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BLOOD, THUNDER AND HIGH C’s: Lyric Opera opens season with a vocally arresting Tosca

The plot of Tosca is a pretty crass affair, but even seasoned opera devotees keep returning to the piece because it features what is perhaps Puccini’s most incisive and consistently compelling musical score. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City was wise to eschew tinkering with the drama in favor of confronting head-on the opera’s musical glories. The season-opening production, which debuted September 11 at the Lyric Theatre, features one of the best lead casts that the company has ever assembled, at least in recent memory, and it had me utterly engaged for three hours.

Stage director Bernard Uzan, with plenty of worldwide experience to his credit, chose to step back and let his veteran lead singers do what they can do, which is plenty. Lisa Daltirus seems born to sing Tosca, and her natural ease in the role was evident at the outset: the proudly poised entrance (Floria Tosca is, after all, herself an opera diva), the don’t-mess-with-me countenance, the sharp glances of jealousy that struck fear in the heart. Her soprano is consistently attractive across its range, with an effortless top capable of a rich variety of colors, a plummy midrange and an elemental low range that made me think of the great Leontyne Price. She built tension to the breaking point throughout Act 2, then surrounded her “Vissi d’arte” aria with a halo of nostalgia, lying back languidly on Scarpia’s divan as if momentarily stepping outside of time and space.

Rafael Davila had a less promising start as Mario Cavaradossi, but the crisp tartness of his tenor voice at the outset gradually warmed into a more attractive muscularity. He suffused his famous “E lucevan le stelle” aria with pathos, supported by sensitive playing from the orchestra in the pit. He’s a likeable enough singer, and his stage presence was solid though less natural than Daltirus’. Despite plenty of long kisses, we seldom got a powerful sense of Mario’s undying love for Tosca.

The real glory of this production was Greer Grimsley, who is one of the most sought-after Scarpias today and with good reason. He was like a dark, primeval force that sucked all the air out of a room: When he made his abrupt appearance in Act 1, the flesh on the back of my neck began to prickle. He looked like a lecherous ghoul, too, and his unctuous poise in Act 2 grew so ghastly that you weren’t sure if he was Dracula or Iago or some jaunty combination of the two. When Tosca called him a devil, he grinned a sinister, bone-chilling grin — as if proud of the distinction. His bass-baritone was like burnished mahogany, rich and liquid and deftly shaded.

Among the smaller roles, Kevin Glavin drew attention as the Sacristan, though his gestures felt too broad-stroked. Young Sarah Hennessey sang the Shepherd Boy’s song with fine control, and the children’s chorus sounded strong as well. Andrew Harrisas Angelotti sang warmly.

Uzan’s direction was strongest in searing intimate scenes, but I found his large-scale numbers square and predictable. R. Keith Brumley created attractive sets from bits of previous Lyric shows — subtly lit by Donald Edmund Thomas — though I found the fabric walls (curtains?) in Scarpia’s chambers oddly out-of-place. Artistic director/conductor Ward Holmquist deserved much of the credit for keeping the action moving at an intelligent pace — vigorously but with flexibility to enjoy sweet moments, such as the tender final duet. The Kansas City Symphony performed the challenging score passably in the pit, though with no shortage of clunkers.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

 

Puccini’s Tosca

Reviewed: September 11 at the Lyric Theatre

Presenter: Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Attendance: 1,200 (approx.)

Through: Sept. 19

Tickets: 816-471-7344 or kcopera.org.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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