As it did last season, the Pacific Symphony tried to fill the gap left by the demise of Opera Pacific with a helping of semi-staged opera Thursday night in Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Once again, the choice was extremely safe and popular – Puccini’s “Tosca.” Once again, there was a playful attempt to involve the audience beyond the usual program notes, with handouts in the lobby elaborately detailing choices that Tosca makes in the opera, asking what you would do in these situations. And once again, the orchestra drew a nearly packed house, with the next performance reportedly well on the way to a sellout.
With another opera due here next season, plus the abundance of operas on Walt Disney Concert Hall’s schedule and Gustavo Dudamel’s annual operas in Hollywood Bowl, is symphonic opera becoming a viable wave of the future?
This time, the Pacific Symphony went a little further down the road toward staging opera than in 2012’s semi-staged performances of “La Bohème,” learning to exploit the facilities in Segerstrom and even its neighborhood.
Video projections on a semi-circular screen above the curtain behind the orchestra zoomed in on a map of the three locations in Rome where the opera takes place. They went on to display the interiors of the buildings themselves as backdrops, offering some amplifications of the action.
The piano elevator in front of the podium made a dandy torture chamber, sinking Cavaradossi into the depths. A press release revealed that Tosca was wearing $1 million of precious jewels lent to the production by Bulgari; we were, after all, only a short Brinks truck ride away from its showroom in South Coast Plaza.
For those who think that the Te Deum that concludes Act 1 is the best thing in the score (count me in on that), there was a big payoff – with rows of choristers from the Pacific Chorale bearing electric candles and singing impressively, electronic samples of bells piped through Segerstrom’s reverberation chambers to create a huge, dull, bonging sound like the original “Parsifal” bells.
With conductor Carl St.Clair leading with broad, lush strokes, the scene had a grandeur and sonic splendor that you rarely get in an opera house.
Overall St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony once again dominated the evening, bringing Puccini’s orchestrations up front in fully upholstered luxury and even subtlety on just a week’s rehearsal.
Among the principals, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze made the biggest impression with his booming, authoritarian Scarpia, who could also ooze false gallantry. Soprano Claire Rutter’s Tosca displayed some temperament, a little wild in pitch when in agony; tenor Brian Jagde – who sang Cavaradossi in San Francisco last November – was capable yet not especially charismatic in his big arias. Eric Einhorn directed, basically following Puccini’s playbook.
Puccini’s “Tosca,” with Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony; Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday; $25-$185; (714) 556-5799 or www.pacificsymphony.org. Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes.