May 3, 2017 at 5:23 pm PST | by Christopher Cappiello
Puccini’s Melodrama Sung with Powerhouse Perfection at LA Opera

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca and Ambrogio Maestri as Scarpia in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “Tosca” (photo: Ken Howard)

“And killed by a woman!” Floria Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky) exclaims after plunging a knife into the gargantuan body of Scarpia (Ambroglio Maestri), the corrupt and bloated chief of police who is about to use his power and authority to sexually assault her. As the mammoth sexual predator is felled in the second act of director John Caird’s dark and theatrical 2013 production of Puccini’s melodramatic opera, an audible ripple of recognition went through the audience around me.

Intermission eavesdropping revealed more than one conversation about the moment’s resonance in a post-Women’s March world. This momentary intrusion of current politics only added potency to LA Opera’s gorgeously sung remount featuring a uniformly superb cast.

The radiant Radvanovsky has sung the title role at the Met, La Scala, and in the 2013 staging of this production, and her rich, expressive soprano stuns with its power under her breathtaking control. Her exquisite and wrenching rendition of “Vissi d’arte” earned one of the longest ovations I’ve heard at the Dorothy Chandler.

The best news is that her castmates – all men in this rare opera with a single female role – are exceptional as well. Tosca’s lover, the painter Cavaradossi, is sung by American tenor Russell Thomas, a gentle giant with a professorial quality and a powerhouse singing voice. When he mounts the three-tiered scaffold in Act One to work on his painting of Mary Magdelene in Rome’s Church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle, his soaring tenor fills the cavernous Chandler with uncommon ease. Maestri is a mountain of a man, tall and rotund with a commanding baritone to match his outsized physical presence. He finds some welcome human touches in one of opera’s greatest villains, subtly crossing himself in time with the music in church, and genuinely enjoying his wine in Act Two. As the political prisoner whose escape enrages Scarpia and dooms Cavarodossi, Nicholas Brownlee’s firm, expressive bass sets the dramatic tone from the top, while Philip Cokorinos provides suitable comic relief as the Sacristan.

The opera’s story is directly related to the battle of Marengo in 1800, but Bunny Christie’s sets and costumes appear to shift the setting forward about 100 years. All three sets include a massive hole in the ceiling, presumably from warfare, and Scarpia’s Act Two apartment is depicted as a dark and dilapidated warehouse filled with pillaged art, some religious and some risqué, instead of the usual opulent digs of a corrupt pol.

The final act, set on the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo, seemed constricted by the damaged ceiling, although the massive opening at the back wall provides a perfect platform for Tosca’s dramatic end, with Caird adding a chilling echo of Scarpia’s murder before Tosca leaps to her famed death. LA Opera’s music director James Conlon conducts with muscularity and nuance, wringing emotion from Puccini’s masterfully constructed score.

If you’ve seen dozens of Toscas, Radvanovsky and her expert castmates are more than worth adding to your list. nd if you think opera isn’t for you, this exciting, sumptuous, and superbly sung revival is the perfect introduction.

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