Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: 'Tosca'

Virginia Opera, Peter Mark conducting
Feb. 20, Landmark Theater, Richmond

"Tosca," Giacomo Puccini’s most compact opera, and in some ways his most potent, normally has three stars: the soprano portraying the singer Floria Tosca; the tenor, as Tosca’s lover, the artist Mario Cavaradossi; and the bass or baritone, as Baron Scarpia, the villanous and licentious oppressor of the tottering city-state of Rome at the turn of the 19th century.

The current Virginia Opera production has four stars.

Its Tosca, Mary Elizabeth Williams, is a singer who shows every sign of owning this role in a stellar career. In the first of two Richmond performances that complete this production’s three-city run, Williams displayed a big, well-polished voice, which she projected powerfully, emotively and with plenty of nuance when it’s called for. She also proved to be a formidable stage presence, with a highly expressive face and a knack for gestures that are vivid but not overplayed. All that came together most memorably in the Act 2 aria "Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore" and the Act 3 duet, but consistently throughout the soprano’s performance.

Michael Hayes, the Cavaradossi, demonstrated his Puccinian chops with this company as Calaf in "Turandot" in 2004. He wasn’t as polished this time – his voice succumbed to an infection last weekend during performances in Fairfax – and tended toward the sobby in moments of high passion; but he held his own in projection and presence alongside Williams (no mean feat), and hit his stride in Act 3, with "O dolci manni" and the duet.

Baritone Stephen Kechulius, as Scarpia, has the physical heft and menacing presence for the role, and seems to relish playing the heavy; but in this performance he growled more than he sang. That, alas, is not uncommon in Scarpias these days. Puccini, however, wrote melodies as well as snarling exclamations for this character, and they really ought to be done justice.

The production’s fourth star is its stage director, Marc Astafan, who shows an uncommon grasp of melodrama. This theatrical genre must be high-strung, but if it departs too far from real-life emotion and passion it becomes high-camp. Astafan gives his cast reasonably free rein, but never lets matters get out of hand.

Michael Yeargan’s darkly monumental set, "reconceptualized" by Astafan and lighting designer Chris Kitrell, served the drama nicely. Supporting singers were adequate, although frequently barely audible in this venue, and the Virginia Opera Chorus was in very good form.

The orchestra, drawn from the Virginia Symphony, was uncharacteristically sloppy in this performance.

The final performance of the Virginia Opera’s "Tosca" begins at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at Richmond’s Landmark Theater, Main and Laurel streets. Tickets: $22.50-$92.50. Details: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster);