Tosca is, without a doubt, one of Puccini's master works. Its melodic richness and dramatic depth, among a long list of attributes, have made this musical jewel beloved by audiences everywhere since it was first premiered on January 14, 1900 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. It has consistently been among the top 10 operas most performed in the world, reigning as number 5 in 2013 and having been number 2 in 2009.
Despite its strong seductive power, Tosca is, by no means, an easy undertaking. Some might take for granted the almost hypnotic prowess of its notes, but in the wrong hands it can be an unforgettable experience for all the wrong reasons. Its demands -- musical, theatrical, vocal, and dramatic -- can be draining for those on stage, behind the scenes and in front of them.
This was certainly not the case with the Atlanta Opera who lived up to the challenge with this year's production of the operatic standard. A lavish and ambitious undertaking, nested in beautifully designed sets by Andrew Horn -- be it in Act I's Church of Sant'Andrea, Act II's Palazzo Farnese or Act III's Castel Sant'Angelo -- it was a successful presentation of Puccini's work offered in almost sold out performances.
Maestro Arthur Fagen's interpretation of the score was eloquent and skillful. An initially slower tempo, quickly came to life giving singers the appropriate supportive texture. Few understand the complexities of unifying under a baton the multiple elements that come to life in a work of this kind. Fewer are able to harness them together to deliver a coherent performance that doesn't under or overwhelm and doesn't drown singers with its intensity. Despite a couple of bumps in the road, Maestro Fagen delivered a wonderful mixture of colors that adequately complimented vocal creation and dramatic intension.
This is Tomer Zvulum's first production as General and Artistic Director of the Atlanta Opera and a most successful one indeed. His stage vision was able to bring together all elements of this theatrical work: visual, aural, interpretative, in a dance that, in his own words, engaged 'all of your senses in a visceral celebration of the human experience' forming 'a cohesive vision of a story buoyed by some of the greatest music ever written.'
In the role of Floria Tosca and marking her debut with the Atlanta Opera, American soprano Kara Shay Thomson offered a believable interpretation of the Italian diva. The deep dark beauty of her voice lived up to the vocal demands of the role, giving an enjoyable rendition of her character and the tour de force aria 'Vissi d'arte.' One can't help but wonder about a more intimate connection with La Tosca. That is one of the challenges of such a role: to seduce with the voice, through the music, without losing the self in the process, but bringing to life the volatile depth of the character.
The role of Mario Cavaradossi was interpreted by Italian tenor Massimiliano Pisapia. This is one of the tenor roles 'par excellence,' charming but undoubtedly demanding if only due to the fact that, right of the bat at the very beginning of Act I, the tenor must deliver the well known aria 'Recondita armonia.' Pisapia's voice offered particular beauty and size on the very top of the register, especially in Act II's 'Vittoria! Vittoria!,' leaving a hunger for more such qualities as well as evenness through out the totality of the vocal register.
The coveted baritone role of Baron Scarpia went to Mexican singer Luis Ledesma, who portrayed it with vocal and dramatic efficiency. In Act II, he was able to offer a darker interpretation of the role, one closer to this embodiment of the operatic villain that we love to hate. Ledesma delivered through the most demanding vocal challenge of deafening blasting cannons, an orchestra engaged with power, and the adult and children's choruses singing at full voice the undisputedly grandiose and immortal 'Te Deum' at the end of Act I.
This powerful scene was one of those moments that makes us lose sense of time and space. A poignant accomplishment, not only for the intrinsic beauty and power of Puccini's composition, but, in this case, for the fluid confluence of all live elements to memorably recreate, once more, this outstanding instance in music.
The increasing theatrical tension was balanced out by the enjoyable portrayal of the Sacristano by bass-baritone Tyler Simpson, who provided the necessary initial comic relief and lightheartedness within the progressive heavy dramatic context of the work. The quality of his voice was one of warmth and depth as well as that of Angelotti's, portrayed by bass-baritone Jason Eck. Both stood out among secondary roles because of the nature of their instruments and interpretation.
The adult and children's choruses, under the direction of Chorus Master Walter Huff, performed with much musical sensitivity. Huff keeps on proving why he has been with the Atlanta Opera for 25 years now, and why he is one of four individuals to receive the Loridans Arts Awards given to artists who have made extraordinary contributions to the artistic life of Atlanta. Of particular distinction was the 'Sale ascende' at the beginning of Act II, where chorus dynamics were beautifully noticeable.
It is difficult to imagine a justifiable reason for laughter coming from the audience beyond Act I; maybe misinterpreted translations of the subtitles?...These dramatic moments, treasures within the operatic repertoire, deserved nothing but respect and admiration from the audience...so it begs the question: Are people listening, truly listening to the intense, beautiful, powerful and transcendental music Puccini gifted us? Or are present generations losing the capacity to appreciate true artistic creation; of truly listening to a masterpiece as it is birthed once more? What can be so funny about Tosca stabbing her rapist-to-be or realizing her love has been truly put to death by a firing squad? It is as understandable as Tosca getting transformed into a Vegas show girl after she takes Scarpia's life or a cinematic audience bursting into laughter when Janet Leigh is stabbed by Tony Perkins in the famous shower scene of Hitchcock's masterpiece of suspense, Psycho. Ridiculous, right? And very distracting to those who were swept away by the beauty and intensity of the music and its skillful deliverance by the artists on stage and in the pit.
One can argue certain artistic choices as, for example, Tosca not jumping of the top of Castel Sant'Angelo to meet her Creator immediately after the traditional 'O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!' But, then again, art would never progress without novelty, variation, and the courage to challenge the established and set forth with innovation.
The discussion of individual elements should not deviate the recognition of this performance as a whole, as it is not the purpose of artistic endeavor to achieve perfection but excellence in communicating its core soul; of transporting those present, if only momentarily, in a universal communion of the experience of music and dramatic creativity with cathartic overtones. And that is what this production achieved. At the end of the night, the audience offered a well-deserved standing ovation with enthusiasm, one that said with distinction 'laudamus te' Atlanta Opera, this is a production to be proud of and we are certainly proud of you!