Review: ‘Tosca’ a crowd-pleaser
REVIEW BY RUTH BINGHAM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Puccini’s “Tosca” remains one of the most popular of operas, partly because of its jam-packed melodramatic plot (don’t blink; every line is essential), but also because it serves as a parable about the struggle between good and evil.
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre
» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
Title character Floria Tosca is an innocent caught in a cruel world — rather how life can sometimes feel for all of us. She is the opera’s core and the sole female on stage: beautiful, passionate, religious, and talented, living for her art (music, of course; she’s a well-known singer).
But her life is buffeted by evil forces, including not only the usual operatic fare of deception, intrigue and lust, but also by politics and the historical sweep of war. Like all of us, she is vulnerable because she loves: for the sake of love, she endures torture (the psychological torture of her lover being tortured) and is eventually driven to murder and suicide, the greatest of cardinal sins.
Set during the Napoleonic wars in Italy, the opera pits Tosca against evil incarnate, the chief of police Baron Scarpia, whose leverage against Tosca is the love of her life, the painter Cavaradossi.
HOT’s production begins slowly, but the pace picks up when soprano Jill Garner (Tosca) sweeps in. Gardner (whose husband, Jake Gardner, sang Scarpia in 2006, HOT’s last production of “Tosca”), is dynamite, in voice and acting. She embodies Tosca, flirting with Cavaradossi one minute, devout the next, pleading with Scarpia, then murdering him. She is powerless, yet the most powerful of all. Gardner has a large, richly-toned, burgundy voice, and her performance in this very demanding role is worth the price of a ticket all by itself.
She is paired not with her lover, but aligned against Scarpia, sung by baritone Michael Chioldi. Brilliantly cast, his voice is rich, clear and almost equally powerful, with a dark edge that made his threats real and the audience want to boo him. Chioldi and Gardner fashioned the second act into the highlight of the evening: two perfectly matched adversaries, dueling for their lives.
As Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi, tenor Ta’u Pupu’a rounded out the trio, a linchpin between adversaries. Tall and imposing, Pupu’a is the classic heroic tenor — reliably loving, loyal, and lamented. Pupu’a and Gardner looked good together on stage, and their repartee in the first act was charming. Less experienced in dialogue acting, Pupu’a was strongest in his arias, especially the famous “Recondita Armonia” (“Strange Harmony”), comparing the woman he’s painting to Tosca, which showcased his bright, heldentenor tone.
The three main characters loomed so large, that secondary characters had to work to be noticed. Young Sophia Stark sang the offstage shepherd’s song at the beginning of the third act (you only get to see her during curtain calls — she’s the girl who takes the solo bow), and tenor Tracy Wise molded his police agent Spoletta role into an oily, skulking hunchback. This is an dark opera, heavy with basses: Matthew Curran as the political fugitive Cesare Angelotti, the character who launches the plot; Jerett Gieseler as one of the police agents, Sciarrone; and John Mount, HOT regular, as the kindly but clueless old Sacristan.
One of the most enjoyable aspects was Director Jay Lesenger’s excellent staging, which added much and flowed naturally. The fullness of his staging distracted only in the first act, when supernumeraries walked across stage more quickly than the foreground action was unfolding.
The production’s visual design made it easy for the audience to slip smoothly into the story. Scenic Designer Miguel Romero’s sets echo the opera’s progression: warm golden browns of a sandstone cathedral during the first act for the lovers’ bantering; brutally stark reds and blacks for Scarpia’s apartment in the second, with the torture chamber behind a hidden door; and in the third act, the cool blue-grey-black of night atop the castle’s parapet, its landmark avenging angel towering above in silhouette.
On Friday, April 26, the orchestra sounded good, but loose. Even as he struggled to keep singers and orchestra together, Conductor Steven Osgood captured the beauty of one of the most stunning operas ever composed.