Following Fresno Grand Opera’s powerful production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in February, the company offered on Thursday night at the Saroyan Theatre a
solid “Tosca.” Thus came to an end a season filled with changes — most notably the company’s semi-merger with Modesto’s Townsend Opera.
I walk away from this season glad about several things: First, that Fresno Grand Opera is actually performing operas. Second, that it’s moving forward with a mission that seems intent on embracing the newness of the opera world along with established traditions, all in the name of cultivating new audiences. And, finally, that it’s entering this brave new world with a sense of inspiration and confidence.
Three sturdy performances anchored this “Tosca.” Jill Gardner, in powerful voice, connected on a deep and visceral level with the title character, offering us a Floria Tosca that continually rose above a one-dimensional diva. Her Tosca might be high-maintenance and annoyingly jealous, but Gardner infused her interpretation with strength and determination. The line between fierce acting and melodrama can be thin, but Gardner never stepped over it. My favorite moment of hers: when her character reels at the brutal Scarpia’s carnal request that she give herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life. I felt in that instant the raw power of a woman unafraid to take control of her own life.
Zeffin Quinn Hollis, as Scarpia, was a vocal highlight of the production, his voice swelling through the Saroyan like a big, menacing creature of the dark. His powerful confrontational scene with Tosca in the second act, deftly directed by Joseph Bascetta, offered a swarthy, violent chemistry between the two.
And the vocally impressive John Pickle, as Mario Cavardossi, found his own sweeter, crowd-pleasing chemistry with Tosca. All three of these principals found a strong balance between acting and singing.
There were some flaws in the Fresno production. Max Hosmer sounded subdued as Spoletta. Bascetta’s direction, so torrid and effective in the second act, seemed curiously bland and subdued in the third, and the deadly finale didn’t have quite the fiery emotional impact I expected. Erik Vose’s lighting design, which I enthusiastically praised in “Streetcar,” fell flat, particularly in the first act. (A dark church doesn’t have to feel murky and drab, and the entrance of the well-voiced chorus was dim.) Throughout the production there just wasn’t the nuance and style in terms of lighting to match the caliber of the
powerful singers. In the third act, an attempt at a sunrise came across as wobbly and cheap rather than impressionistic.
But other aspects of the show were first-rate, particularly the Fresno Grand Opera Orchestra and Ryan Murray’s muscular yet sensitive conducting. The often brassy, pounding martial exuberance of Puccini’s score felt stately and sweeping.
And Tosca herself, larger than life yet intensely human, was a blazing sun at the center of this operatic solar system. The production is another success for the company. I’m already looking forward to next season.
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