Review: A Well-Sung “Tosca” Starring Leah Hawkins, Joshua Guerrero, Reginald Smith, Jr. and Blake Denson – Santa Fe Opera, June 30, 2023

To open the Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 season, a strong cast was assembled for Keith Warner’s new production of Puccini’s “Tosca”.

Leah Hawkins’ Tosca

Pennsylvania soprano Leah Hawkins was an engaging Tosca. She displayed a voice of dramatic power and acted with the self-assurance of a celebrated diva. Hawkins proved convincing in each facet of Tosca’s complex personality – Tosca’s recollections of serene moments at her lover’s villa, her all-consuming jealousy, her description of her musical passion in her beautifully sung aria Vissi d’arte, and her determination to use lethal force to protect herself from the lascivious miscreant, Scarpia.

[Below: Leah Hawkins as Floria Tosca; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Hawkins is an alumna of both Washington National Opera’s Cafritz and Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artists’ programs. I first reviewed a Hawkins performance seven years ago at New York’s Glimmerglass Festival. There she sang a secondary role in Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie)”.

Hawkins is currently scheduled for principal roles in regional opera companies. This summer’s performances at the Santa Fe Opera without doubt will increase her reputation as a rising dramatic soprano star.

Joshua Guerrero’s Mario Cavaradossi

California tenor Joshua Guerrero brought a muscular tenor voice with baritonal depth to Mario Cavaradossi. He drew audience ovations for his stylish interpretations of both his first act aria Recondita armonia and the final act’s E lucevan le stelle.

[Below: Joshua Guerrero as Mario Cavaradossi; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Guerrero and Hawkins were convincing in their first act scene, in which Tosca and Mario look forward to a romantic encounter at his villa later in the day.

[Below: Tosca (Leah Hawkins, left) and Mario (Joshua Guerrero, right) in one of their last moments of happiness; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

In Warner’s rough-house staging, even though Cavaradossi’s torture occurs out of audience view, Guerrero endures physically aggressive stage action, including being dragged by his legs across part of the stage. [The program lists Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet and Shireen Yehya all as “fight and intimacy directors” who were presumably involved.]

Later, the firing squad scene proved especially realistic, with bloody bullet wounds appearing on Guerrero’s shirt the moment shots are fired.

[Below: Tosca (Leah Hawkins, left) cries in terror as she realizes that Mario Cavaradossi (Joshua Guerrero has been shot to death; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

This is the sixth performance over the past nine years I have seen Guerrero in what is a succession of increasingly important roles. A Los Angeles Opera Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists Program alumnus, I praised his performances as the Count Almaviva [Review: Los Angeles Opera Launches Ambitious New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles” – February 7, 2015] and the Greenhorn, Ishmael [Review: Maestro Conlon Captains Another Successful Launch for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2015]. His previous principal role at the Santa Fe Opera was Gounod’s Roméo [Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016.]]

Reginald Smith, Jr.’s Baron Scarpia

Georgia baritone Reginald Smith, Jr.’s Santa Fe Opera debut took place in one of the iconic roles of the dramatic baritone repertory. Smith made a strong impression, vocally and dramatically, as the villanous Baron Scarpia.

Smith effectively delineated Scarpia’s internal conflict. Scarpia holds the official position as agent of a repressive state pursuing an escaped political prisoner. In the course of pursuing his duties, he will not pass up opportunities to fulfill his sexual lust, awakened by the appearance of Tosca.

[Below: The Baron Scarpia (Reginald Smith, Jr., left) offers holy water to Floria Tosca (Leah Hawkins, right); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera

One of Smith’s especially effective moments was his first act monologue Va, Tosca!, sung in church during the procession accompanying a mass. Smith’s self-centered Scarpia reveals how his lust for Tosca consumes him. (To emphasize this, Director Warner departs from traditional staging, by having clergy and parishioners completely surround Scarpia at the end of the aria.)

[Below: Reginald Smith, Jr. as the Baron Scarpia; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Another departure from tradition (and Puccini’s stage directions) is Scarpia’s demise. Rather than stabbing Scarpia with a knife, in this production Tosca garrotes him.

[Below: Tosca (Leah Hawkins, left) strangles the Barpn Scarpia (Reginald Smith, Jr. with a cord; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Smith is another young artist who has assembled an impressive resume. He is a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, a Grammy winner for his role in a recording of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, and an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio. I have seen him in three smaller character roles. He was Blind the lawyer in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Marullo in Verdi’s” “RIgoletto” at Houston Grand Opera. He was “Rigoletto’s” Monterone at the San Francisco Opera.

Building on those character roles, Smith’s successful assumption of Scarpia demonstrates a career in its ascendancy.

