An Opulent Production Kicks Off Opera Festival And Brings Fort Worth’s Tosca To Life

Whilst heading into one of the most admirably up-to-date opera festivals in the world—with two works by living composers in a four-production season—Fort Worth Opera opened its annual spring festival Saturday night at Bass Performance Hall with a hyper-traditional production of one of the all time hits from the traditional standard repertoire, Puccini’s Tosca.

This particular production offers everything a lover of traditional opera could want. Mammoth, realistic, and beautifully detailed new sets by Andrew Horn provided a backdrop that enhanced and never overwhelmed the drama; the final act, notoriously difficult to hit just right in terms of scenery, was impressively believable and appropriate.  Ray Diffen’s costumes gave us the iconic purple-gowned Tosca in Act II. Director Daniel Pelzig’s staging was generally effective—though having soprano Carter Scott as Tosca flat on her back for “Visse d’arte,” her big number, was one highly questionable moment, from an aesthetic as well as physiological angle.

Musically, the principal singers were appropriately hall-filling in terms of vocal and dramatic presence. Both Scott as Tosca and tenor Roger Honeywell as Cavaradossi tended to opt for volume over subtlety at key moments, but baritone Michael Chioldi as Scarpia delivered that role as close to perfection as possible—you almost hated to see him die at the end of Act II.

Among the other singers, newly minted TCU graduate mezzo-soprano Katharine Steffen’s offstage rendition of the brief Shepherd Boy’s song at the beginning of Act III displayed a vocal quality of extraordinary natural depth and beauty.

Tosca is, in some ways, the most musically aggressive of Puccini’s scores; only Turandot, written two decades later, comes close to the constant barrage of orchestral colors and harmonic motion. The Fort Worth Symphony and conductor Joe Illick provided an appropriately assertive accompaniment.

The shadows of Verdi—in the dark, nineteenth-century outlook—and Wagner—in  the harmonic language and relentless use of leitmotif—loom large in this opera, but Puccini’s unique mastery shines through every measure. The catastrophic clash of three huge egos (Cavaradossi, Tosca, and Scarpia) feeds the music and the drama. The sanctimonious sycophants and proto-Fascists who hide behind religion and rail against “Voltaireans” in Tosca resonate uncannily in America in 2012. But it’s in the sense of warm, intensely human characters driven by their own urges yet overwhelmed by the forces of history (one of Puccini’s most often overlooked but greatest strengths) that make this opera work so beautifully, and come to life so well in this opulent production.

Photo courtesy: Ellen Appel