Saturday the Berkeley Opera opened its production of Puccini’s Tosca as the final opera of its 2008 season. Unlike most of last year’s productions, this Tosca makes no attempt to update the story for a contemporary audience. Both the opera and the company are better served by this decision.
Tosca, premiered in Rome in 1900, is often referred to as a potboiler, with emotional extremes, clear delineation of good and evil and music that is melodically lovely, harmonically engaging and thoroughly accessible. But that is a misnomer for an opera that required four years to write the libretto and compose the score.
There are moments, though, that transcend the sentimentality suggested by the work, and most of those are found in the dynamic between Tosca, the singer whose unruly passions make her both victim and savior, and Scarpia, the unscrupulous and sadistic officer who lusts after her.
Soprano Jillian Khuner plays Floria Tosca and, though she lacks burning intensity, her singing is accomplished and lovely, and she gives the role an unmistakable sweetness. Her second act “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” was beautiful—well phrased, solidly consistent in the midrange and clear in the upper tones.
The aria deserves its celebrity, not simply because of its lyric grace but also because it reveals an aspect of the artist’s function: that of healer, beneficent and generous: “I lived for my art, I lived for love,/ I never did harm to a living soul!/… I gave my song to the stars, to heaven, which smiled with more beauty/ In the hour of grief.”
The evil Scarpia is sung by John Minagro, who provides a sophisticated and somewhat contemplative villain, adding to his wickedness and aligning well with Khuner’s softer and more innocent Tosca. The ending of the first act, during which the music rises and falls with the ominous regularity of a death knell as Scarpia plots—“Va’ Tosca, nel tuo cuor s’annida Scarpia” (“Go, Tosca, Scarpia nests in your heart”)—then moves inexorably into Scarpia’s closing aria “A doppia mira tendo” (“At two goals I aim’) interlaced with the chorus singing “Adiutorium nostrum” (“My help is in God’s name”), was especially well done.
Members of the Piedmont choruses, directed by Robert Geary, and the Berkeley Opera chorus, directed by Susan Swerdlow, combined to provide an admirable choral foil.
Scarpia’s darkness resides not only in his lust but also in his religious hypocrisy. He is not simply a Don Juan; his schemes are more perverse, more sadistic, revealed in the second act scene when Tosca must listen to her lover being tortured while deciding whether or not to succumb to Scarpia’s sexual demands in order to save him.
Tenor Kevin Courtemanche sings the part of Mario Cavaradossi, the painter who is Tosca’s lover. He has a bright powerful voice and he gives generously of it, giving the role a forceful energy. His singing lofted him above his unprepossessing physical stage presence, giving the character substance and vibrance. He rightly earned the audience’s most enthusiastic bravos.
Basses Steven Hoffmann (Angelotti), John Bischoff (Sacristan), Nicholas Aliaga (Sciarrone) and Michael Crozier (Jailer), and tenor Jose Hernandez (Spoletta) added to the production’s overall excellent singing.
This was an excellent and engaging production, modest but well sung and enjoyable.
Presented by Berkeley Opera at 8 p.m. Friday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave.