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Orchestra and conductor excel in the COC's powerful but patchy Tosca

Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company production of "Tosca"

Michael Cooper


Canadian Opera Company

Four Seasons Centre

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In Toronto on Saturday

Puccini's Tosca has many fans, and few will be disappointed overall by the COC's latest presentation of this operatic thriller. It's a revival of a smart Paul Curran production that was new in 2008, and stars Adrianne Pieczonka, the only world-renowned soprano who could sing the title role in Toronto and take the TTC home at the end of the show.

The first stars to be heard on Saturday, however, were the members of the COC Orchestra and conductor Paolo Carignani. From the first explosive chords, these musicians made this familiar score sound like a thing reborn. They performed it with exceptional clarity and narrative focus, registering at every moment the flickering emotional densities of the drama. That was especially true in Act One, in which Puccini's orchestra seems to know the minds of the principals better than they do. The instrumental passages near the start of Act Three were also sublime, and deeply revealing of Puccini's instinct for apt orchestration.

It was good to be reminded of the score's refinements, because the opera as a whole remains a pretty blunt instrument. Its main business is to feed the idealistic painter Mario Cavaradossi (sung on Saturday by tenor Carlo Ventre) and his lover Tosca to the machinations of the police chief Scarpia (baritone Mark Delavan).

Pieczonka's singing offered many beautiful moments, in which the ebb and flow of her phrases felt directly connected to movements of the heart. She gave a luminous performance of Vissi d'arte in Act Two, sung while on her knees. But Tosca's high temperament wasn't in her repertoire, and her stately distress in Act Two made it impossible to believe her lover was being tortured in the next room. Was this really the same singer who, in the Ring six years ago, played Sieglinde with every nerve exposed? She showed more passion in Act Three as she narrated her murder of Scarpia.

Delavan, equipped with an eloquent if not overlarge baritone, played the baron as a suave but rather flat character. His Scarpia was a complete hypocrite, with no moral tension at all. He gave a robust account of the character's erotic credo in Act Two, but dismissed Puccini's invitation, during the Te Deum in Act One, to find some internal conflict in the phrase, "Tosca, you make me forget God!" The cheers he received at the end were mixed with playful boos, as for a panto villain, which seemed apt.

Ventre's best moments came at in the final prison scene, as he discovered Mario's vulnerability and consented to sing at something less than full volume. His tense, bright tenor made the hall ring during Recondita armonia in Act One, but his interpretation was banal, and he bailed early on the penultimate phrase to make the last high salute as long and loud as possible. His blunt delivery was outclassed by Pieczonka at almost every turn in their encounters, and his reunion with the political prisoner Angelotti (capably performed by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn) was more awkward than fraternal.

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These patchy efforts by the principals were strengthened at all points by the orchestra and Carignani, and often by the staging. Curran's deployment of the chorus was superb, and the handsome sets (by Kevin Knight) and suggestive lighting (by David Martin Jacques) projected a sense of meaningful space even into corners where nothing was happening.

Bass-baritone Peter Strummer animated the Sacristan with many comic details, and tenor David Cangelosi aptly played Spoletta as a minion whose soul was wholly owned by his master. Smaller roles were well handled by bass-baritone Neil Craighead (Sciarrone), baritone Adrian Kramer (the jailer) and child soprano Emily Brown Gibson (the Shepherd Boy). The excellent COC chorus and Canadian Children's Opera Chorus were prepared by Sandra Horst.

The COC's production of Tosca continues at the Four Seasons Centre through Feb. 25.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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