July 6, 2012 at 2:38 PM

Santa Fe Opera Performance Review

Santa Fe Opera Review: ‘Tosca’

"Tosca should not project the attitude of an earnest shopper trying to decide between asparagus and arugula"

By Craig Smith

Critical Faculties

Craig Smith answered an ad for singers for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s first season way back when – OK, 1983 – and has been here happily ever since. He is a writer, editor, journalist, arts critic, general wordsmith, and wannabe polymath.

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There were plenty of fireworks in the orchestra as well as the sky for the Santa Fe Opera’s July 4 performance of Puccini’s “Tosca.” There were fewer big rockets onstage – or to put it more precisely, they failed to fly as high and brilliantly as one hoped for, and that a heart-on-the-sleeve extravaganza like this work needs.

However, chief conductor Frédéric Chaslin was out in front from the first slashing, foreboding chords to the last heartfelt cry. He drew a beautiful palette of sound and meaning from the players, one not to be bettered in the moment and for the piece’s needs. With polish buttressed by passion, he revealed interplays in the score that other conductors might let go by.

He was attentive to the singers, too, though sometimes the sheer volume coming out of the pit was way too much for balance, at least from my seat in the front section of the theater. Perhaps that location was why I couldn’t make out clearly the many bell parts, representing different church tower bells of Rome, which form such a vital tonal picture during the prelude to the third act. The cello quartet section was ravishing, though.

Onstage the least satisfactory performer, I’m sorry to say, was soprano Amanda Echalaz in the title role. The South African artist came highly heralded for this, her American debut, and without a doubt she has much going for her. She is slender, fair of face and figure and looked smashing in designer Yannis Thavoris’ period costumes. She showed good theatrical instincts, too, though not highly developed ones.

But Echalaz never achieved take-off speed. Her basically impressive voice commanded almost no dynamic variance: it was all mezzo-forte to fortissimo, with no pianissimos or even pianos for contrast. She tended to be gawky, too: Tosca, especially in the second act life-and-death confrontation with villainous Baron Scarpia, should not act like she’s trying to decide between asparagus and arugula. Perhaps the soprano will grow into the role as the season progress; she certainly has much potential.

American tenor Brian Jagde, who came into the production quite late after the original tenor bowed out, sang Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi with such incisive sound one could overlook the fact that he still has tenor written all over his acting and attitude. Not that Cavaradossi is any mental giant at his best, anyway – he’s brash and brave but not a good plotter, which is bad for a revolutionary sympathizer playing a dangerous game. Jagde clearly loved showing off his bright, bronze-strong high notes, and it was nice to hear such healthy, confident vocalism.

Raymond Aceto sang Scarpia with some menace and could move smoothly onstage; but like Echalaz, he never quite got to the altitude the role needs. The problem was not the American basso’s musical capacity or his stage instincts, really, but the fact that Scarpia is a baritone role, and a Puccini baritone at that. Aceto had to work too hard in his upper register to be vocally convincing: climactic top notes lacked core, and did not carry well. Too bad, for he looked splendidly wicked for the most part. Perhaps he was under the weather?

The smaller parts were uniformly well-cast and well-sung. Bass-baritone Dale Travis was an excellent comic Sexton, and baritone Zachary Nelson, an apprentice singer, a virile and rich-sounding Angelotti. Tenor Dennis Petersen’s Spoletta oozed sly menace, and apprentice singer-baritone Christian Bowers was notable in the cameo part of Sciarrone. Boy soprano Stefan Biller was dramatically apt, though as James Keller of “The New Mexican” has pointed out, in this production he’s a scullion with a broom rather than a herdboy with goats.

Ah, yes, the production. It was overseen by debutant director Stephen Barlow and with set as well as costumes by Thavoris, also in his SFO debut, and lighting by the able veteran Duane Schuler (not Schuler’s fault the spotlight operators were playing follow the bouncing ball…). It’s a same-but-very-different concept – a literal interpretation of the Roman setting turned askew in an Escher-like vortex.

In the first and third acts, with their settings of human love and tragedy, walls or paintings serve as floors, and ceilings and domes hover as if waiting to fall over and strike Tosca and Cavaradossi into smithereens. In contrast, the central second act, which takes place in Scarpia’s apartments in the Palazzo Farnese, is in proper proportions and direction. The good gal and guy are thus surrounded by fractured reality, whereas the villain is firmly anchored by gravity. That makes sense, really, since even though Scarpia gets his comeuppance, his hand seizes the lovers from beyond the grave.

“Tosca” runs through August 24. Call 986-5900 for tickets, or go to www.santafeopera.org.

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