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Giacomo Puccini's Tosca consistently ranks high on listings of the most-produced operas, for good reason. Its gripping story of thwarted love, villainous revenge and sacrificed lives plays out through enthralling melodies and thrilling orchestral effects.
But it's a difficult work to pull off, calling for big voices and detailed characterizations within a physically demanding plot. North Carolina Opera's production in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium provided vocal riches and orchestral splendor, as well as much of the dramatic requirements, despite some directorial and technical oddities.
Soprano Alexandra LoBianco quickly established her assured control of every vocal challenge Puccini sets for the title role. In the first act, she displayed admirable range of dynamics, from sweet dreamings of a romantic evening with her lover, Cavaradossi, to jealous fire at his attentions to women in the church where he's painting a portrait of Mary Magdalene. LoBianco's warm, clear tone informed the slightest innuendo and the fullest angry high note.
As Cavaradossi, tenor Scott Quinn confidently negotiated the character's opening aria, "Recondita armonia" ("Mysterious harmony"), with clean, bright vocalism. In that and the subsequent rapturous duet with LoBianco, he sometimes sounded a shade lighter than ideal, but provided plenty of heft in the expansive sections and the high notes.
Malcolm MacKenzie's act one entrance as Scarpia, the villainous chief of the secret police, gave notice that his secure, clarion baritone would find no terrors in the character's often high-lying tessitura. He colored Scarpia's murderous threats and lurid suggestions with silken smoothness in an understated characterization all the more frightening for its unrelenting power just beneath the surface.
LoBianco conquered all the punishing intensity of act two's fight to the death with MacKenzie, each flinging out searing high notes and heated entreaties. LoBianco showed particular attention to dynamic range in her satisfying rendering of the work's most famous aria, "Vissi d'arte" ("I live for art"). Her encounters with Quinn in acts two and three further impressed in their variety of emotions, while Quinn provided a suitably emotional "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the stars were shining") before his execution by firing squad.
With such satisfying vocal characterizations, it may seem quibbling to note that Quinn's Cavaradossi came off more as a young lothario than feisty revolutionary; that MacKenzie's Scarpia never let us see the true sleazy side of the character; and that LoBianco's Tosca had little of the imperious diva about her.
The other roles were well sung, beginning with Donald Hartmann's Sacristan, a comic role often given to performers with little voice left. Hartmann's booming bass-baritone filled out the vocal lines fully, a bonus somewhat diminished by his loading the role with too many bits of clowning. Jacob Kato's obsequious Spoletta had just the right level of slithery character, joined by Ted Federle's cold torturer, Sciarrone. Sabri Karabudak's political dissident, Angelotti, and Thomas Keefe's weary jailer rounded out the gratifying even cast. Scott MacLeod's chorus was, as usual, a major asset, with its concerted swelling of the "Te Deum" in the act one finale making it seem to be twice its actual number of participants.
Binding it all together with immense authority was maestro Joseph Rescigno, who led the orchestra with seasoned attention to every detail, bringing out the score's many subtleties and whipping up the chilling dramatic moments, while keeping the momentum ever moving forward. Of particular note was the prelude to act three, with the early morning Roman church bells evoked by two sets of orchestra chimes, one on the left in the pit and one on the right in the balcony, producing a marvelous antiphonal effect.
Stage director David Paul was intent on making sure there were few static moments throughout the piece, a generally admirable goal, but here sometimes leading to characters circling around each other too often, particularly in Cavaradossi and Tosca's love duets. There also was a lot fussing with costuming in act one, with Cavaradossi constantly putting on his painter's smock and taking it off again, while Tosca was compelled to trudge awkwardly up and down the scaffolding several times, trying not to trip on her costume and having her lengthy shawl snag on the steps.
Paul contributed some intriguing ideas, such as Scarpia staring defiantly up at the Madonna statue at the end of act one and Tosca testing the knife for sharpness before wielding it against Scarpia in act two. But Paul seemed hampered by David Gano's rather small-scaled sets, making for a cramped, procession-less end of act one, requiring a miniscule desk and table at odds with Scarpia's palatial digs in act two, and a narrow space upstage for Cavaradossi's execution in act three, obscuring Tosca's final interaction with him.
Denise Schumaker's coordination of costumes provided by Wardrobe Witchery was generally successful, save for Tosca's act two gown. It had the right look and glamor in its red and gold trim, but its heavy material included a too-lengthy train which impeded LoBianco's need to move quickly and easily in the action-filled scenario. Tláloc López-Watermann's lighting design delighted with act three's gradual dawning but puzzled in the shadowy murk of the act one finale.
Staging any grand opera with all elements at the same level is an ever-elusive goal. North Carolina Opera's production of Tosca more that compensates for some staging and technical flaws with its first-rate musical side, making Sunday's repeat easily recommendable for fans and newcomers alike. See our sidebar for details.