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The Triangle only gets a couple of shots a year at grand opera, and The Opera Company of North Carolina is it. So it is with great relief and pleasure that we can report that OCNC’s Artistic Director, Robert Galbraith, has done it again. If audiences were a bit disappointed with a mere operetta for OCNC’s first production, The Merry Widow, they can rejoice over Tosca, an opera in the tradition of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. Its first English critics referred to Tosca as “a shabby little shocker,” and if you’re seeing it with the English supertitles for the first time, you have to admit the libretto can get pretty crude. But it is a grand shabby little shocker.
Tosca requires a trio of three superstars, each of whom has to be able to act and mime as well as sing ‘cause there’s an awful lot of “unaccompanied” orchestral music in this piece. Fortunately, we saw three stars who fit the bill. In the title role, Lisa Daltirus has the toughest job: she has to be as pious as a Madonna, as jealous as Othello, as resourceful as Fidelio and as hard nosed as Lady Macbeth – often at the same time. Daltirus has a beautiful dramatic soprano across her entire range and the ability to shape the dynamics to fit her persona of the moment. Her big scene – in which she is silent – at the end of Act 2 was a masterpiece of facial expressions that revealed her feelings and motivation.
John Fowler as the painter Mario Cavaradossi came through again, as he did in the significantly less sympathetic role of Pinkerton in OCNC’s production of Madama Butterfly. Although Cavaradossi gets to sing some nice tunes, his character is overshadowed by Tosca and the arch-villain Baron Scarpia. But Fowler played the quintessential lovesick tenor with panache and in excellent voice.
There’s a reason why Tosca opens with the “Scarpia” theme. His iron will and brutal abuse of power drives the entire plot. After Iago – on whom Puccini patterned him and with whom he compares himself – he’s the operatic villain you most love to hate. Baritone John Cheek chose to “smile and be a villain” as well: the subtle, understated hypocrite rather than the blatant, sexually perverted sadist he really is. In fact, this was the least physical Tosca we have ever seen; Scarpia never lays a grasping hand on Tosca, his prey. A baritone with Cheek’s experience and talent does it all with his “good cop, bad cop” voice, now sleazy and seductive, now harsh and menacing.
Baritone Leonard Rowe, with his training roots in the National Opera Company, now with a burgeoning national career, had just the right mixture of piety, greed, nastiness and obsequiousness for the comic role of the Sacristan. And Ronn Smith had the required snide, reedy voice for Spoletta, Scarpia’s chief henchman. His perpetual smirk was a subtle but appropriate touch.
Baritone Bill McMurray as Angelotti, the escaped consul of the defunct Roman Republic acted and sang well in his small, but crucial role. Jason McKinney as Sciarrone has the thankless job of being on stage much of the time with his boss but with little to sing. Tom Link as the paper-shuffling bureaucratic jailer, is also mostly seen but not heard. Conversely, boy soprano Andrew Way as the Shepherd Boy in Act 3, is heard but not seen. Way, an eighth grader and a Raleigh Boy Choir veteran, has a lovely clear voice that will soon go the way of all boy sopranos: but perhaps a few years hence will reemerge like the phoenix from the ashes of his outgrown vocal chords.
And while we’re talking about boy sopranos, the children’s chorus – which included some girls as well – did a fine job of singing and stage business in their roles as choirboys for their two scenes in Act 1. Galbraith chose the young Italian conductor Francesco Maria Colombo to direct a collection of the area’s best musicians, including Eric Pritchard from the Ciompi Quartet as concertmaster, a sprinkling of NCS regulars and some of “the usual suspects” of professional freelancers. At the dress rehearsal Colombo gave them strict marching orders and drilled them when they didn’t quite meet his standards – with rewarding results.
Star billing must also go to Ken Yunker’s lighting design. The subtle and unobtrusive way he shifted lighting to focus on different parts of the stage as the plot unfolds, was masterful. And his “real-time” sunrise in Act III with the dome of St. Peter in the background through the haze was stunning.
Now for a debit side: Granted that since the barn called Memorial Auditorium is vocally a dead space, most singers need some amplification if the sound is to carry to all the seats. And until we build a real opera house, we will have to accept this. But the amplification on Friday was a bit over the top, especially for Tosca. If you still have good hearing in the higher register, you could have heard a distinct feedback whistle whenever she hit a high note. Fact is, neither Daltirus, Fowler nor Cheek needed very much enhancement at all.
Tosca was far from sold out on Friday night and there are plenty of seats for Sunday’s 2:00 matinee. If you want to see and hear a fine performance with professional everything, get over to Memorial Auditorium. And if you want to keep this kind of quality opera in the Triangle, get out there and support it!