Unchained Melodrama

In keeping with the melodrama that permeates Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, Central City Opera's opening-night performance featured as artist Cavaradossi understudy Chad Shelton, who in the last week of rehearsals replaced a star tenor sidelined by a ruptured blood vessel in one of his vocal cords. (Tenor Adam Klein, who was scheduled to sing the role of Cavaradossi in the show's last six performances, will assume the part for the remainder of the summer.) And even though substitute warbler Shelton's acting and movement abilities were not always equal to the task, the stouthearted performer nonetheless earned a well-deserved chorus of cheers from spectators who appreciated his heroic singing talents. After all, Puccini's romantic music (sung in English, as are all CCO productions) is likely what prompted most audience members to make the trek to the historic theater in the first place.

Composed in 1899, four years after Puccini had seen Sarah Bernhardt's electrifying portrayal of the title role in Victorien Sardou's play of the same name, Tosca begins with Cavaradossi singing the glorious aria, "Recondita Armonia" (popularized as "Nessun Dorma" by Luciano Pavarotti in the "Three Tenors" concerts). The situation offers any singer the chance to shine early on, and Shelton responded by delivering a solid rendition of the soaring melody. His game efforts in the duet portion of the tune were nicely underscored by the resonant bass of Jan Opalach, who succeeds in transforming the typically thankless role of the Sacristan into a well-sung cameo worthy of acclaim.

Appropriately enough, the first act ends with a well-staged church procession featuring some forty singers clad in Roman ecclesiastical garb, including a few Swiss guards whose presence underscores the opera's basic (though sketchy) conflict between spirituality and totalitarianism. The action continues in Act Two, when the love between artist Cavaradossi and singer Floria Tosca (Sheila Smith) is put to the test by one of the greatest villains in all of opera, chief of police Baron Scarpia (Stephen Kechulius). In the middle of interrogating Cavaradossi about the young painter's harboring of a fugitive criminal, Scarpia extracts a promise from Tosca to yield to his advances in exchange for sparing Cavaradossi's life. Before the deal can be consummated, however, Tosca fillets the officious ogre with a dagger, a high crime that precipitates her own tragic leap from the ramparts of Castel Sant'Angelo near the end of Act Three.

To their credit, both Smith and Kechulius deliver powerfully sung portrayals. Kechulius's darkly sonorous portrait of Scarpia, who's referred to as "both priest and hangman," is a masterful mixture of soulful miscreant and obsequious charmer. Smith's difficulty with a few of Tosca's high notes (she substitutes sheer volume for moments that require sublime control), however, detracts from her otherwise arresting portrayal, which reaches its apotheosis in Act Two when she sings the poetic aria "Vissi d'Arte."

Ron Kadri's adequate sets are evocative of early-nineteenth-century Rome, a period in which the church wielded considerable if sometimes misguided influence: The Act One platform from which Cavaradossi paints a portrait of a madonna strangely resembles a gallows scaffold--an innovative choice that effectively foreshadows the young hero's downfall at the hands of a quasi-religious, corrupt official. And Dennis Parichy's artful lighting (his clever illumination of a lone flag atop the prison's battlements subtly draws our attention to the site of Tosca's fatal launching pad) lends some much-needed focus and variety to director Marc Astafan's static stand-and-sing approach.

But despite the best efforts of conductor John Moriarty's full-bodied orchestra and an enthusiastic supporting cast, the mildly entertaining show is hampered by an inordinate amount of technical problems. For example, cannon shots fire early, Tosca and Scarpia's fight scene (in which Tosca fails to discover the exact whereabouts of a knife during a passage of music composed specifically for that purpose) nearly becomes Wrestlemania 1800, and one young performer detracts from the high drama of Smith's imperial Act Two exit when he chooses to execute, Red Skelton-like, a small hop over her flowing three-foot train. All of this, combined with portrayals that are more straightforward than they are virtuosic, results in a production that is sometimes more matter-of-fact than it is moving.

Tosca, through August 9 at the Central City Opera House, Eureka Street, Central City, 292-6700.

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