Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: A Top Notch “Tosca” from Alexia Voulgaridou, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Greer Grimsley – San Diego Opera, February 13, 2016

February 14th, 2016

Puccini’s “Tosca” requires large voices capable of soaring above the sound of a full orchestra. It needs a soprano and tenor who can display the lyricism of Puccini’s lush melodies and a baritone with strong dramatic instincts. Utilizing Andrew Horn’s handsome sets (created 15 years ago for the Baltimore Opera) and enlisting a cast led by Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou, Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones and Louisiana baritone Greer Grimsley, the San Diego Opera mounted a vocally strong, dramatically effective performance of Puccini’s opera “Tosca”.

Alexia Voulgaridou’s Floria Tosca

As Tosca, Alexia Voulgaridou shows she has all the elements of a great Tosca, with a gleaming vocal top and luscious middle voice. As an actor, she exudes star quality, dominating the scenes in which Tosca appears. She portrays Tosca’s vulnerability in the great second act aria, Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore. 

[Below: Alexia Voulgaridou as Floria Tosca; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (400)

Some Californians are familiar with Voulgaridou from her San Francisco Opera performances in another iconic Puccini role, Mimi [Review: Michael Fabiano, Alexia Voulgaridou are Vocally Splendid in John Caird’s Cleverly Conceived “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 14, 2014].

Voulgaridou over the past several years has become a Puccini specialist, with the spinto power and lyricism one needs in these great roles. Her performance confirmed that she is an artist that deserves the international reputation she has achieved.

Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Mario Cavaradossi

Power and lyricism are attributes that one associates with Gwyn Hughes Jones, a Welshman whose American appearances have been all too rare. Jones sings his solo arias gloriously. His voice blends beautifully with Voulgaridou’s in the several melodic passages that Tosca and Cavaradossi sing together.

[Below: Gwyn Hughes Jones as the Chevalier Mario Cavaradossi; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (400) MARIO EASEL

The tenor who sings Cavaradossi has the opportunity to get a “Tosca” performance off to a rousing start through the opera’s great first act aria Recondita armonia and also to leave a final impression through the opera’s great last act aria E lucevan le stelle. (Tenors with the requisite vocal qualities rarely pass up this role.) Jones proved to be one of the great contemporary Cavaradossis.

Greer Grimsley’s Baron Scarpia

Returning to the San Diego Opera as Scarpia [see also, Grimsley Memorable in San Diego Opera’s Quasi-Traditional “Tosca” – January 27, 2009], bass-baritone Greer Grimsley created a sinister portrait as the lethally efficient, but corrupt and lecherous, police chief of counter-revolutionary Rome.

[Below: Greer Grimsley as the Baron Scarpia; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (400) SCARPIA FAN

One of America’s best known singing actors [see my interview at Ambassador for Opera: An Interview with Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley], the great second act encounter between his Scarpia and the Voulgaridou’s Tosca is a theatrical triumph. Grimsley is credibly fiendish portraying one of opera’s great villains.

Other cast members

Bass-baritone Scott Sikon, who has been an invaluable comprimario artist with the San Diego Opera, played the curmudgeonly churchwarden, who despises the painter Cavaradossi and the “Voltairean” revolutionary ideas with which the nobleman is associated.

[Below: the Sacristan (Scott Sikon, center, bareheaded, arms outstretched) relays erroneous battlefield information to the assembled choirboys; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of Cory Weaver.]

SD TOSCA (425) SACRISTAN BOYS

It is quite specifically Cavaradossi’s sympathy for the abortive Roman republic, that was only recently overthrown by the forces of monarchical reaction, that propels the plot. A chance encounter between Cavaradossi and the escaped prisoner Angelotti (played by bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter, who later in the opera played Scarpia’s number two operative, Sciarrone) leads to the deaths of Cavaradossi, Angelotti, Tosca and Scarpia.

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones, left) agrees to provide refuge for Angelotti (Kristopher Irmiter, right), an act with profound consequences for the opera’s principal characters; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (425) CAVARADOSSI ANGELOTTI

The Spoletta was character tenor Joel Sorensen, in one of his signature roles, who displayed both the malice and the extreme insecurity of Scarpia’s chief operative.

[Below: Displeased that Spoletta (Joel Sorensen, right) has been unable to find an escaped prisoner, Baron Scarpia (Greer Grimsley, left) threatens to cut Spoletta’s throat; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (400) SCARPIA SPOLETTA

Johnnie Bankens was the Jailer, Bridget Hogan the Shepherd. Massimo Zanetti conducted. Gary Marder was the lighting director.

Andrew Horn’s Sets

The San Diego Opera, although it owns the sets from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s famous 1972 production (for San Francisco Opera) chose to secure Andrew Horn’s sets originally created for the Baltimore Opera (2001) and subsequently seen in Minneapolis and Fort Worth.

[Below: the first act sets in Andrew Horn’s “Tosca” production, showing a papal mass at the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle cathedral; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (425) END ACT 1

Puccini specifies well-known historical locations in Rome for each act. Horn’s sets have attempted to create realistic homages to the Sant’Andrea della Valle church, to Scarpia’s apartments in the Palazzo Farnese and to the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

[Below: Scarpia’s headquarters at the Palazzo Farnese, showing the body of Scarpia (Greer Grimsley, center, on floor) with his assassin, Floria Tosca (Alexia Voulgaridou, center) standing over him; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (425) END ACT 2

Although the costume designs by Andrew Marlay were originally created for a New York City Opera production, rather than Horn’s Baltimore production, they integrated into Horn’s traditional concept very smoothly.

[Below: the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo, showing the firing squad (left, kneeling) shooting the prisoner Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones, right) as his lover Tosca (center, near top of staircase) watches; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

SD TOSCA (425) END ACT 3

The staging of Lesley Koenig was filled with interesting and original details, without deviating far afield from Puccini’s original stage directions.

Recommendation

The production and performance is yet another example of the restoration of the San Diego Opera, after events that threatened its existence two years prior. Even though elements of the production were brought together from two separate sources, the physical production and costuming proved very effective, and the cast was of international rank.

I recommend this cast and production enthusiastically, both for veteran operagoers and persons new to opera.

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