Saturday, March 26, 2011

Opera review: Soprano Taigi shines in PB Opera's 'Tosca'

Chiara Taigi and Riccardo Massi in Tosca.


By Greg Stepanich

Good singing can get an opera audience past uninspired acting,‭ ‬but when it comes to the heroine of Giacomo Puccini‭’‬s‭ ‬Tosca,‭ ‬it‭’‬s best to have someone who can do both well.

‭‬And on Friday night,‭ ‬Palm Beach Opera did.

In the Italian soprano Chiara Taigi,‭ ‬who opened its current run of Puccini‭’‬s‭ “‬shabby little shocker‭”‬ from‭ ‬1900,‭ ‬Palm Beach Opera had an actress whose Floria‭ ‬Tosca was believable and sympathetic,‭ ‬passionate and action-dominating,‭ ‬and a singer whose mature,‭ ‬dark soprano had power,‭ ‬range and stamina.

Taigi was the focus of a very traditional production‭ (‬set,‭ ‬as it‭’‬s supposed to be,‭ ‬in the Rome of‭ ‬1800‭) ‬that used the company‭’‬s modest resources shrewdly,‭ ‬and that absorbed its audience from the‭ ‬first moments and held them fast until the end.‭ ‬One excellent reason for that was Taigi‭’‬s fine performance in Act II,‭ ‬with a‭ ‬Vissi d‭’‬arte of high emotion and‭ ‬musicality,‭ ‬and in which her nervous jitters after stabbing Scarpia were nicely appropriate‭ (‬if the subsequent throwing around of papers was a little overdone‭)‬.

But she was an excellent Tosca throughout,‭ ‬making the most of a star vehicle whose play parent increased the luster of‭ ‬none other than Sarah Bernhardt.‭ ‬Taigi‭’‬s acting and musical chops were strong enough even to overcome moments of vocal shrillness on top and some cracking in the lower reaches‭; ‬these imperfections actually made her performance that much more credible and enjoyable.

As Cavaradossi,‭ ‬tenor Riccardo Massi did a respectable job,‭ ‬and he has a large,‭ ‬warm voice that at its best is quite pleasant to listen to.‭ ‬He sounded somewhat strained in the top of his range,‭ ‬but in a way that suggested an engine not firing on all cylinders rather than one pushed to the breaking point.

His‭ ‬Recondita armonia and‭ ‬E lucevan le stelle were carefully and capably sung,‭ ‬but they lacked a strong sense of passion,‭ ‬and‭ ‬E lucevan‭ ‬in particular‭ ‬didn‭’‬t have the feeling of desperation and extravagant emotion it needs to be a show-stopper.

Claudio Sgura,‭ ‬as Scarpia,‭ ‬has a good,‭ ‬solid baritone voice,‭ ‬and he was effective enough in the second act to earn plenty of hearty boos at the curtain call.‭ ‬He was less impressive in the closing of the first act,‭ ‬when he needs to become the second center of the melodrama,‭ ‬especially in the great‭ ‬Te Deum scene that ends‭ ‬it.‭

Partly because of Massimo Gasparon‭’‬s staging,‭ ‬which pushed him over to the side to make room for the church procession,‭ ‬Sgura,‭ ‬who sounded underpowered,‭ ‬wasn‭’‬t able to give us the skin-crawling sense of a man whose lusts for flesh and violence are pushing him over the edge,‭ ‬and who knows it.‭

The first act‭’‬s best work came from a minor role,‭ ‬that of the sacristan,‭ ‬as sung by‭ ‬the‭ ‬Italian baritone and character specialist‭ ‬Matteo Peirone.‭ ‬Seen here last month as a very fine Don Alfonso in Mozart‭’‬s‭ ‬Cosi fan Tutte,‭ ‬Peirone‭ ‬(who probably makes an excellent Gianni Schicchi‭) ‬was equally good‭ ‬this time around‭ ‬as the fussy caretaker,‭ ‬singing with strength‭ ‬and offering a winning portrayal of a flustered,‭ ‬comic Everyman.‭

Also good in a minor role was bass Matthew‭ ‬Burns as Angelotti.‭ ‬He has a deep voice of real quality,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s regrettable that Puccini‭’‬s mastery of the theater led him to cut out so much backstory.‭ ‬A few more comradely minutes of Angelotti would have given us more of Burns‭’‬ singing to listen to.

Three of the company‭’‬s Young Artists‭ ‬– Evanivaldo Correa as Spoletta,‭ ‬Kenneth Stavert as Sciarrone,‭ ‬and Greta Ball as the shepherd‭ ‬– sang well,‭ ‬with Correa‭’‬s sharp-edged tenor making a good vocal contrast in his colloquies with Sgura.‭ ‬Good work was also to be had from the chorus in the‭ ‬Te Deum and the offstage cantata in Act II.

Conductor Bruno Aprea,‭ ‬like Taigi a native of Rome,‭ ‬led a brisk,‭ ‬powerful reading of this rich score,‭ ‬building steadily and surely to the conclusion of Act I,‭ ‬and giving the big Act II theme associated with the knife that Tosca will use to kill Scarpia a ferocious reprise after the black deed is done,‭ ‬casting a real sense of momentousness over the scene on stage.‭ ‬Except for intonation problems in the cello quartet during Act III,‭ ‬the orchestra played wonderfully,‭ ‬and indeed its performance was one of the high points of Friday evening.

Director Gasparon,‭ ‬who made good use of the Sarasota Opera set in constructing effective tableaux,‭ ‬sacrificed some of the drama‭’‬s effectiveness in Act III‭ ‬with a staging choice that had Cavaradossi singing the sweetness of Tosca‭’‬s hands on the other side of the stage from her.‭ ‬Much of their action together saw them singing while apart,‭ ‬which possibly was meant to focus on each character‭’‬s individual anguish,‭ ‬but which didn‭’‬t make much sense dramatically,‭ ‬especially after the heat of Act II.

His staging of the shepherd‭’‬s song in that act,‭ ‬which had Ball sitting on a parapet serenading soldiers,‭ ‬didn‭’‬t work well,‭ ‬either,‭ ‬since the song just adds a moment of Roman-dawn coloring,‭ ‬and needs to be a drive-by song,‭ ‬not a spotlight moment.‭

Tosca will be repeated tonight at the Kravis Center beginning at‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Soprano Tiffany Abban stars as Tosca,‭ ‬with Warren Mok as Cavaradossi and Stephen Powell as Scarpia.‭ ‬Chiara Taigi returns for the‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday performance,‭ ‬and Abban is back for the‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Monday show.‭ ‬Tickets range from‭ ‬$23-$175.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬833-7888‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.pbopera.org.

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