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.]