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Review: L.A. Opera’s ‘Tosca’: No gimmicks, just some powerhouse singing

Sondra Radvanovsky is Tosca, and Ambrogio Maestri is Scarpia in the Los Angeles Opera production.
(Ken Howard / Los Angeles Opera)

There are many, many interesting anecdotes circulating about Puccini’s “Tosca” — which figures since “Tosca” is among the most performed operas in the business. James Conlon told a few of them Saturday night in his pre-performance talk before Los Angeles Opera revived its 2013 production, and he had some of his listeners rolling in the aisles.

Here are a couple more: Miles Davis once told me that he yearned to record an interpretation of “Tosca” with the great arranger Gil Evans. Wouldn’t that have been something to hear? Alas, the two friends never got around to it. Also, a Warner Classics recording of “Tosca” from 1980 features the tiny part of the Jailer in Act III sung by, would you believe, Itzhak Perlman, making his debut as a basso profundo (and he’s pretty good).

There are no odd anecdotes from Saturday night’s performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — and that might be a good thing. It was mostly a night of powerhouse singing and strong conducting, and that will be enough for many.

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Much of the hype preceding the performance revolved around the Tosca du jour, the American Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who reportedly wowed audiences here in 2013. She did it again Saturday, revealing the full spectrum of Tosca’s ever-shifting mix of diva temperament and devout religiosity. Her voice was huge and opulent, the timbre sometimes reminiscent of that of the supreme Tosca of the ages, Maria Callas, with a slight edge at top volume that is appropriate to the character. And when Radvanovsky ratcheted up the intensity in Act II, crowned by an impassioned “Vissi d’arte,” she brought down the house.

As Mario Cavaradossi, tenor Russell Thomas might have looked somewhat professorial at first glance, but his rendition of “Recondita armonia” was suitably fervent and well-projected; the further up he went on the three-level painter’s scaffold, the better he sounded in the big hall. The imposing baritone Ambrogio Maestri conveyed plenty of imperious power and the usual sadism, but also the cunning geniality that can lift Scarpia a bit above the level of a cartoon bad-guy. Nicholas Brownlee displayed a tremulous bass-baritone as Angelotti and bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos sounded sturdy as the Sacristan.

Russell Thomas as Mario Cavardossi in “Tosca.”
(Ken Howard / Los Angeles Opera)
Bunny Christie’s “Tosca” sets include the three-level painters scaffold.
(Ken Howard / Los Angeles Opera)

Conlon said he has conducted “Tosca” more often than any other opera — this was his 69th performance by his count — yet this was his first “Tosca” in Los Angeles in his 11 seasons as music director. He brought a sweeping symphonic richness to a score that is so often tossed off casually in live performances, and many passages were given unusual care, like the caressing cellos near the start of Act III. The Act I Te Deum — for me, the best part of the score by far — moved along, but not without touches of grace and revealing dissonances.

John Caird returned to direct his 2013 production, with scenery designer Bunny Christie’s dark, intimidating, sometimes ramshackle sets whisking the setting well into the war-torn 20th century. Act II’s clutter of various looted sacred and profane sculptures piled on stacks of packing crates illustrated Caird’s notion that Scarpia is a collector in every sense of the word, kind of like Bartók’s Bluebeard.

Later on in the run, baritone Greer Grimsley assumes the role of Scarpia on May 2, 5 and 7. On the last night of the run, May 13, Melody Moore is scheduled to assume the role of Tosca, Kihun Yoon will step in as Scarpia, and Grant Gershon will take over for Conlon in the pit.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Tosca’

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 2, May 5 and May 13; 2 p.m. April 30 and May 7

Tickets: $22-$374

Info: (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.org

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