Review: Virginia Opera ‘Tosca’

Adam Turner conducting
Oct. 18, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Richmond

The spinto voice, combining the qualities of lyric and dramatic sopranos, is a wondrous instrument, usually heard in its prime only at major opera houses – and even there, on very special occasions. To hear a spinto tour de force in a production by a regional company is an exceptional occasion.

Virginia Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca” rises to that height thanks to Ewa Płonka, a Polish soprano who boasts a voice of immense power, keenly focused pitch and a remarkable balance of warm sensuality and shattering intensity. She is portraying the fiery Roman diva Floria Tosca for the first time in this production. She sounds as if she has been singing the role for years.

She also looks to have been inhabiting this character for some time. Playing the charismatic, commanding diva as if born to the part, Płonka just as naturally conveys the yearning and vulnerable side of Tosca, the heart and soul bared in the role’s two greatest arias, “Non la sospiri la nostra casetta” (“Our little house in the country is waiting”) in Act 1 and “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (“Living for art, living for love”) in Act 2.

In the first of two Richmond performances of this first production in Virginia Opera’s 45th season, Płonka moderated her projection without diminishing her vocal presence to complement the ringing but less voluminous tenor of Matthew Vickers, singing the role of Tosca’s lover, the painter-turned-freedom fighter Mario Cavaradossi. Vickers played up the energy and earnestness of the character, and was nicely paired, both vocally and physically, in duets with Płonka.

Kyle Albertson, as Baron Scarpia, the master oppressor of a tyrannical regime ruling Rome at the turn of the 19th century, exuded both the ominous stolidity and cynicism needed in this role, often with the kind of understatement that personifies “the banality of evil” (to borrow Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust). Albertson’s bass-baritone could be as room-filling as Płonka’s soprano; but he usually projected with some reserve, and in doing so compounded the menace of his character.

Among the supporting cast, mostly members of Virginia Opera’s Herndon Foundation Emerging Artists Program, the standout was bass-baritone Andrew Simpson, showing impressive range in the roles of the desperate fugitive Cesare Angelotti in Act 1 and the solemnly humane prison jailer in Act 3. Bass-baritone Joshua Arky, returning to the Carpenter Theatre after a May appearance with the Richmond Symphony as Zuniga in Bizet’s “Carmen,” was vocally resonant, while suitably squirrely in character, as the sacristan in Act 1 of this production.

Lillian Groag, directing her 25th Virginia Opera production – her first was a “Tosca” in 1993 – crafted a straightforward performance that kept the focus on principal characters and kept melodramatic gestures within the stylistic bounds of the music and its time.

The Virginia Opera Chorus, prepared by its new director, Brandon M. Eldredge, was characterful if somewhat underpowered vocally in the big liturgical scene concluding Act 1. The company’s artistic director and chief conductor, Adam Turner, leading a pit orchestra of Virginia Symphony members, delivered a richly colorful and atmospheric account of Puccini’s orchestral score, although a few of its most assertive and turbulent passages overpowered voices.

Virginia Opera’s production of “Tosca” repeats at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $25-$130. Details: (866) 673-7282; vaopera.org

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