Los Angeles Opera Review: TOSCA (Pacific Opera Project at St. James in Pasadena)

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by Tony Frankel on September 22, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

POP DOES OPERA BIG, INTIMATELY

Under Artistic Director Josh Shaw’s hands-on guidance, Pacific Opera Project has become L.A.’s most exciting new opera company. In just three years since POP began with the teeny-tiny production of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, I sensed that this would be the company to make quality opera more accessible, approachable, and affordable. Exceeding my expectations, POP opened their biggest production yet last Friday with a Tosca that is more powerfully intimate and emotionally successful than many of the large-budget productions seen at major opera houses.

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In addition, POP joins the phenomenon of site-specific theater. At St. James United Methodist Church in Pasadena, this “moving production” takes us from an actual apse in Act I to a room with a stage for Act II to the outdoor church courtyard for Act III. While patrons move between these locations, a 22-piece orchestra (under the assured leadership of co-founder Stephen Karr), quietly transports itself into place. Except for the final act, the players are hidden behind the set, so it’s a wonder that the orchestra was consistently in synch with the singers.

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Thanks to Stage Manager Kaitrin Kinnare, Shaw’s behemoth production went off without a hitch: The sound was spectacular; the supertitles well-written and well-placed; and the sight-lines mostly outstanding (the audience is seated on a flat plane in the first act, so a little head-bobbing is needed, but the seats are raked in the second act, and the action takes place above our heads in the third). Most important were the voices: Expect the best from artists who have performed from Carnegie Hall to Los Angeles Opera.

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For those new to Giacomo Puccini’s 1899 masterwork (with Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa), the plot involves diva Floria Tosca, who jealously suspects the innocent man she loves, painter Mario Cavaradossi, of infidelity with the model for his new painting at Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. When a newly escaped revolutionary, Cesare Angelotti, arrives at the church, Mario helps his friend flee. At the manipulative urging of the evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia, Tosca goes to Mario’s home to spy on her lover.

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In Act II, Cavaradossi has been arrested and brought to Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese. Tosca arrives to aid her tortured lover, and is offered a deal by Scarpia: sex in return for Cavaradossi’s release. Tragedy ensues, taking us to the upper parts of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Act III, where Cavaradossi and Tosca await their fate.

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Soprano Daria Somers sang powerfully throughout as Tosca, but it was her richly detailed performance—from coquettish to fearful to authoritative—that impressed. While Somers could have been more silvery and steady during pianissimo passages, her beautiful acting shone through her voice, whereas most sopranos opt for vocals over dramatics. This made “Vissi d’arte,” the aria in which she prays to God for help, asking why He has abandoned her, most affecting.

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As Scarpia, bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell’s beautifully thick vocals resounded throughout, his upper and lower registers given equal weight. Blackwell’s acting is a bit wooden, so I didn’t really buy him as threatening—he comes off more nightclub bouncer than the most frightening figure in Rome. But the close proximity of his dark, sonorous timbre gave the second act scene with Tosca a palpable dramatic tension more moving than any I have seen at grand opera houses. And for non-opera folk, this scene is a reminder why Tosca is a perfect introduction to those who want to give opera a try: the story is thrilling and suspenseful, the score is lush and accessible, and the characters come off as real people, not caricatures.

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It is tenor Brian Cheney as the brave painter Cavaradossi who really blew me away. With nary a glitch, and equally authoritative throughout his range, Cheney has that terrific tenor sound: the power, richness, and vocal color of a high baritone combined with ringing, awe-inspiring high notes.

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Maggie Green’s costumes are surprisingly sumptuous, but Shaw is working on a budget here, so the high-end community theater feel of his sets is entirely forgivable. You want sumptuously gilded gargantuan sets? Go pay $300 somewhere else. This is all about getting to the heart of an opera. Considering you can get in for twenty bucks (if you can; tickets are selling wildly well), Shaw still assembled for the Act I closer seemingly more people on stage than at a papal blessing. Talk about a miracle of logistics. POP certainly has my blessing.

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photos by Josh Shaw

tosca-7483Tosca
Pacific Opera Project
St. James United Methodist Church
2033 E. Washington Blvd. in Pasadena
shows begin promptly at 8
scheduled to end on September 28, 2014
for tickets ($20 – $50), call (323) 739-6122
or visit www.pacificoperaproject.com

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Veronica Reed September 29, 2014 at 7:46 am

Wonderful, Brian! So glad for you!

(A little confused…was your Stage Manager also the Stage Director?)

Congrats to all!

Reply

Kaitrin Kinnare October 10, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Hi Veronica,

I saw your comment and just wanted to clarify; Josh Shaw was the Artistic Director for this production and I was the Stage Manager.

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