Review: Echalaz, Jagde, Aceto Open Santa Fe Opera Season in Wonderfully Sung “Tosca” – June 29, 2012

South African soprano Amanda Echalaz, who has had a string of recent triumphs in the Italian dramatic soprano repertory in Great Britain, led a young cast in a new Stephen Barlow production of Puccini’s “Tosca” for opening night of 2012’s Santa Fe Opera Summer Festival.

The evening was the occasion for a rousing role debut by American tenor Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi and yet another production affording basso Raymond Aceto the opportunity to show off his sinister portrait of Scarpia.

Barlow, no stranger to time-shifting productions of “Tosca” to different centuries and climes, for his Santa Fe Opera production, stuck to  Puccini’s “time and place”. All of “Tosca’s” action takes place in a compact historical area of central Rome during a 24 hour period on a given June day at the turn of the 19th century, as the confused reports of the outcome of Napoleon Bonaparte’s military efforts in the Battle of Marengo, in the Italian Piedmont, were trickling into Rome.

The resulting production, although studiously immersed in the artistic and architectural elements of the Italian Renaissance buildings in which the opera takes place,  incorporates some surrealistic elements – in part to best utilize the open air Santa Fe Opera stage,. The Attavanti portrait of Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi is painting, becomes the church floor. A massive dome appears from an interior view in the first act church scene and in an exterior view in the third act execution scene.

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Brian Jagde) stands on his painting; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Notes on the Vocal Performances

Each of the three principals demonstrated that, contrary to the lamentations of some critics, the big, healthy voices needed for the great Puccini, Verdi and verismo works exist today.

Echalaz, for whom Tosca has become a signature role, proved that she had all the requisite vocal and melodramatic skills to comfortably don a “great Tosca” mantle.

Jagde, a recent prize-winner in Placido Domingo’s Operalia contest in Beijing, China, who was to make his role debut as Cavaradossi in November 2012 at the San Francisco Opera, got the call to take over the entire run of ten performances in Santa Fe for an indisposed colleague. His is a lyric voice with power, with a soft tenor vibrato, of a kind I associate with Carlo Bergonzi of a previous generation.

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Brian Jagde, left) professes his love to Floria Tosca (Amanda Echalaz, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I was fortunate to be present at Aceto’s role debut run of Scarpias [see A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010], and remarked then of the rarity of true bassos taking on this role, which contains some passages of high tessitura. There are, of course, great precedents. (I saw basso Giorgio Tozzi as Scarpia at the San Francisco Opera 32 years ago.)

[Below: the Baron Scarpia (Raymond Aceto, front), ostentatiously takes part in the ceremony of the Mass; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Aceto unquestionably has the range that can encompass the role fully, and, with his voice centered in the lower register, brings to the character a darkness that makes him even more sinister.

[Below: the Police Chief, Baron Scarpia (Raymond Aceto, left) warns Cavaradossi (Brian Jagde, center) that he is considered a traitor; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Aceto’s elegance and tall, handsome presence adds another element that, I think, fits especially well with production designer Barlow’s conception of the piece. One imagines that Aceto’s Scarpia would have had his way with whatever Roman woman he wished to, and not just because he had the power to harm persons she loved.

[Below: Baron Scarpia (Raymond Aceto, above) makes clear to Tosca (Amanda Echalaz, below) that to save her boyfriend’s life she must submit to Scarpia’s sexual desires; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Barlow gives great weight to the pyschological relationship between Tosca and Scarpia, and, in his Director’s notes, observes that just before Tosca’s death, it is not Cavaradossi’s name she utters, but Scarpia’s.

(Within the context of his unit set for the Santa Fe Opera, Barlow does not depart from the traditional stage directions prescribed by Puccini and his librettists, except, as so many stage directors do, in Tosca’s actions in the few moments after Scarpia’s death. In fact, there are imaginative bits of stage business that take place in the second and third acts that provide us with Barlow’s ideas as to what happens between Scarpia’s death and Tosca’s.)

[Below: Tosca (Amanda Echavaz, on roof’s edge) prepares to jump to her death after Cavaradossi (Brian Jagde, lying on rooftop, center) has been shot to death and Spoletta (Dennis Petersen, front, left) has arrived to arrest her; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Santa Fe Opera’s Chief Conductor Frederic Chaslin conducted with the great melodramatic sweep that this opera requires.

Dennis Petersen, one of the great character tenors of our generation, gave a luscious interpretation of Scarpia’s operative, Spoletta. Dale Travis, a specialist in buffo roles – who announced he will be the Elder McLean in San Francisco Opera’s two seasons-after-nextish main company premiere of Floyd’s “Susannah” – was the Sacristan.

Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists Zachary Nelson was Angelotti and Christian Bowers, Sciarrone. Stefan Biller, a boy soprano, who sings the lines of the Shepherd at the beginning of Act 3, has  duties other than pastoral in Barlow’s conceptualization.

The production will run ten times during the Santa Fe Opera 2012 Festival season with the same cast scheduled, except that Aceto sings the first five performances of Scarpia and baritone Thomas Hampson the last five, beginning August 11th.

My final thoughts

This is a great performance of “Tosca”, and I recommend, without reservation, that those able to secure tickets to its subsequent performances, do so.

For further background, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto, Part I and  Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto – Part II .