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Tuesday, 12 March 2013 16:48

Winter Opera's 'Tosca' proves you can look and sound lavish on a budget

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Winter Opera's 'Tosca' proves you can look and sound lavish on a budget
winteroperastl.org

Winter Opera has closed their current season with a musically splendid and visually satisfying production of Puccini’s 1900 political melodrama “Tosca.” Acting and some casting choices did not always strike me as ideal, but the company sang beautifully, the orchestra sounded solid, and the sets and costumes were, given the group’s small budget, quite lavish.

It was, in short, quite a feather in the cap of the organization I’m starting to regard as The Little Opera Company That Could.

Anyone who thinks that there's anything new about the phenomenon of public figures hiding their profane desires under a blanket of bogus piety needs to consider “Tosca”. The villain of the opera, Baron Scarpia, is a classic example of how morality and respect for order can become a false front for lust, violence, and falsehood. Scarpia also provides us one of the great moments of Italian opera in the final scene of Act I as he plots the seduction and betrayal of Tosca while the crowd celebrates High Mass. It's a spectacular scene, and one of the best examples of dramatic irony in operatic literature.

Winter Opera’s staging of that scene was an illustration of this production’s strengths. The stage was quickly and efficiently filled with members of the adult and children’s chorus, the 19-piece orchestra played its collective heart out, and the act came to an appropriately dramatic conclusion. There was even a genuine Catholic cleric (Msgr. Borcic) to play the Cardinal.

The principals in this production all had fine, strong voices that were solid throughout their ranges.

Baritone Nelson Martinez was a terrific Scarpia. He’s a physically large actor who made his size an integral part of his portrayal, emphasizing Scarpia’s boundless lust for physical pleasure. He was on solid textual ground there; Scarpia’s opening aria in Act II is nothing if not a glutton’s version of Iago’s “Credo” in “Otello.” When Tosca ventilates him with his own dinner knife at the end of that act, it’s one of the most satisfying bits of bloody justice in Italian opera.

Soprano Stella Zambalis got Tosca’s intensity and delivered a first-class “Visi d’arte,” but seemed to lack the strong sexual presence that would make Scarpia's obsession for her credible. It didn’t help that the lighting darkened her nasolabial folds, which made her look older than Tosca ought to be. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed less than ideal lighting on that stage; it’s something Winter Opera might want to take a look at.

Tenor Alex Richardson was vocally an exceptional Cavaradossi. I didn’t find his acting quite as convincing, but when he and Ms. Zambalis were both soaring through their love scenes I found it easy to forgive any theatrical failings.

I was also impressed with Nathan Whitson’s Angelotti, Chloe Haynes’s charming offstage Act III Shepherd, and director Mark Freiman’s fussy Sacristan. The Sacristan’s character is the only bit of comic relief in the opera’s otherwise grim verismo mix of passion, deceit, and violence, so a strong performance here is always welcome.

Lighting issues aside, the technical aspects of Winter Opera’s “Tosca” were quite good. JC Krajicek’s costumes looked great and were appropriate for the characters. Scott Loebl’s sets were equally impressive; his Farnese Palace interior drew applause as soon as the curtain went up. Steven Jarvi, who has just been appointed Resident Conductor at the St. Louis Symphony, led the orchestra in a wonderfully disciplined reading of the score.

Winter Opera remains one of the better practitioners of musical theatre in St. Louis. They also have the distinction of being the only one of our three opera companies to be working in a space that wasn’t retrofitted to present opera—a virtue not to be taken lightly. It will be interesting to see them develop in the future.

Winter Opera’s 2013-2014 season begins November 8 and 10 with Gounod’s “Faust.” Tickets go on sale on August 1st. For more information: winteroperastl.org.

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