If you Photoshop hipster glasses on Giacomo Puccini for your company’s logo — as Pacific Opera Project did — you’d better be able to do him justice when you produce his operas. Known for irreverently updating classics, POP has a new production of Puccini’s Tosca that avoids irony, choosing instead a (somewhat) traditional interpretation of this brutal tragedy.
Maggie Green’s costumes and director Josh Shaw’s sets reflect the original setting of Rome in 1800. Shaw's twist is that each act utilizes a different part of Pasadena's St. James Methodist Church. Act 1, set in a church, puts the audience in the pews. When the clergy and choristers march up the aisles to the altar, you might feel guilty not kneeling or singing yourself. In this milieu, Baron Scarpia’s plans to seduce Tosca and murder her lover, Cavaradossi, seem especially blasphemous.
There are two major stars-to-be here: Patrick Blackwell, a deep, full-voiced baritone who also dramatically projects the evil dickishness of Scarpia, and Brian Cheney, whose bright, focused tones ring out heroically as Mario Cavaradossi. Seeing them in an intimate venue like St. James should give you unimpeachable bragging rights ten years from now.
Soprano Daria Somers, the opening night Tosca, was sure in tone throughout, even when singing outdoors in Act 3. Her dramatic choices may play better in a large theater, but for this small venue she should dial down the histrionics, especially in Act 2.
Musical director Stephen Karr has excellently reduced the instrumentation from full orchestra to a 22-piece ensemble. Karr’s pacing perfectly serves Puccini’s vision. The musicians play admirably, although the middle strings weren’t always on pitch. The chorus was well rehearsed.
The issues in Tosca — unstable governments, abusive authority, political detention, torture, crises in faith — are still very much with us. Opera newbies will find this production effective and thought-provoking, while veterans who think they’ve sat through one too many Toscas should come to see and hear Blackwell and Cheney from a few rows away.
Pacfic Opera Project at St. James United Methodist Church, 2033 E. Washington Blvd. Pasadena; through Sept. 28. (323) 739-6122, pacificoperaproject.com
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