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Curran’s Tosca is an unashamed feast

An original COC production sticks the landing

WORDS BY DR. JANE FORNER | Four Season’s Centre for the Performing Arts

MAY 05, 2023 | COMMUNITY

Roland Wood as Scarpia and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper.
Stefano La Colla as Cavaradossi and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper.

Paul Curran’s Tosca, familiar to the COC since its premiere in 2008, leaves a lasting impression regardless of the quality of the performance. This season’s revival, which opened on Friday May 5th, offered a sparkling cast that brought all its dramatic richness to life. As the first time seeing this production live, I was struck by its ability to offer a classic, period design replete in archetypal operatic splendour that nonetheless manages to bring out nuances of the plot through a sensitive eye. The design for each act always makes remarkable use of shadow and chiaroscuro alongside a rich, warm palette and sumptuous décor, with my immediate impression being of a Van Eyck or Vermeer interior painting. The contrast of luxurious furnishings with black-and-white square tiling in Act II particularly brought my mind to the Flemish Renaissance. I was captivated especially by how well the lighting was managed throughout by Lighting Designer David Martin Jacques. A small point to some perhaps, but lighting is a signature concern of Curran’s production, and one that consistently created a remarkable visual atmosphere: shafts of greyish light filtering through the gloom of Sant’ Andrea of Act I, the appearance of an almost dusty and misty air enhancing the intrigue of the beginning of the drama. In Act II, the construction of Scarpia’s villainous (but sumptuously decorated) lair leans into, on the one hand, warm contrasts of gold, cream, black, and brown, and blueish moonlight at the curtains on the other.

I was rarely anything other than impressed and enthralled with Irish soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace’s COC mainstage début in the leading role. She shone throughout with impeccable control across her full range, a superbly commanding stage presence, imperious in jealousy and empathetic in love, bringing sensitive attention to dramatic contrasts. Although I spent some time just this weekend debating the mutability and often arbitrary designations in labelling voice types with some fellow singers, it’s notable that the Wexford-raised singer has only rather recently turned to the “heavier” dramatic repertoire of the likes of Puccini and Wagner, having started out her career as a light lyric soprano. It was a joy to see her embody a role which is only a quite recent addition to her repertoire. And to the folks behind me cackling with laughter when she stabbed Scarpia, I can only assume that was a cackle of glee at Tosca’s triumph over the villain, not a comment on her acting, which I found convincing throughout. Naturally, we all waited with bated breath for “Vissi d’arte,” and the enthusiastic applause which followed Campbell-Wallace’s rendition — as well as her immediate solo ovation after the final curtain ─ speaks for itself: it was a nearly flawless vocal performance.

Campbell-Wallace was decidedly matched by Stefano La Colla, also making his COC mainstage début, as Mario Cavaradossi. While I sensed that the chemistry between the two took a moment to settle, I was thrilled by La Colla’s embodiment of the embattled and lovestruck painter from the outset: a rich, powerful tenor, he demonstrated versatility and a luxurious tone. I would have liked his rubato to match the orchestra’s more consistently: I heard, throughout, a deep attention to expressive legato lines, but noticed that La Colla stuck almost too closely to precise rhythmic delivery. While this is likely my personal bias in favour of unabashed Romantic schmooze, I wanted just that bit more fluidity: I want to forget the time signature and lose track of the beat in Puccini’s long, languorous melodies, not to be slightly too reminded of rhythmic certainty. A picky observation, however, in an otherwise outstanding performance: that second moment we all await, “E lucevan le stelle,” was delivered with all the emotional aplomb and vocal skill that one could wish for.

A commitment to dramatic sensitivity was generally strong throughout the opening night cast: Roland Wood’s Scarpia was just as gloriously ruthless as one would like (if he makes me physically recoil as much as Tosca does when he touches her, I know he’s doing a good job). There were a few moments where I felt a loss of volume, sometimes from moving upstage, and sometimes a slight dip in power in the lower range that was only noticeable when he is required to pierce through full-steam orchestral passages ─ or in Scarpia’s Bond villain-esque laying out of his devious plot over the chorus’s storming Te Deum at the end of Act I. (As a very small aside, I enjoyed that the dousing of holy water was performed in time, the priest “conducting” with the aspergillum, lending an even greater sense of grand popish ritual to the already-bombastic final act). Donato di Stefano bumbled around appropriately as the grumpy and frustrated sacristan, and henchmen Sciarrone and Spoletta (Giles Tomkins and Michael Colvin) added some comic relief in all scenes, though their brand of mildly dissatisfied, bickering police enforcers occasionally strayed too far into the realm of light clowning. Perhaps they might have been a tad more threatening ─ I never quite had the sense that they were exerting much intimidation over Tosca or Cavaradossi. Although the passages in the neat sliding torture room were effective. Christian Pursell (another COC début) impressed in his brief appearances as unkempt and anxious escapee, Angelotti. The troupe of extremely fast choristers were positively scampering onstage with a slightly surprising alacrity, but were suitably cherubic otherwise.

Curran’s Tosca is an unashamed feast: it delivers everything you want from a classic performance of one of the most overperformed operas in the repertory, but brings a keen attention to visual and choreographic detail that elevates it from merely splendid spectacle. With vibrant and compelling singers taking on the lead roles, it offers a fitting close to the COC’s season.

Tosca runs at the COC until May 27, 2023. Sinéad Campbell-Wallace sings the lead on May 19, 21, 23, and 27, sharing the role with Keri Alkema, who appears on May 7, 11, and 13.