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Even in an Opera Carolina production with merely eight solo vocalists in the cast, it was easy enough to see what makes grand opera so grand. Most of the musicians on Charlotte Symphony's payroll were in the orchestra pit when we entered Belk Theater, tuning up or rehearsing. The program booklets handed to us at the door had the size and stylishness of a glossy fashion magazine, and when the curtain rose on Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, we saw the interior of a Roman cathedral, the first of Adolph Hohenstein's three diverse set designs. By the end of the opening act, the stage was filled with clergy, a cardinal, and a throng of Opera Carolina choristers, all celebrating a mistaken report of a royalist victory over Napoleon's invading army.
All of these blandishments – and extras – spell out expensive in big, bold capital letters. So it was particularly disappointing to see the Belk's uppermost balcony completely empty and so many unclaimed seats below. If Hohenstein's name rings a bell, we can multiply our disappointment, because he designed the sets, the costumes, the props, and the poster art for the original Milanese production of Tosca in January 1900. We can thank the New York City Opera for this meticulous recreation of Hohenstein's handiwork – by heading out to the Belk Theater and seeing it.
Opera Carolina lighting designer Michael Baumgarten certainly helps to capture the melodramatic spirit of Puccini's deft adaptation of Victorien Sardou's La Tosca, written for Sarah Bernhardt in 1887. But perhaps disheartened by all those empty seats, the opening night performance didn't attain its full potboiler heat until late in Act 1 when baritone Steven Condy entered as Baron Scarpia, the cruel, lascivious, and unscrupulous chief of Rome's city police. Until then, soprano Alyson Cambridge as opera diva Floria Tosca and tenor John Viscardi as principled painter Mario Cavaradossi hadn't belittled the love, intrigue, jealousy, and playfulness of their relationship. Not at all. But against the backdrop of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, tempestuously conducted by OpCar artistic director James Meena from the opening bars onwards, both sounded somewhat underpowered, though they were clearly gifted as actors.
Chasing after former Roman Republic consul Cesare Angelotti, who has escaped from prison and has already been secreted into hiding by Cavaradossi, Condy as Scarpia quickly injected menace and urgency into the drama. Then he cunningly worked on Tosca's unfounded jealousy to freshen the trail to her paramour's hideout before the curtain fell. In his tense confrontation with Tosca, Condy seemed to kindle some of the spark we would see unceasingly from Cambridge in the two acts that followed.
Stage director James Marvel takes full advantage of his principals' gifts as the intricacies of Sardou's plot come brutally to fruition in Act 2. Tosca has led Scarpia's spies to Cavaradossi's hideout, and soon the painter will be in custody while Angelotti has once again escaped. Scarpia dispatches his prisoner to a torture chamber adjoining his lavish apartment, hoping to extract information about Angelotti's whereabouts. He and his thugs cannot break Cavaradossi, but they don't have to. Tosca is with him, ruefully aware that her jealousy was baseless, and able to hear her beloved's outcries as Scarpia's men inflict their torture. Where the fiend has failed with Cavaradossi, he succeeds with Tosca, breaking her twice. In exchange for stopping the torture, Tosca gives up Angelotti, and to barter for Cavaradossi's freedom, the price will be Tosca's virtue.
Beyond having doubted her true love's fidelity, there was so much more for Tosca to regret now. In singing the famous "Vissi d'arte" aria before nodding her consent to Scarpia, Cambridge drew upon all the additional anguish Puccini had written for her. All of the art she had lived for, all of her passionate love, all her charitable deeds, and all her fervent prayers have been for naught in the face of this perverted monster. God has shortchanged her. With all the grim delight that Condy took in tormenting her in their crackling duets, it certainly seemed so. But Marvel was no less cold-blooded in staging "Tosca's kiss," where the diva settles all her debts with the Baron and appends a chilling religious ceremony.
Courageous and bloodied in his brief appearances, Viscardi's energy jumped nearly as much as Cambridge's after the first intermission, but he didn't reach his zenith until he staggered onto the rooftop battlements of the Sant'Angelo Castle in the pre-dawn light of Act 3, sentenced to face a firing squad. Maybe not quite as electrifying as Cambridge's signature aria, Viscardi filled Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle" with sweet lyrical despair that soared upwards into the dawn appointed for his death. Alone for an extended conspiratorial duet, when both lovers grew joyous at the prospect of their coming bliss, Cambridge and Viscardi poignantly lit up the stage one last time before fate cruelly closed its fist on them. Stunning – and grand.
This performance repeats on Saturday, October 15, and Sunday, October 16. See our sidebar for details.