With towering stage sets and starkly imaginative design, L.A. Opera’s revival of Giacomo Puccini’s classic tragic opera Tosca is a populist, crowd-pleasing spectacle.
But it wasn’t director John Caird’s theatrical elements that set the capacity crowd ablaze at Saturday night's premiere. Rather, the two lead singers' intense vocal pyrotechnics were the main reason the place was buzzing with so much excitement afterward.
As the titular heroine who tries in vain to save her lover from the Roman police during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, American-Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky dug deep within herself for a radiant, crystalline tone, which she wielded as forcefully as a mace. Although she relented at times and revealed a softly shimmering delivery during Puccini’s occasional tranquil moments, Radvanovsky belted out her arias and duets with unrestrained power for most of the performance. Eschewing most traces of subtlety, the soprano was nonetheless exhilarating.
As Tosca’s doomed lover, Mario Cavaradossi, American tenor Russell Thomas was just as strong as Radvanovsky, exuding a properly robust heroism while maintaining a smoothly vibrant melodicism. Thomas has stunned local audiences several times in the past few years. In 2015, he provided the brooding masculine counterpoint to dueling divas Angela Meade and Jamie Barton’s femme-tastic tour de force in L.A. Opera’s version of Norma. Last spring, Thomas portrayed Cavaradossi when L.A. Philharmonic performed a non-staged, concert version of Tosca at the Hollywood Bowl.
It was fascinating to contrast the styles of the two local orchestras in the same work. On Saturday night, conductor James Conlon and the L.A. Opera Orchestra matched the lead singers’ volume with a similarly rousing, nonstop bombastic approach, particularly in the first act. When Gustavo Dudamel conducted the L.A. Phil at the Bowl last April, he toned down some of Puccini’s most sentimental and syrupy instincts and imbued the work with a more nuanced, even melancholic underpinning. After all the fireworks of Act 1, Conlon and the L.A. Opera Orchestra demonstrated more tonal dynamics in the final two acts, giving the tragic themes more space to build an eerie tension after the buoyant effusiveness of the early scenes.
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There were times when some of the lesser vocalists couldn’t compete with the hurricanelike intensity of Thomas and Radvanovsky. Bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos, who usually possesses a foreboding low tone, was just wan as Sacristan, and looked a bit ridiculous with his hair badly dyed. Brian Michael Moore should have been more threatening as Spoletta, one of the henchmen working for the opera’s villain, Scarpia, but the tenor’s voice was faint, and he was more mincing than menacing in too much gothlike pale makeup.
On the other hand, Ambrogio Maestri was both physically and vocally imposing as the cold-hearted and devious Scarpia. The Italian baritone started Act 2 in very dramatic fashion by punching the giant stage curtain with a gunshotlike loud pop, which brought the crimson curtain rippling downward in a bloody descent that foreshadowed his death at the hands of the vengeful Tosca.
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; Thu., April 27, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., April 30, 2 p.m.; Tue., May 2, 7:30 p.m.; through Sat., May 13, 7:30 p.m.; $29-$309. (213) 972-0777, laopera.org.