For the first opera of its 2017-18 season, Palm Beach Opera handed its audience a gift.
In mounting a box-office surety in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, the company was doing its best to make sure it had a sizable audience for its first mainstage production of the year. And on the afternoon of Jan. 28, the Kravis Center house was gratifyingly huge.
But in bringing this opera to life again with the sumptuous sets created 40 years ago by the French theater icon Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, casting it with excellent singers across the board, and supporting it with a masterful orchestra, winningly directed, Palm Beach Opera presented as good a Tosca as has been seen in these parts for some time.
In the title role, soprano Keri Alkema (who grew up in Palm Beach County) was a good though not definitive Tosca. She has a big, expressive voice that had little evident difficulty singing this demanding role, and her “Vissi d’arte” was tenderly and beautifully sung in Act II; her Act III duet with Cavaradossi was also very fine, with real warmth coming into her singing and well-deserved applause (not always a guarantee) at the end of it.
What she lacked in the Sunday performance was a real identification with the character, a fire and tempestuousness that makes Tosca’s decision to stab Scarpia, and then fling herself off a parapet to avoid arrest, completely believable. Alkema is just a bit too nice to be Tosca; her demand that Cavaradossi change the color of the Madonna’s eyes to black in Act I, for instance, should be fiercer, more demanding; here she was relatively gentle.
As Scarpia, the baritone Michael Chioldi, a company favorite, was splendid, with a clarion voice and a forceful stage manner that gave the role of the Roman police chief its requisite odiousness. Over the years, his voice has gotten stronger and deeper, and it added heft to the closing “Tre sbirri, una carozza” finale of Act I.
Chioldi was somewhat less persuasive as a sexual predator in Act II, perhaps because stage director Fenlon Lamb was trying not to overdo things and turn the scene into a #MeToo commentary by emphasizing erotic violence. But Chioldi’s Scarpia was short of lust by about a quart, so that we missed out on the deranging effect Scarpia’s desire has his judgment; after all, it causes him to make a fatal error by not understanding just who he is dealing with. Still, Chioldi delivered a resonantly and arrestingly sung Scarpia, and he was a pleasure to see and hear.
Italian tenor Ricardo Massi, as Cavaradossi, was marvelous. He has a classic romantic spinto tenor, and both his signature arias, “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle,” showcased a voice with plenty to give, pouring forth beautiful sound with ease. He was a decent stage actor, too, especially in Act III when he turns away from Tosca with a grimace as she tells him about the fake execution. Cavaradossi knows it’s real, and Massi made that point clearly.
The veteran baritone Thomas Hammons was as good a Sacristan as you could hope for, with a strong, clear voice and his wonderful handling of such traditional bits of business as hiding a pinch of snuff from the gaze of the Virgin Mary. He embodied in no small way the ethos of the minor church official: Master of his small domain, thoroughly devout, and entirely reliable. The young American bass Scott Conner displayed an impressive, powerful voice as the escapee Angelotti, a voice that deserves to be heard at much greater length, and one that testifies to this company’s knack of finding first-rate singers for its casts.
Apprentice artist Kelsey Robertson, a mezzo, offered a great treat in a well-sung shepherd boy’s song at the beginning of Act III, a bit of color that too often gets mangled. It’s too bad Lamb couldn’t figure out a way to give us an actual boy walking across the stage, or perhaps on the walls of the castello, if only to remind us why we were hearing that music.
In the other minor roles, baritone Joshua Conyers was an adequate Sciarrone, while tenor Brian Wallin, as Spoletta, was somewhat underpowered. The Palm Beach Opera chorus, led by Greg Ritchey, was excellent in its brief appearance at the end of Act I and could be heard to pleasing effect in the offstage cantata of Act II.
Lamb, who has directed several productions for Palm Beach Opera, did a fine job managing her actors, and presenting the action in an easily understandable way. The fight scene with Scarpia and Tosca in Act II was well-done, with a believable struggle and a nasty coup de grace with additional knife blows from Tosca into a pleading, mortally wounded Scarpia.
David Stern led the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra with verve and commitment. The musicians sounded terrific, playing this brilliantly orchestrated, busy score with everything Puccini asked for. And then there was the added joy of the look of this production, with its beautiful costumes and those remarkable Ponnelle sets.
They were astonishingly good, and the audience at the Kravis applauded each of their three unveilings. You could also take that applause to mean encouragement for Palm Beach Opera, which in presenting productions of this kind of quality reinforces its standing as a vital part of South Florida’s arts scene.