The opening night performance of Tosca at the Brown Theatre marked the 60-year anniversary of Kentucky Opera in Louisville, a milestone marked by Mayor Greg Fischer's congratulatory proclamation before the curtain rose. It also marked the most welcome return of the Louisville Orchestra to the pit -- the group having spent most of last season on strike in a contentious contract battle with management. It's easy to take the pit orchestra for granted at the opera when your eye is trained on the stage performers -- until they aren't there, that is. I was thrilled to look down from my balcony seat and see them tuning up, under the leadership of Conductor Joe Mechavich, knowing that the delightful music of Puccini would be in the hands of true professionals.
On such an auspicious night, the performances of the three stars of Tosca were exceptional. Kara Shay Thomson as Floria Tosca was last seen here as Santuzza in 2011's Cavalleria Rusticana, while both Jonathan Burton as her lover, Cavaradossi, and Michael Chioldi as the villain Scarpia were making their Kentucky Opera debuts.
The opera opens on the ragged political fugitive Angelotti, who has escaped from the clutches of the chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. He is hidden by his friend, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, who is working on a fresco of Mary Magdalene in the church where Angelotti seeks sanctuary. This dangerous secret supplies the looming tragedy of the plot, drawing together the fates of Scarpia, Cavaradossi, and the beautiful singer Tosca. Tosca is a very suspicious lover, to say the least. She arrives at the church to question Cavaradossi's fidelity after acknowledging the resemblance of his Mary Magdalene to another beautiful lady who visits the church. In what is the only light moment of the story, Tosca needles Cavaradossi for being untrue while he reassures her of his love, in a duet of songs that illustrates their devotion to one another.
The arrival of Scarpia on the scene with his henchmen changes the mood dramatically. Without belaboring the plot points too much, he quickly divines that the painter is hiding the fugitive and he knows enough about Tosca's jealousy to use it against her. Scarpia is played younger than I've seen in other productions -- he usually turns up as an even more corrupted form of the dirty old man, powdered wig and all, longing to get his greedy hands on the young singer and send the other young men to their doom. Chioldi's version is young, dark, and merciless, a Marquis de Sade of strutting and fingersnapping authority, who can sing about death-dealing and lust against a background chorus of children singing "Te Deum" in the chapel.
Chioldi brings real menace and power to this interpretation with his commanding voice and presence. Later, as he ensnares Tosca in a deal that forces her to give in to his desires as the price of rescuing Cavaradossi from torture and execution, his cruel amorality perfectly sets up Thomson's profoundly beautiful aria, "Vissi d'arte" ("I lived for art") as she tries to confront the crisis she now faces. This moment showcases Thomson's talent for rendering emotion with her voice without it becoming distracting -- she weaves together grief, defiance, pleading, and desperation with great delicacy. It's a difficult scene, in which Tosca has to struggle and then become murderous, but it's very effective.
Meanwhile, Cavaradossi, facing execution and unaware of what is happening between Scarpia and Tosca, begs permission to write her a farewell letter, the occasion of one of the most well-known and beautiful arias for tenor in all of opera, "E lucevan le stelle." Against the stark backdrop of the castle's battlements (a very elegant set design by Robert Little), the mournful clarinet solo leads into Burton's opening lines. Whereas there are opera aficianados who can confidently bellow out a "Bravo!" in appreciation of a moment such as this (and they did), my response was a sotto voce, "Wow." Burton pretty much nailed it, in whatever fashion you care to acknowledge it.
This production of Tosca, directed by David Roth, has great power, mostly due to the talent of its three stars, and with the support of a solid cast and chorus. Both the sets (designed by Robert Little) and costumes (Howard Tsvi Kaplan) are sumptuous and true to the early-1800s era of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. In addition to tomorrow's matinee performance (Sept. 23), you can still get tickets  for next Friday's performance at 8 p.m. on Sept. 28. Go see it!
Photo Credits: Patrick Pfister