Playing at The Keller Auditorium through February 9th, Portland Opera’s production of Tosca is truly an event not to be missed. The energy on opening night was palpable as a well-dressed crowd formed outside of the venue in anticipation, and the opening curtain rose to a full house. Portland Opera first performed Tosca in 1967 and its return this year is one of the art calendar’s greatest highlights. If you’re looking for a night that will thrill your senses, you’ll want to make sure to get your tickets now.
As one of Puccini’s most well loved operas, Tosca is a headlong journey along the full scale of human emotion, covering love, jealousy, violence, and humor. It’s difficult to imagine one production spanning this entire spectrum, but at over two and a half hours, Tosca delivers a wild roller coaster ride. It starts without the usual overture and gets off to an immediately powerful start with the orchestra’s first swell. By the end of the evening, you will know firsthand what Aristotle meant when he referred to the cathartic effect of good theater: viewers will feel purged, exultant, and grateful for having vicariously lived through this rich experience.
Though Tosca keeps pace with a modern sensibility, it’s first performance dates all the way back to 1900. Puccini, inspired by the short lived yet popular verismo movement, incorporates the very real issues of political upheaval, corruption, and the abuse of power into his work. The opera’s plot reads like a microcosm of these larger issues: the dangerous politics and social unrest within Rome circa 1800 are played out between the main characters and the downward spiral of their continuing descent. Tosca explores the darker side of emotions, and treads the blurred line between passion and savagery. Act One begins at a leisurely pace and uses humor to create a lighthearted tone, yet by the third act, conclusion comes swiftly and devastatingly in the final moments. Despite its cataclysmic ending, Tosca ultimately is a love story in which love becomes clarified and true through trial. It is a tragedy, but one that affirms love’s power to transcend. The title character of Floria Tosca, played by accomplished soprano Kara Shay Thomson, is both sympathetic and steely. The main story revolves around her, as do the main male roles: All vie for her love in one way or another, adoring her complicated qualities of piety and temper.
Tosca is set in Rome, during the fractious time of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, and the Portland Opera’s rendition is classic and evocative of an earlier era. The set design and lighting work together to create an aesthetically satisfying scene; the first act which takes place in a cathedral looks and feels like a Renaissance painting come alive, and each ensuing scenery change is equally stunning.
Some of Puccini’s most famous arias are from Tosca; the music is powerful, containing motifs that reinforce certain characters and elements. For example, the corrupt police chief Scarpia is consistently underscored by his own motif that follows him throughout. In this performance there are moments of musical transcendence — notably the aria “Vissi D’arte” as well as incidental music from the second act — that offer sweet relief to the opera’s often brutal narrative. The Keller Auditorium’s superb acoustics serve the orchestra’s commanding performance well, and conductor Joseph Colaneri leads the orchestra deftly over the course of the entire production. Kara Shay Thomson’s soprano vocals are paired well with Mark Schnaible as Scarpia’s bass baritone and Roger Honeywell as Cavaradossi’s clear tenor.
Portland Opera’s production of Tosca is opera at its finest: Musically impressive, cathartic, and challenging. You won’t want to miss this performance of Puccini’s timeless masterpiece.