Vancouver Opera's Tosca boasts a top-notch lead trio and a terrifying villain

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.



Kathryn Husser

Oct 27, 2013 at 3:58pm

The only way I know I was at the same performance as Janet Smith is that we both heard the same man yell "BRA-VA!" before Tosca had finished her aria. He broke the spell completely and ruined the performance. Thank goodness for Cavaradossi without whom there would have been no Puccini last night. The staging was of the chess-piece school of direction. We should have been able to see the portrait the artist was working on. Tosca's Leap was a pious, expressionless,unmotivated fall backwards ... big deal.

And, yes, the opera is supposed to begin with three fff explosive opening chords. Under Jonathan Darlington all we got was a couple of basses practicing their vibrato while searching for the right note. For "...wonderfully unrushed..." read most sluggish opening tempo I've ever heard in a live performance of Tosca. I love the opera Tosca. Last night that love went unrequited. I even had a hard time staying awake. Weak beginning and weak ending with not much in the middle. Save your money. Watch YouTube.


Oct 27, 2013 at 6:25pm

Absolutely stellar production! The three principles were amazing. We felt honoured to have been there for opening night.

R Armstrong

Oct 28, 2013 at 10:24am

We really enjoyed how the scenes were set. Particularly the opening of the third act with beautiful offstage performance of the shepherd boy.

David R

Oct 28, 2013 at 11:27am

I enjoyed the show thoroughly. All is forgiven for the audience member shouting too early, that's just how spellbinding Michele Capalbo's Vissi d'arte was opening night. Principles were fantastic, Tosca and Cavaradossi were wonderfully paired.

P Bristow

Nov 3, 2013 at 9:10am

I saw the same cast on Nov 2. Thought the traditional staging worked well - lighting in the 3rd act was particularly effective. The orchestra gorgeous. I was impressed by the male leads, but not by Tosca, who had lack of precision and some odd vowel sounds. There was no chemistry between her and Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi and Scarpia (Pomeroy, Hawkins) stole and carried the show. I liked Capalbo's dynamic range in Vissi d'arte but otherwise, not keen on this singer in this role.

Jan D

Nov 3, 2013 at 10:14am

I was at the performance last night and I enjoyed it. The music, singing and acting were all great.
The only disappointment was the set. To save money the set was rented, but it was too small for the stage, and any action at the sides was not visible to all the audience unless you were sitting in the middle. The designer should have splayed out the side walls but that could not be done with a pre-built set. Even Tosca's final leap from the wall was missed by a large number of people sitting along the north wall.


Nov 3, 2013 at 5:49pm

Awesome production. 3 hours fly by in an instant. Thanks VO - you are a Vancouver jewel.