A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, October 26. Continues October 31, and November 1, 2, and 3
A sure sign that you’re watching a special Tosca is when you don't want the production's most evil character to die.
Scarpia is arguably the most wretched villain in all of opera, and from the minute shaven-headed baritone Gordon Hawkins first cuts a swath onto the stage, you know you’re in the clutches of one unforgettably sinister badass. His eyes even roll ecstatically back into his head in the first act as he imagines forcing the raven-haired title character to sleep with him.
Not that the other two leads in this musically and dramatically smashing Tosca aren’t up to Hawkins’s high standards: the opening-night cast featured a dream triad of vocal powers, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra’s lush harmonizations never once threatening to overtake the impassioned singing on-stage.
As the jealous title diva who sacrifices all for her love, soprano Michele Capalbo brings a rich patina and intensely nuanced colorations to the onerous part. Her well-known aria “Vissi d’arte” spans vulnerable, tremulous quiet and rafter-shaking fire—to the point where one overeager but understandably smitten opera nut hollered out “Brava!” during a pause before the song’s final bars. She also exudes a good balance of playfulness and heat, building palpable chemistry with David Pomeroy’s Cavaradossi, the artist who gets arrested and tortured for helping to hide an escaped prisoner. In their early scenes together, they can barely keep their hands off each other, even when they’re in a church. Newfoundland’s Pomeroy is also blessed with one of those effortless, ringing tenors that make Giacomo Puccini’s mellifluous music flow like the finest Barolo. His famous final-act goodbye aria, “E lucevan le stelle”, brought the house down.
That chemistry makes the Rome police chief’s designs on destroying the couple all the more terrible. But rather than turn his character into a broadly drawn baddy, Hawkins mines the complex mix of arrogant entitlement and sadistic pleasure. Watch him hiss lines like “How you despise me, but that is just how I want you” with the cold smile of a psychopath, or trivially wave a napkin at his attendant to signal more torture for his prisoner. One of this production’s strongest scenes comes at the end of the first act, the crescendo of hypocrisy where Scarpia revels in his lustful plans (“Tosca, you make me forget God”). All the while, he’s sending pious smiles to the Sacristan (a comically fidgety Thomas Goerz) and victory procession in the church, to rousing orchestrations punctuated by cathedral bells and cannon fire.
Designwise, this rendition does not try to reinvent the wheel, opting for traditional historic sets to evoke 1800 Rome. The church is perhaps less baroque and more prisonlike than warranted, but the second act, set in Scarpia’s dark lair, is richly ominous. The third feels a bit crowded by ramps and walls, but Gerald King’s lighting brings a red dawn that captures all the blood that spills.
Under Jonathan Darlington, the orchestra is wonderfully unrushed in the melodies, as powerful in its explosive opening three fff tutta forza chords as in its whisper-quiet moments.
The audience was on its feet for the curtain call—and in for a surprise. Irving Guttman, often called the father of opera in this city and first artistic director of the VO, was in the house celebrating his 85th birthday, and a giant lit-up cake descended over the cast as it broke into “Happy Birthday”. Having talent like that sing to him was probably the best present the opera aficionado could have asked for.