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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 12, 2006

HOT's production of 'Tosca' a rich mix

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to The Advertiser

Jamie Offenbach, left, playing Angelotti, and Richard Crawley as Mario Cavaradossi perform today and Tuesday in the Hawai'i Opera Theatre's production of "Tosca" at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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4 p.m. today (sold out) and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Blaisdell Concert Hall


596-7858, hawaiiopera.org.

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Ah! Evil versus innocence —the bread and butter of melodrama. Most dramas focus on one aspect, but Puccini's "Tosca," Hawai'i Opera Theatre's season closer, has it all: church and state, love and lust, loyalty and persecution, jealousy, murder, torture, suicide. ...

'Tis a rich minestrone, indeed, and one that has drawn more than its fair share of criticism (the eminent musicologist Joseph Kerman called it a "shabby little shocker"), even though — or perhaps because — audiences love it.

Why they love it is easy to understand when it is performed as well as it was Friday night.

HOT's production, directed by Karen Tiller, also has it all: strong leads, good staging, colorful sets, costumes and lighting, and a fine chorus and orchestra, all led by an excellent conductor.

Jake Gardner, as the police chief Baron Scarpia, proved an audience favorite, his rich, dark, powerful baritone bullying everyone on stage, and his presence commanding. His final scene in Act I ("Va, Tosca!"), when he sings his ambitions in dissonant juxtaposition to the church service, was chilling. If anything, Gardner's voice was too rounded, and not ugly, cold, or iron-edged enough for evil incarnate. But is it fair to complain about an opera singer's voice being too good?

Pamela South, as Floria Tosca, revealed the huge voice requisite for her role as an opera diva, gathering the focus of attention in every scene. Betraying weaknesses only in her uppermost register, the lush warmth of South's voice gave credence to her passionate, jealous love. South's voice soared over all, even in the largest ensembles, and, most tellingly for the story, even over Scarpia.

Tenor Richard Crawley, as Tosca's love Mario Cavaradossi, matched South well and interacted smoothly in ensembles. Although he was occasionally covered by the large orchestra in his solos, he provided several wonderful climaxes, as at the end of his Act I aria, "Recondita armonia."

Bass-baritone Jamie Offenbach made a very convincing fugitive (Angelotti), and bass Wilbur Pauley added delightful comic touches as a sacristan.

Director Tiller brought everything together in an elegant blend of tradition and innovation, infusing the whole with energy through detailed staging that revealed awkward moments only in the choral scenes at the end of Act I. Particularly gratifying was the way her staging sped up or slowed down to mirror the music's pacing, and the way movements arose from musical details.

In each act, Tiller used a lovely double curtain-raising to delineate scenes and moods. In Act I, for example, the main curtain rose to reveal a fugitive stumbling into church in dusky light/music, and then, once he was hidden, the scrim rose as the comic sacristan entered in bright light/music. In Act III, the main curtain opened to a pre-dawn prelude scene, and the scrim rose to the first strains of the famous "E lucevan le stelle" (The Stars Shone) theme, making the atmosphere seem suddenly clear. Very effective.

Evocative sets by Neil Peter Jampolis, originally designed for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, made not so much logical as intuitive sense, providing a cohesive ambience, enough detail to create distinct scenes, and congenial spaces for staging. The only awkwardness was the floor's viewing panel to the torture chamber, which at one point had Tosca bent over, singing passionately to the floor.

The opera's main themes converged in the final scene, with its giant statue of an avenging angel looming over all, highlighting the symbolism operating on several levels.

Best of all (perhaps obviously when discussing satisfying opera) was the music.

Few composers have come close to matching Puccini's skill in "painting" a drama, in composing every nuance of action and emotion through music. With "Tosca," audiences "see" through their ears. Act I, for example, portrays a jealous woman to perfection (a scene not to be missed), all the while revealing the flawed love that drives the plot, and seducing the audience into caring.

On Friday, conductor Anthony Walker was, to put it simply, excellent — and a major reason the performance was so successful. He managed singers, orchestra, and chorus equally well, slips appearing for the most part only in off-stage performances.

Walker conducted as though he were breathing along with the singers, timing stretches and releases to their control, so the music seemed to flow effortlessly. He cued cleanly, kept ensembles in balance, and held tempi to keep the pacing brisk while allow expansive lyric moments and climaxes.

All in all, HOT's "Tosca" on Friday proved to be a very satisfying experience, melodrama or not.