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No Potboiler, this one

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
03/29/2014 -  & March 30*, April 1, 2, 4, 5 (Miami), 10, 12 (Fort Lauderdale), 2014
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Kara Shay Thomson/Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste* (Tosca), Rafael Davila/Diego Torre* (Cavaradossi), Todd Thomas (Scarpia), Andrew Funk (Sacristan), Adam Lau (Angelotti, Sciarrone), Jason Ferrante (Spoletta), Caden Barr (Shepherd), Dennis Ryan (Jailer)
Florida Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Michael Sakir (chorus master), Ramón Tebar (conductor)
José Maria Condemi (director), Ercole Sormani (scenic design), Christopher Maravich (lighting design), Malabar Ltd. (costumes)

R. Davila, K. Shay Thompson, T. Thomas (© Justin Namon)

After many Toscas it is not always easy to anticipate another with excitement. I find that I get a big thrill out of encouraging friends and acquaintances, who are opera beginners, to experience their first. Tosca is such a great evening of theatre, with at least three big shockeroos; to be able to watch a newcomer’s reaction is the closest one can come to reliving that initial exhilaration.

But this production has some things in the casting that are of much value for seasoned Toscagoers: one soprano, two different tenors and a baritone all making their debuts with Florida Grand Opera. The other soprano is a Young Artist taking on Floria Tosca in a huge auditorium; such a challenge for a young singer is particularly considerable. But with this opera, it is risk that these characters seem to thrive on making the evening even more thrilling. This is an opera so very specific about time and place that if a director decides to “do a concept,” it is bound to fail. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the result is usually a drama draining thud.

Though Tosca is one of opera’s most popular, it has one great dramatic quirk. The title character is not the protagonist. He, Scarpia, doesn’t enter for almost a half an hour and is completely absent in the last act. His actions determine Tosca’s and Cavaradossi’s fate. Though unwilling, once caught in his schemes, their destinies are set. And this villain, often portrayed as somewhat grotesque, is undeniably sexy.

Florida Grand Opera has had such greats as Dorothy Kirsten, Deborah Voigt, and Régine Crespin play the diva, and such stars as Richard Tucker and Luciano Pavarotti as her lover. So this community has come to expect the best.

The single most important element of this production is Ramon Tebar’s orchestra. So often a conductor treats Tosca as a piece of Grand Guignol musical theatre. Granted, the second act is loaded with a lot of violent talk and action but throughout is some of Puccini’s most tender and sad music. Tebar understands the piece and its many abrupt changes in mood. Because it is so popular, we see it regularly and become accustomed to the bombast. For Tosca veterans there is something thrilling about hearing instruments you never before realized were included in the orchestration.

Opera is about the singers and with this production, South Floridians are very fortunate. The heroine is sung with ample confidence and subtlety by Kara Shay Thomson. Her Tosca is spontaneous and never feels showy. Her graceful movement offers a sense of refined elegance. Rafael Davila as her lover, seemed to lose his way in his opening aria, but quickly got in line once he began to playfully flirt with the diva. Their natural chemistry makes the romance especially sexy.

In the second cast, Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste offers something additional: gung ho enthusiasm probably from the excitement of singing this role for the first time in a big house. She seemed to lose focus near the end of “Vissi d’arte” and there were problems with balance of volume in the first act but this is a take charge soprano, ready for the big time. Like Thomson, she moves with tremendous agility showing a natural gift as an actress. Her Cavaradossi, Diego Torre, is also the real thing. His beautiful tone and power makes one think back to the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s when tenors of such stamina were commonplace. As a couple, they offer a refreshing sense of youth that one does not often associate with this opera.

D. Torre, J. Jean-Baptiste, T. Thomas (© Justin Namon)

The Scarpia of Todd Thomas also goes back to an era when determined singing actors could send chills of terror by way of beautiful tone. As an actor, he never goes too far, yet always in control, right up to his character’s abrupt end.

Lots of touches by director José Maria Condemi add a spark to this warhorse. The almost cute way that Tosca plays with Mario’s paintbrush pretending she is going to change his painting’s eye color offered a new sense of merriment. Scarpia’s continual fascination with his handkerchief saturated with Tosca’s tears could have become overdone and vulgar, but Thomas performed with a magician’s slight-of-hand. Cavaradossi is not a wimp when taken into custody but a hero ready to stand up to the villains until he becomes outnumbered.

Of the comprimarios we once again are treated to the brilliant voice and acting of bass Adam Lau. Finally, Angelotti looks like a man who has just escaped prison. The long hair, beard and dirty clothes give the impression of a man living on the very edge; no disguise will help. Dennis Ryan offers a solid voice as the Jailer sincere about passing on Mario’s written farewell.

Thank goodness for the cast and orchestra because nothing special was offered with the physical production. The set consists mainly of flats, many of them wrinkled, that look as if they have been very well traveled over many decades. This could be a sign of financial difficulty at Florida Grand Opera but when the music and drama are this good, it is easy to overlook the shoddiness. In a way it is almost charming in itself as it unintentionally underscores the opera’s relevance.

Jeff Haller



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