Alas, poor Tosca!
All she wants is her art — singing and acting — and her man, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, but she can’t have either one. An unwilling pawn caught up in the deadly politics of a turbulent era, she is forced to take a life and then give up her own.
“Tosca,” Giacomo Puccini’s “shabby little shocker,” as one critic termed it, concludes the New Orleans Opera Association’s 2015-16 season with a matinee Sunday at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
Set in Rome during the Napoleonic era of the early 19th century, “Tosca” plays out like an Alfred Hitchcock melodrama, replete with intrigue, treachery, violence and a good bit of lust thrown into the mix. There are no winners here, only victims, and all three principal characters end up dead.
The role of Floria Tosca is one of the most coveted in the soprano repertoire, but it is very challenging. Not only does it demand a high level of vocal dexterity and range, but the singer’s acting must be convincing as well.
Jennifer Rowley proved Friday night she could hold her own against the many sopranos who have played the role here before her. She was at the top of her game vocally and visually, and her acting was convincing.
One could see and feel how intensely the audience was drawn into her dilemma, especially during her mournful delivery of the role’s signature aria, “Vissi d’arte” (I lived for art), and her equally touching duets with Cavaradossi (Noah Stewart) in acts 1 and 3.
As Tosca’s love interest, as well as the decidedly pro-Napoleonic hero, Stewart also handled his assignment with melodic and dramatic flair. The role is not just that of a one-dimensional heroic tenor coming to the soprano’s rescue en route to a happy ending. The character is as much a victim as his loved one, but the audience is squarely in his corner.
Saving the best for last, Stewart’s Act 3 aria, “E lucevan le stelle” (And the stars shone), sung while he is imprisoned and recalling happier times spent with Tosca, was touching, even heart-rending.
Hovering menacingly over the entire drama is the wicked and corrupt Roman chief of police, Baron Scarpia, whose very name invites comparisons to more contemporary villains like the evil uncle Scar in “The Lion King” or Darth Vader in “Star Wars.”
LSU graduate Scott Hendricks took on the role of Scarpia and brought frightening realism to it with a sonorous baritone that, with every intonation, let you know he was up to no good.
Scarpia’s character ranks, along with Iago in Verdi’s “Otello,” among the most despised roles in the standard operatic repertoire, but it is also one of the most colorful and demanding. In opera, as in films, the bad guys are often more interesting characters than the heroes.
In his all-consuming obsession to physically possess Tosca, before he falls victim to her deadly “kiss,” Scarpia lecherously brags about his female conquests. Hendricks does this in such a persuasive way as to make you hate him, which is precisely the intent. If this were an audience of moviegoers instead of well-behaved opera buffs, the house would be cheering when Tosca delivers the fatal thrusts that put an end to the man “before whom all Rome trembled.”
Also notable in the relatively small cast were New Orleanians Casey Candebat as Scarpia’s henchman, Spoletta; Ivan Griffin as the escaped political prisoner, Cesare Angelotti; and chorus member Aaron Ambeau as the jailer. Two local university master’s degree candidates, Justin Lee Miller at Tulane and Spencer Reichman at Loyola, also performed admirably as the sacristan and Sciarrone, respectively.
Special plaudits go to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Robert Lyall for setting and maintaining the dark, somber mood of the production throughout most of its three acts.
The sets, designed by Constantine Kritikos and dimly lit by the skilled hands of Don Darnutzer, further enhanced that dark, somber mood.