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OPERA REVIEW
Cinnabar Theater / Sunday, June 18, 2023
Michelle Drever, soprano; Alex Boyer, tenor; Spencer Dodd, baritone. Additional singers: Jordon Eldredge, Gene Wright, Eric Levintow, Michael Kuo and Chris Pilcher. Mary Chun, conductor; Elly Lichenstein, director

Spencer Dodd and Michelle Drever

CINNABAR HITS IT OUT OF THE PARK WITH A GRAND TOSCA

by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Sunday, June 18, 2023

Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater has successfully mounted another seemingly impossible opera for its beloved tiny venue, Puccini’s Tosca. A co-production with San Francisco’s venerable Pocket Opera company, featuring late founder Donald Pippin’s fine English translation, it will run for three performances in Mountain View following this closing weekend in Petaluma.

This review is for the June 18 performance.

Having attended several other operas here over the last twenty or so years, directed by the regie-magician Elly Lichenstein and conducted by Mary Chun, I wasn’t surprised by the size, the English format, or the quality of both singing and storytelling. Despite the first warm weather and Father’s Day, this was a full house of enthusiastic and appreciative opera goers who loved and cheered this performance.

Puccini based his verismo (“true to life”) opera on French playwright Sardou’s 1887 play, La Tosca. The opera premiered in 1900 in Rome, which is also its setting, with the action all taking place on one June day in the year 1800 during the politically stressed Napoleonic Wars era. Grisly scenes of torture, assault and murder are balanced by passionate love scenes, all depicted flawlessly by gorgeously dramatic and tuneful melodies and orchestrations. Puccini’s music shows his gift for writing character and situation driven music, specifically illuminating and heightening the characters and action in a way which has been virtually lost from contemporary theatrical composition.

While necessarily barebones due to space, attractive and workable sets by Wayne Hovey, atmospheric lighting by Missy Weaver, and beautiful period costuming by Donnie Frank gave the audience a believable framework and sense of time and place. More specifically, Tosca was very elegantly and becomingly dressed, bejeweled and wigged in the traditional Empire style for each act, black and white for her going to church dress in Act I, flaming red for Act II in the Palazzo Farnese, and blue for the hoped-for escape from Castel Sant-Angelo in Act III. Her artist-lover Cavaradossi was appropriately dressed in breeches, loose shirt and artist’s smock, and Baron Scarpia was elegantly turned out, but curiously wig-less for the whole performance, sporting a contemporary haircut. I have seen it done wigged until the moment of his attempted assault on Tosca, ripping the wig off in a fever of desire, and for me that works better. But in these days perhaps the wig has become optional.

Ms. Chun governed the eleven-member orchestra firmly and sympathetically, favoring crisp tempos and brisk forward movement over too much rubato, always a wise choice with radically reduced numbers. As usual in this theater, the orchestra was seated in the wing at stage left, and mostly succeeded in capturing Puccini’s musical-dramatic sweep, by virtue of excellent ensemble and solo playing—the foreboding Act III solo clarinet in Cavaradossi’s aria “È lucevan le stelle,” played by Roy Zajac, was especially moving. Only one lamentable mishap stood out for me, and that was my favorite musical moment in the whole opera—the soaring French horn line in the interlude following Tosca’s Act I exit from the cathedral, transitioning into Scarpia’s thrilling Te deum—was missing! What happened?

Ms. Lichenstein has had a long history of stellar successes at Cinnabar and this Tosca is no exception. She understands how to shrink grand opera into a teacup without losing the basic art form. Treating opera as real theater can be traced back to the early-mid twentieth century and the immortal soprano Maria Callas, a greatest Tosca. She strove for dramatic lucidity and honesty and natural behavior in an art form which was known for basically posing while singing, and her blazing example has been the standard ever since.

Ms. Lichenstein demands the same naturalness, specificity and spontaneity from her singers. Of course, singing in one’s own language enhances one’s ability to be spontaneously responsive, while also increasing the audience’s ability to follow the story moment to moment. Puccini’s parlando (conversational) style of text setting actually favors singing well in translation. The phrases are neither strophic nor do they rhyme. Directors and singers alike are not bound to endless repetition of text as found in all earlier operas. As a result, the action moves forward naturally, in real time.

The space was splendidly used, consisting of a lovely painted backdrop of the city, with a raised area with steps, furniture and grillwork gates, to suggest the settings and move the singers around gracefully. In such a small space, the story of a day in the lives of three people is more
pointed, and she directed it as such, intense and personal, focused on the passion shared by Floria and Mario, and Scarpia’s sick ego. The chorus of churchgoers and children is small and has brief duty in this opera, but they interacted with zest and sang excellently. The stage size and set constraints necessitated a change to the end of the opera, which those familiar with it will know when it happens, but no spoilers here.

Tosca is nothing without three powerhouse singers and Cinnabar was fortunate to have engaged three dynamic singers capable of embodying these characters dramatically and vocally.

Tosca was soprano Michelle Drever, who is known to local audiences because she also played Violetta in La Traviata last year. A petite singer with a big, full voice and very expressive personality, she gave an extremely agile, ferociously intense and emotionally transparent performance. Sometimes I felt she was pushing the envelope a little with her comedic takes and overt physicality, but her famous Act II aria “Vissi d’arte” (“I’ve lived for art”) pleading with God for help, was quite affecting and beautifully sung, with a poignant last high note held quietly over into orchestral silence.

Tenor Alex Boyer created a stunning Cavaradossi, vocally encompassing the role with gut-thrilling power, gorgeous, penetrating Italianate sound and rock-solid technical control. His cry of “Victorious!” in Act II after being relentlessly tortured, nearly shook me out of my seat. His famously woeful third act aria “È lucevan le stelle” was heartrending. A strong and sympathetic actor as well, he and Ms. Drever were well-paired, very simpatico and believable as the doomed lovers.

Baritone Spencer Dodd earned his boos as the vile, lecherous, double-crossing police chief. His is an unusual voice, not huge, but with an interesting timbre that matched the character he was portraying. A very focused actor, he was also totally believable in the role, with a menacing presence and pinpoint diction and delivery. However, occasionally some aside-lines were too quiet.

The smaller featured roles of the Sacristan (Gene Wright), Mario’s revolutionary friend Angelotti (Jordan Eldredge), Scarpia’s henchmen Spoletta (Eric Levintow) and Sciarrone (Michael Kuo), and the Jailor (Chris Pilcher), were all well played and sung and added great atmosphere to the proceedings. Twin sisters Fallon and Tatum Mullen made a sweet cameo appearance at the opening of Act III singing the sleepy Shepherd Boy’s pre-dawn lament.

Everyone onstage enunciated Donald Pippin’s translation admirably, which helped make this “Tosca in a teacup” an absorbing and satisfying musical and theatrical experience.

A note about parking. Cinnabar doesn’t have enough for these packed performances. I recommend carpools and arriving early unless you want to park below and walk up the hill!