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A worthy new production of Tosca

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
01/26/2008 -  and 29 January, 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 14, 17, 20, 23 February
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Eszter Sümegi (Tosca), Mikhail Agafonov (Cavaradossi), Alan Opie (Scarpia), Robert Pomakov (Sacristan), Andrew Stewart (Angelotti, Jailer), John Kriter (Spoletta), Jon-Paul Décosse (Sciarrone), Dov Houle (Shepherd Boy
Paul Curran (Director), Kevin Knight (Set and Costume Designer), David Martin Jacques (Lighting Design)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Richard Buckley (Conductor)

The Canadian Opera Company’s handsome new production of Tosca strikes dramatic sparks but never quite bursts into full flame.

The production team gave us a terrific Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk last season and have once again created atmospheric sets which not only accommodate but enhance the performances. The setting of 1800 is kept - modern audiences are capable of drawing their own parallels with despotic regimes of more recent times (and anyway the political situation is really just a device for the central love/hate triangle that constitutes the plot).

The Act I set cleverly brings the initial plot-setting action right down front. Later, when the grand procession is about to start, architectural elements slide into the wall and the whole stage is thus made available for the big finish. One regrets that this is the chorus’s only appearance of the night. Scarpia’s office in the Palazzo Farnese is a very grand classical room with the torture chamber tastefully concealed behind a cabinet. For the third act, the full height and width of the stage is used for a multi-level set which gives Tosca lots of scope for her final frenetic dash to the parapet. On the wall is a bloodstain from a previous execution.

All the various stage business to do with the assembling of the choirboys and crowd in Act I, the torturers in Act II and the soldiers in Act III is handled with aplomb.

Vocally the three principles all have the proper spinto weight and tonality. In his higher range, tenor Mikhail Agafonov comes out with big, steady gleaming sound which is very exciting. However his lower notes lose this wonderful sheen and his acting tends toward the stolid. The first evidence of this is his apparently mild reaction to the entrance of the frenzied Angelotti. Later on, his interaction with Tosca seems more dutiful than erotic. After all, in spite of their different temperaments (she is ever passion’s plaything, he is - as described by the sacristan - a “voltairian”) they are madly in love (aren’t they?)

(An aside: if Tosca and Cavaradossi had managed to escape I really don’t think their relationship would have lasted. Each was made for a mad love affair with the other, but not for the long haul.)

I often wonder if a tenor performing the role of Cavaradossi ever wants to strangle the singer playing the sacristan, who gets to natter away all through his loveliest aria, Recondita Harmonia. Anyway, Robert Pomakov performs this role to the hilt.

Eszter Sümegi has the glamorous bruna looks for the title role and handles herself animatedly. Her voice has a generous vibrato which some people find “old-fashioned”, which I think is a pity.

Alan Opie’s voice has the right mixture of opulence and menace. A note to certain members of the audience: it’s fun to boo the villain in a broadly comic piece like the Christmas pantomime, but is disrespectful to the performer (especially a fine one) in an opera like Tosca.

Conductor Richard Buckley brings out every nuance in the score. Puccini created several languorous moments within this highly melodramatic score and it can be hard to maintain the musical and dramatic tension at times. One example is during the pause just before the big set-piece of the work, Vissi d’arte. Perhaps this is one instance where a designated pause is best shortened if not ignored.

This opera gets more critical disrespect than any other but it has surged along for 108 years now and shows no sign of flagging. This Curran/Knight production will serve the COC well in many a season to come.

Michael Johnson



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