Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kansas City Lyric Opera: Tosca

If there is a benefit to the recent economic downturn, it is that some arts institutions have been forced to re-examine their operations and mission. For many, it has resulted in a back to basics movement; for some, that is a welcome development.

For the 2009-2010 season, the Kansas City Lyric Opera has shuffled its performance schedule and programmed operas that are guaranteed to be crowd pleasers. While its been great to see a world premiere (John Brown from a couple seasons ago), a neglected opera or two (Thomas' Hamlet for example), seeing great productions of the core repertoire can have its benefits as well. And of course the crowds fill the coffers, preparing the way for better times and more adventurous performances.

Thus the opening production of the season is Puccini's masterpiece, "Tosca". If there is a work that epitomizes opera it is Tosca. Melodrama galore, young artists, the pageantry of the church, evil, a love triangle, double crossing, everybody dying at the end...what more could one ask of an opera. Of course gorgeous melody and the beloved aria "Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore" definitely helps things along.

The performance Wednesday was uniformly quite excellent. The voices, especially Lisa Daltirus as Tosca and Greer Grimsley as Scarpia, one of the most despicable characters in all opera, were quite good. The only exception, sadly, was Rafael Davila as Tosca's tragic lover Mario Cavaradossi (what he sees in Tosca, I'll never know), whose too light tenor voice was frequently overwhelmed. His acting was a bit leaden overall as well. Daltirus (who is a Tosca veteran and who was featured in the Chicago Lyric "Porgy and Bess") was ever so flexible in her role, going from jealous, almost petty lover, to tragic heroine who brings down the evil Scarpia. Grimsley, who portrayed Wotan in the Seattle "Ring", was superb; oily, shifty, pure evil, never a caricature. The smaller parts were well done, especially noting Kevin Glavin who came close to stealing his scenes as the harried Sacristan.

The sets and lighting were effective, straight forward and assisted in telling the story. Music Director Ward Holmquist was in fine fashion with the orchestra, both in the subtle underpinning of the voices and in the magnificent processional that ends act one.

So what if this production broke no new ground, didn't set the opera in a factory in Communist Romania, or didn't have Tosca dressed as a 70's rock star? It was opera at its best, riveting, colorful, musically powerful without all the gee-gaws that detract from the original masterpiece.

Kind of refreshing actually.

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