United States Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Seattle Opera, Julian Kovatchev (conductor). McCaw Hall, Seattle, WA. 10.1.2014 (RC)
Stefano Secco: Mario Cavaradossi
Ausrine Stundyte: Floria Tosca
Greer Grimsley: Baron Scarpia
Puccini’s Tosca was not designed for the soul. Instead, it stirs the senses with its rhapsodic music, which is why it is a rare performance that is not sold out, and why opera companies mount the opera on a regular basis. Last weekend Seattle opened a run with two casts, and the house, predictably, was sold-out. The audience did not go home unhappy.
There was nothing new or glamorous about this production. The set is made from old-fashioned, painted drops that one doesn’t see so often anymore, designed by the venerable Ercole Sormani family when the opera was staged at the old Opera House in 1969. The Sormani’s Italian scene shop, which had a long history, closed its doors when the younger Sormani died in 1985, but later re-opened as Production Designer Sormani Cardaropoli. Of course, the sets kindle a sense of deja-vu, but they succeed in creating an ambience. The critical component is the ability of the cast to project the heat of the story—and to sing well.
The three principals in the “gold” cast (there’s also a “silver” one)—Stefano Secco, Ausrine Stundyte, and Greer Grimsley—have those virtues. They look good on stage and are well-dressed for their roles. Stundyte has a big, generous voice—warm, engaging, and full of dramatic heat, with a sure sense of lyricism. As her lover, Cavaradossi, Secco was not so blessed. The timbre of his voice is gritty which works against Puccini’s lyricism. However, the voice is strong, does not shy away from high notes, and rings full, bright and strong.
For many in the audience, the star was Grimsley as Scarpia. Rarely has his voice sounded so big and compelling, radiating authority and lyric breath. Coupled with his height and physical presence, these qualities combined for a powerful reading of the role.
In Act II, one of the most vivid moments (in Scarpia’s study in the Farnese palace) comes at the beginning of Tosca’s celebrated aria, “Vissi d’arte.” Instead of Tosca being carefully arranged on the floor she is standing against the wall, stage left, with Scarpia leaning on the window, stage right and only half-lit, leering at her, savoring her beauty and anger. Slowly she makes her way to center stage. Everything is done quietly but effectively, only increasing the tension. Stage director Jose Marii Condem deserves kudos, for this, only one of several telling moments in the production.
Others are in the cast deserve notice, such as Peter Strummer, the Sacristan, who brings comic warmth to a small role. Alasdair Elliott’s Spoletto is appropriately vile but he never overdoes it. Also, to be mentioned are Aubrey Allicock as Angelotti, and Barry Johnson as Sciarrone. Not seen but heard is the talented Matthew Bratton, as the Shepherd Boy. And in Act I, the excellent Seattle Opera Chorus sang “Te Deum” beautifully.
Julian Kovatchev conducted with plenty of dramatic finesse, pushing and pulling when necessary. In the midst of all that glorious vocal music, one does not want to forget Puccini’s extraordinary orchestral contributions.