Santa Fe Opera presents a visually striking, vocally mixed “Tosca”

July 31, 2012

Brian Jagde and Amanda Echalaz in Santa Fe Opera's production of "Tosca." Photo: Ken Howard

Santa Fe Opera made its name and international reputation presenting a distinctive blend of Richard Strauss, American opera and overlooked repertory.

Yet amid the intriguing productions that continue to attract discerning operaphiles from far and wide — and a phalanx of musical press this week — the company also manages one cornerstone work each season. This year’s box-office insurance is Puccini’s Tosca heard Monday night.

When the company mounts familiar rep, it is often with a unique backspin. Director Stephen Barlow and designer Yannis Thavoris collaborated on a much-talked about Tosca in London, set in 1968. Their new Santa Fe production hews to the traditional early 19th century, but otherwise displays a fresh, keenly intelligent take on Puccini’s shabby little shocker, largely successfully.

Thavoris serves up a clever new slant, literally, on the usual high scaffolding and large wall painting of Act 1. Cavaradossi’s fresco is a massive raked floor, on which the framing action takes place. The platform rises to form a back wall with huge Italian painting for Scarpia’s Palazzo Farnese lair, morphing into the Castel Sant’Angelo rooftop in the final scene, with looming, irregular church domes adding to the sense of social and psychic disorder.

As with the scenic design, Barlow’s lively, often imaginative stage direction gave the impression of rethinking the usual Tosca cliches. There was a youthful playfulness to the lovers’ interaction in Act I, and the battle between Tosca and Scarpia had a cinematic, unstagey intensity about it, with the villain literally straddling Tosca on the floor.

Not everything worked. Cavaradossi’s mugging behind Tosca’s back had too much of the sitcom about it and Barlow’s revisionism was fitfully wayward and interventionist, especially in Act II. The offstage Shepherd is here an onstage presence as a Scarpia pageboy and Tosca dispatches the villainous police chief with what must be the sharpest hairpin in history.

Making her American debut in this production, Amanda Echalaz proved a frustrating presence in the title role. Attractive and statuesque, the South African soprano often showed the stuff of greatness, with impassioned top notes, expressive singing and a vivid dramatic intensity. In Act 1 she was the imperious Floria Tosca to the hilt, wholly believable in the diva’s jealousy and capricious mood swings, and Echalaz brought a fearless physicality to the climactic confrontation with Scarpia.

Elsewhere, her singing was wildly uneven. Echalaz’s words were often unclear, shifts between registers jarring and her soprano acquires a hard, strident edge on top. After a lovely inward start to Vissi d’arte, things quickly went awry with choppy phrasing and the singer scooping up to her top note.

Brian Jagde, Count Elemer in the company’s Arabella, was pressed into service as Cavaradossi when Andrew Richards pulled out of the production due to “severe allergies” just days before opening night. As it turned out, the American tenor provided the most consistent vocalism of the evening.

Jagde’s voice lacks Italianate ping yet he sang with polish and sensitivity, managing a clarion cry of “Vittoria!” and floating a lovely, burnished E lucevan e stelle. Dramatically, his regular-guy Cavaradossi seemed a tad louche and unheroic, more like Rodolfo, even sitting casually on Scarpia’s desk. But Jagde showed a light and charming rapport with Echalaz’s Tosca, and, even with his back to the audience, managed to convey surprised disbelief just by his fall at the opera’s close.

Raymond Aceto proved a worthy, saturnine Scarpia. Aceto sounded a bit light for the role with a narrow range of color to his bass and a rather underpowered Te Deum. Still, he certainly brought evil relish to the lascivious police chief, insinuating in his enticement in Act 1 as he draws Tosca into his web, and frenziedly sweeping objects off his desk, the better to manhandle her in Act 2.

Dale Travis was a characterfully bibulous Sacristan, Zachary Nelson a capable Angelotti, Dennis Petersen an efficiently unctuous Spoletta, Stefan Biller, an aptly boyish-sounding Shepherd/Page.

A few odd emphases apart, Santa Fe Opera’s chief conductor, Frederic Chaslin led a lean, tensile performance that captured the verismo drama as well as the surging lyricism. The choruses, adult and children, provided robust ensemble singing under Susanne Sheston’s direction.

Tosca continues through August 24. Thomas Hampson will sing the role of Scarpia August 11-24.

Photo: Ken Howard

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