishes of blatant melodrama. To which legions of Tosca fans reply, "And your point is?"

Thanks to Puccini's score, with its indelible melodies and brilliant orchestral coloring, the opera's theatricality is elevated to something that may not be quite high art but is close enough for many of us. The enduring fire of Tosca can be appreciated in the Baltimore Opera Company's new production.

There were weaknesses onstage Saturday night and Sunday afternoon (with an alternate pair of romantic leads), but nothing fatal. On balance, both performances had the dramatic and musical weight to get the job done - in some cases, with exceptional distinction.

Andrew Horn's determinedly traditional, impressively scaled sets re-create the plot's actual Roman locations. It would be fun once in a while to see a production of Tosca that is not quite so literal, but the solidity of the scenery, along with John Lehmeyer's conventionally elegant costumes, have a comforting appeal.

Bernard Uzan directs the action with a combination of by-the-book traffic patterns and some effective, novel touches (such as having Tosca close the dead Scarpia's eyes before fleeing the scene of the crime, and having Cavaradossi rip up his farewell letter).

Uzan falls short during the final moments, though, allowing the soldiers in hot pursuit of Tosca to stand around politely as she prepares to make her fatal leap. And I wish he could have come up with something else for the altar boys to do in Act 1; there isn't a hint of spontaneity in their cavorting.

Guy Simard's lighting is often highly atmospheric (the slow sunrise in the finale, for example). But it is prone to hokey exclamation points, as when Scarpia and his men - already attired in bad-guy black - arrive in Act 1 and the stage suddenly darkens. Do we really need one more here-comes-the-villain indicator?

Musically, the production has two anchors for all performances - baritone Mark Delavan and conductor Andrea Licata.

Licata knows his Puccini, knows how to extract maximum power from lyrical passages, allowing the tempo to bend here, pushing it forward there. His vital approach paid off continually both days in the pit, where the orchestra's playing was rarely bumpy.

Delavan loomed over the opera, physically and vocally on Saturday. (Singing back-to-back performances took a toll; he sounded tired Sunday afternoon, but still ignited the stage.)

The opulence of his sound recalled the good old days when larger-than-life opera singers were so much more plentiful; the imagination in his phrasing provided continual interest, revealing all sorts of dimensions to a character often assumed to have only one.

In the Act 1 finale, as Scarpia confesses his sick passion for Tosca, the baritone produced an extraordinary array of tone colors, alternately caressing and seizing the melodic lines. With one word in Act 2 - Ebbene? (Well?) - Delavan revealed the full horror of his proposed bargain with Tosca, and did so in a deliciously repulsive manner (matched later by his blowing on Tosca's neck).

The opening night Tosca, Giovanna Casolla, offered the voice of experience, fortitude and style, if not always beauty. The soprano's dark low register proved especially potent all evening; in Vissi d'arte, she produced admirably subtle, affecting phrases. Her acting was convincing, with just the right touch of girlishness.

Maurizio Graziani, as Cavaradossi, kept his attention focused mostly not on Tosca, but the conductor. (He wasn't alone in this dependency; he and the small-voiced Jay Baylon, as Angelotti, addressed their Act 1 dialogue almost entirely to the pit.) Graziani had trouble holding onto pitch in loud, high passages, and his characterization was likewise unfocused, but he managed a telling E lucevan le stelle in the last act.

Other than Franco Federici's vibrant Sacristan (accompanied by too many hands-in-air gestures), the rest of supporting roles were weakly sung. The chorus made a robust impression in the Te Deum.

On Sunday, Laura Niculescu was a credible Tosca, but intonation difficulties in the upper reaches and a small tonal palette limited her performance. Her partner, Frank Porretta, made a heroic impact with his high-voltage tenor (E lucevan le stelle would have benefited considerably from contrasting nuance), and acted with an ease that eluded Graziani.

Tosca

Where: Lyric Opera House, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Thursday; 8:15 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $37 to $130

Call: 410-727-6000

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