Blake Denson’s Angelotti

Kentucky baritone Blake Denson, as Angelotti, is the third of the principal singers making a Santa Fe Opera debut. In Warner’s surreal staging, Denson’s Angelotti, descends from a tower (representing the prison from which he has just escaped) directly into the church in which the first act takes place.

Like his colleagues, Denson demonstrated a power voice. His busy international performance schedule is concentrated in comprimario “character” roles. I have no doubt he soon will be assuming principal roles at major venues.

[Below: Blake Denson is Cesare Angelotti; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Dale Travis’ Sacristan, Spencer Hamlin’s Spoletta, Ben Brady’s Sciarrone and Other Cast Members

Pennsylvania bass-baritone Dale Travis reprised his signature role of the church’s Sacristan. He had performed that role when it was last presented at Santa Fe Opera’s [Review: Echalaz, Jagde, Aceto Open Santa Fe Opera Season in Wonderfully Sung “Tosca” – June 29, 2012]. He first performed the role at the San Francisco Opera in 1992. Incredibly, Travis has sung the role in every one of the 39 San Francisco Opera performancse in the five seasons the opera has been presented there since 2008-09.

[Below: Dale Travis as the Sacristan; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The roles of Spoletta’s two henchmen, Spoletta and Sciarrone respectively were performed by Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists Connecticut tenor Spencer Hamlin and Colorado bass-baritone Ben Brady.

[Below: The Baron Scarpia (Reginald Smith, Jr., left) gives directions to his operatives, Spoletta (Spencer Hamlin, center) and Sciarrone (Ben Brady, right); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Santa Fe Apprentice Art, Maryland bass-baritone Dylan Gregg was the Jailer. Illinois treble Kai Edgar was the Shepherd Boy.

Maestro John Fiore and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra produced a magnificent sound under the baton of New York conductor John Fiore.

[Below: Maestro John Fiore; edited image, based on a Susanne Diesner photograph, from Crescendi Artists.]

The Santa Fe Opera Chorus, consisting of Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists under the direction of Chorus Master Susanne Sheston, performed with distinction.

Director Keith Warner’s Production and Designer Ashley Martin-Davis’ Sets and Costumes

Earlier, I cited instances where Director Keith Warner departed from Puccini’s stage directions and performance traditions. The most significant difference is that of the visual images, created to fit Warner’s surrealist vision of the opera’s staging by English set and costume designer Ashley Martin-Davis.

[Below: Director Keith Warner; edited image of a Monika Forster photograph for the Bregenz Opera Festival.]

Among the production’s delights are Ashley Martin-Davis’ costumes, particularly the lavish costumes for Leah Hawkins’ Tosca. In contrast, Martin-Davis’ set designs depart radically from traditional productions of “Tosca”.

Eleven years ago, In an opera performance review, I discussed the influence of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, whose surrealist works date from the decade of the First World War, on an opera production by Michael Yeargan [Review: Lucic, Kurzak, Praiseworthy in Season Opening “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2012].

Warner has revisited de Chirico’s works in his conceptualization of how his production of “Tosca” should look.

[Below: Giorgio de Chirico’s 1913 surrealist painting “Piazza d”Italia”; resized image of th eoriginal in the Art Museum of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario.]

The locations of “Tosca’s” three acts are the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, a Palazzo Farnese apartment and the Castel Sant’Angelo battlements. Converting these very specific sites into de Chirico surrealisms is a more daunting proposition than Michael Yeargan inventing de Chirico-inspired images for “RIgoletto’s” Court of the Mantua Duchy and its surroundings. Warner also wished to give homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s very specific style of directing movies.

[Below: a conversation between Tosca (Leah Hawkins, bottom center left) and Mario Cavaradossi (Joshua Guerrero, bottom center right); in the church of Sant’Andrea; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The outsized influence of de Chirico and Hitchcock on Warner’s production might confuse any members of the audience expecting strict adherence to Puccini’s very specific stage directions. One can be skeptical of Warner’s surprise denouement at opera’s end, although occasionally a new bit of stage business provokes thought.

I liked the idea of the Shepherd Boy, representing Cavaradossi as a youth, practicing drawing the de Chirico inspired tall oval columns. When the Shepherd Boy drops some blank pieces of drawing paper, Dylan Gregg’s Jailer picks up one of them to offer to Cavaradossi for his end-of-life letter to Tosca.

[Below: Mario Cavaradossi (Joshua Guerrero , left) stands near the shepherd boy (Kai Edgar, right) who manifests Cavaradossi as a youth, with an artist’s eye at an early age; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Final Thoughts and Recommendation

I strongly recommend the Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 production of Puccini’s “Tosca”, for its strong vocal performances, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.