Palm Beach Opera opens season with an emotional and riveting “Tosca”

By David Fleshler

Anastasia Bartoli and Mario Chang star in Puccini’s Tosca at Palm Beach Opera. Photo: Bruce Bennett

For sheer operatic intensity, it’s tough to beat Puccini’s Tosca. Taking place over less than 24 hours, the scenario contains scenes of high drama, one of opera’s most loathsome villains and a bouquet of famous arias.

Palm Beach Opera, which ended last season with Verdi’s quirky swan song Falstaff, opened its 2024 season with Puccini’s sure-fire hit. Tosca is such a taut musical drama that even a mediocre performance can still pack a punch. 

But Palm Beach Opera’s production, which opened Friday at the Kravis Center, was much more—a technically polished, emotionally committed performance on grimly realistic sets that did Puccini’s work full justice.

One of the opera’s great scenes is the Te Deum, which takes place in the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle. As set up by stage director Omer Ben Seadia, it was a grandiose spectacle of religious devotion and secular hypocrisy that kept the focus firmly on the police chief Baron Scarpia and his malevolent plotting. Processions of choir members, priests holding giant crosses and monks paraded into the somber gray church to begin the Latin hymn, as Scarpia planned execution and sexual conquest over the grim tones of the orchestra.

Another famous scene came off as particularly effective, the gripping minutes in Scarpia’s office in the Palazzo Farnese, a grand room covered with faded frescoes of classical mythology. The orchestra, conducted by David Stern, brought grinding force to the ascending tones and bruising dissonances that signaled the torture of Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi, as Tosca’s wails communicated her anguish and Scarpia presided with vile mastery.

And appropriately for this gritty, realistic opera, under Seadia’s direction, the stage acting was subtle and cinematic, with none of the exaggerated, heavy-handed gestures that characterize many productions.

Anastasia Bartoli made a convincing and larger-than-life Tosca. The Italian soprano brought easy fluency to her phrases of flirtation and jealousy with Cavaradossi. Her luxuriant voice displayed plush tone as it ascended in high arcs of melody, brought off with apparent effortlessness. 

Bartoli sang with subtle gradations of color, sharpening her voice as she interrogated her lover about the possibility of other women. Her “Vissi d’arte,” sung in the dark splendor of Scarpia’s office, ran a gamut of emotions, from despair in its opening to deep passion on high notes that rang through the hall. The role will be sung Saturday by Caitlin Gotimer.

As Tosca’s lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, tenor Mario Chang effectively portrayed the character’s transformation from artist in love with Tosca to political prisoner on the verge of execution. His first big aria, “Recondita armonia,” came off with a smooth legato and virile high notes, if not a huge amount of passion.

But that contrasted sharply with the emotional performance of his last aria, “E lucevan le stelle,” sung from the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo, as he awaited the firing squad. Here he sang with ringing high notes and a desperate edge to his voice that convincingly captured the emotions of a man minutes from death. The role will be sung Saturday by Jonathan Burton.

The bass baritone Greer Grimsley made a formidable Scarpia, clad in white wig and black cape, playing the role with a subtlety and restraint that made the Roman police chief’s villainy that much more believable. From his entrance, in which he bellowed in sharp tones his disapproval of the disrespectful clamor inside the church, he effortlessly dominated the stage, except when paired with the equally formidable Bartoli as Tosca. The role will be sung on Saturday by Aleksey Bogdanov.

Under conductor David Stern, the orchestra provided its usual fine performance, with delicate string and wind playing and dark outbursts of sound when the orchestra took the leading role in the drama. Under Stern, the musicians firmly supported the singers  without ever overwhelming them.

Sets from Lyric Opera of Kansas City created gloomily realistic reproductions of the genuine Roman buildings in which the opera took place, the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo.

As the Sacristan, Adelmo Guidarelli’s big bass and easy humor made him the portrait of rustic piety. As the escaped prisoner Angelotti, Edward Thomas Bland, his head bound with a bloody bandage, portrayed the fright of a man trying to evade the executioners. As Scarpia’s goon Spoletta, Devin Eatmon was an effective heavy, menacing Cavaradossi one minute and cringing before his master the next.

Palm Beach Opera will perform Tosca again at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

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Sat Jan 27, 2024
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