North Carolina Opera Has Mixed Success With “Tosca”


Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Raleigh – Oct. 17, 2010

Opera is the most difficult of art forms. The demands are so high that productions rarely succeed in every department, success being measured by having more parts go well than not.

The production of Puccini’s gritty melodrama “Tosca” by the newly formed North Carolina Opera on October 15 (repeated on the 17th) had several successful elements. The large orchestra was satisfyingly rich and full, producing huge walls of sound for dramatic moments and delicate underpinnings in the romantic sections. Nathan Leaf’s chorus acted and sang with admirable precision, especially in the impressive act one “Te Deum.”

David Gano’s sets (borrowed from the New Orleans Opera) did all that is required for church chapel, palatial apartment and castle parapet, made especially dimensional in Tlàloc López-Watermann’s astute lighting. The lavish costumes from Malabar, Ltd. set the period firmly in 1800.

But opera is primarily about the singers and here the results were mixed.

The role of Tosca contains treacherously exposed high notes, extremely physical action and a wide gamut of emotions. Cynthia Lawrence, an experienced Tosca, boldly confronting the challenges with her assured, strongly vocalized performance. She had all the notes, though the top several were steely and effortful. She played the imperious diva and the hopeful romantic convincingly, but her act two battle with Scarpia became awkward and repetitive.

Grant Youngblood projected proper menace as police chief Scarpia with an admirable command of vocal colors. His voice carried well except at the top, which lacked ideal power. Steven Harrison gave painter Cavaradossi the right cavalier feistiness and possesses a beautiful tone that expanded satisfyingly on the money notes. But his voice was smaller that the other leads, often getting lost except in quieter passages.

The biggest disappointment was conductor Timothy Myers, whose many fine opera performance here previously have been some of the most successful elements of those productions. Here he took an overly majestic approach, his leisurely tempos draining tension and thrust from the drama. He found dozens of lovely individual moments and could whip up huge climaxes but the majority of the music was too languidly presented. Also disappointing was James Marvel’s overactive direction, employing too much movement for movement’s sake. He also went overboard with the role of the Sacristan, making him a vaudeville clown, although Donald Hartmann did what he was asked with panache. Marvel, too, had some fine individual ideas (the flirting between Tosca and Mario was particularly engaging; the menacing of an alterboy by Scarpia suitably chilling), but overall he seemed too determined to fill every moment with some sort of action, rather than let some moments work through the music alone.

Still, Friday night’s audience gave strong approval, many who were attending their first Tosca or first opera. The company has proved it can mount a major production, now on to improving the balance of successful elements.

[a version of this article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer on October 17, 2010]