Anna Nicole Smith and Barry White: Florida Grand Opera’s Tosca
by Judy O. Marchman
Florida Grand Opera’s Tosca opened on March 29th to overwhelming applause and plentiful bravos! It was fantastic, and I – generally not Tosca-lover – loved it! (Picture that statement coupled with jazz hands.) From the opening chords to the swan dive, I was thrilled. Puccini knew what he was doing and my body resonated along with the well-known and well-played symphonic themes of deceit and doom.
This is nothing comparing to the vibrant singing of Cavardossi, performed by Rafael Davila and Tosca, performed by Kara Shay Thomson. Those high notes! Bellisimi! Davila’s tenor was substantial and rich, without being barky. He sang strong and resonant, and you didn’t anticipate his high notes with dread. He knew where he was going and he got there with a strong step. I almost lost my mind at the conclusion of E lucevan le stelle. I’m not one to yell bravo nor do I often give standing ovations, but I was hard pressed to keep myself seated. Either it was Davila or Puccini (or both), but it got me. It got me good.
Thomson’s soprano was thoughtful and resilient. She seemed very comfortable in her voice and in her body. Her comedic timing was a little off in Act I – her jealousy just wasn’t funny enough. I always feel as though Tosca is the Anna Nicole Smith of Rome. She should make us laugh, but sometimes we laugh at her. Thomson just wasn’t Anna Nicole enough.
Tosca is a role we know so well, and Vissi d’arte is right up there with Nessun dorma in awesomeness. There is no getting away from how iconic and beloved Vissi d’arte is to both the opera world and beyond. So, there is a tendency as the aria approaches, to feel a sort of nervous quiver while inwardly chanting, Please don’t let her ruin it, please don’t let her ruin it, please don’t let her ruin it… She didn’t! She crushed it. The phrasing, the steadiness, the brilliance of her high notes – it was truly a moment. I was surprised the applause wasn’t longer.
There is one thing that detracted from such exquisite singing, and it was odd that both Davila and Thomson did it: they just about dragged the whole house and the kitchen sink up to their high notes. I mean, there’s Puccini-high-note prep and then there is the dredge of every microtone on the way up there! But, once they got there, the sound was glorious. Just glorious. And we all heaved a sigh of relief.
And now on to my favorite: Scarpia. Loved it! Loved him! Honestly, Todd Thomas was the Scarpia that didn’t get booed during the curtain call. Either we were all too enamored of him or we were just too scared. His acting was even matched and not contrived. He oozed sinister charm, and his lustrous baritone just melted over Tosca. That same rich baritone sharpened over Spoletta. The voice was smooth throughout the entire range, and had it been just a little deeper, Tosca would have never had a chance. He is the Barry White of Rome.
As always, Adam Lau did not disappoint. He did a wonderful job as both Angelotti and Sciarrone. Jason Ferrante was a nervous Spoletta, and I was unsure if he was affecting a certain quality or if he was the Jim Carey of the opera world. (Read: over-actor.) Andrew Funk as the Sacristan was endearing and pious, his bass a reverent tone and a delightful counterpart to Davila.
The production was beautifully set in an ambiguous time period, provided by Seattle Opera. It was all opera-magic, because we weren’t actually in an ornate cathedral at the opening (duh), but the scenery drapes were expertly painted. I mean, I kept thinking, these scenery dudes really knew what they were doing!
José Maria Condemi directed this stellar performance, but I will say the movement was a bit stilted. I’m not sure if this was the direction or the personal choices of some of the cast, but it was noticeable how lacking in energy the movement was. A little too much park-and-bark and not enough verismo! (Read: standing still vs. realistic movement.)
Ramón Tebar, well loved by South Floridians, arrived to a plethora of applause. I’m a fan of Maestro Tebar, but this is one of the times his symphonic tendencies overruled his operatic baton. It was just too dang loud. Now, I love me some Tosca themes. The opening diabolic chords, the saintly sonorities of the Act I Te Deum and the plaintive themes of poor Cavaradossi’s Act IV aria. This is all good stuff and I want to hear it! But give your singers a chance to rival Puccini’s masterful orchestra!
It was all very dramatic. And I was reminded of something in my past…
Years ago I was coaching a young voice student to audition for a musical theater at an esteemed university. I was not responsible for coaching her required monologue, but a few days before the audition, I asked to see/hear it. Her pianist and I sat and watched while she delivered a well-prepared dramatic one-woman scene. Half way into it, I caught myself squinting a little at the noise level. The pianist – not really a funny guy, b-t-dubs – leaned over and said, Why do they always think drama means you have to yell every emotion? I had this same reaction while listening to the rampant spoken dialogue in FGO’s Tosca. Why were they yelling? Yeah, yeah, I get it. Tosca is in pain, Cavaradossi is going to die… But, the nuance of the silent beat or the emotionally charged gasp was ignored by this fine, fine cast. I missed it. I felt myself squinting a little.
A very small criticism, indeed. I felt it was important to point it out and maybe some acting student, some opera singer somewhere might read and take notice. Drama ≠ yelling.
I was very sorry I was unable to review Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste’s Tosca, which was to debut the next night. I have no doubt she was wonderful, but she certainly had big shoes to fill. From the beginning to the end, I was enraptured. Davila and Thomson were breathtaking. The entire production, very simply and traditionally staged, was absolutely beautiful. If you have a chance – GO!
Judy O. Marchman, soprano – Ms. Marchman is currently studying for her Doctorate of Musical Arts degree at the University of Miami. Roles include Miss Wordsworth in Britten’s Albert Herring and Eurydice in Milhaud’s Les Malheurs d’Orphée , Alice Ford and Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff, and Foreign Woman in Menotti’s The Consul. Upcoming performances include John Rutter’sMagnificat and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Sorrowful Songs. B.M., Beach Atlantic University, M.M., Florida State University.