By Truman C. Wang
Photo credit: Ken Howard, Los Angeles Opera
When Joseph Kerman, in his seminal 1952 book Opera as Drama, called Puccini's Tosca a “shabby little shocker”, in which all main characters die violently and ignominiously, he probably never thought the opera could be so entertaining as well.
In this shared production with Houston and Chicago, John Caird, the director, and Bunny Christie, the Scenery and Costumes designer, decided to play up the small role of political fugitive Angelotti by having his mannequin hanged above center stage in Act Three, drawing more mirth than horror from the audience. Act Two, Scarpia is downsized from his posh apartment in Palazzo Farnese to a dark warehouse with piles of crates. Tosca sings her famous aria standing up, to the ‘small madonna’ on top of the prompter box and under the watchful eye of the ‘big madonna’ on top of the crates. Forget logic, it’s all raw violent emotions in this act. Act One, Cavaradossi’s ‘madonna painting’ is the giant head of a woman, cut up into a triptych of jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Puccini would be tickled to see his Romantic painter trying his hand at Modernism.
Duane Schuler’s excellent lighting adds sinister effects in Act One’s Scarpia-Tosca scene, and floods Act Three with warmth of daybreak, making the unimpressive sets look better than they are.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky looks imperious as the eponymous prima donna Floria Tosca, sings powerfully with Scarpia, and sweetly with Cavaradossi, floating some poignant pianissimo high notes and spinning long, creamy lines of shimmering beauty. Her measured but heartfelt singing of "Vissi’ d’arte" in Act Two deservedly brought down the house. This Tosca, rather than jumping to her death, is made to slit her own throat with the same knife that had killed Scarpia, and then fall from the parapet. It’s an entertaining addition to the cornucopia of Tosca lore, next to the ‘bouncing Tosca’.
Baritone Ambroglio Maestri, making his L.A. Opera debut as Scarpia, is a formidable match vocally to Ms. Radvanovsky’s Tosca. Sparks fly when they sing together. Mr. Maestri cuts an imposing figure on stage in his six-foot-four frame and makes the Baron raunchy and amusingly wicked (as when he angrily strikes the Act Two curtain, which promptly falls as if on command), an Iago-like malevolent character equipped with rolling black notes and deep bass. Apparently, not just the sopranos, but many baritones also would like to take a stab at Scarpia. The role is divided among three baritones in this production.
Tenor Russell Thomas sings Cavaradossi’s two big arias winningly and competently, although his voice lacks the necessary heft to ring out the high notes. Bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos is a fine character actor playing Sacristan.
L.A. Opera would be poorer without the supporting talents from the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists Program. Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee and tenor Brian Michael Moore sing credibly as Angelotti and Spoletta. Baritone Daniel Armstrong is Sciarrone and bass Gabriel Vamvulescu plays the jailer. Notable mention goes to L.A. Children’s Chorus treble Enzo Grappone’s off-stage singing as the Shepherd’s Voice.
James Conlon conducts the L.A. Opera Orchestra with symphonic grandeur, drawing demonic force from the percussion for the recurrent ‘Scarpia motive’, as well as sensuous beauty from the strings in the Act One love duet. He accompanies the singers most diligently, often tenderly, as if he’s singing and breathing with them as one. One savors the many ‘chamber music moments’, as in the galloping string pizzicato at the start of the love duet, or the lovely cello solo against the lush strings during "Vissi’ d’arte". I have said it many times before and will say it again – the great L.A. Opera Orchestra deserves to be heard (and seen) on the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
For the remainder of the 2016/17 season, L.A. Opera will present "Thumbprint" (6/15-18) and "Noah's Flood" (5/6) at nearby venues as the company's Off Grand initiative. For tickets, call or visit www.laopera.org
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.