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Masterpiece Sans Stereotypes

July 15, 2008

There are always questions when small opera companies take on large works. Will a pared-down ensemble achieve the same effects of a full orchestra? Will the singers manage roles written for bigger voices? Will it work? In Berkeley Opera’s case, the answer to these questions is usually a resounding yes. Saturday night’s performance of Puccini’s Tosca, the final opera in Berkeley’s season, proved to be no exception. It runs through July 20 at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley.
Tosca is so well-known and loved that a small company runs the risk of being measured against recent productions by wealthier companies and with a long history of famous productions. The singers have to strive to put their own mark on the roles. I have come to believe, though, that Tosca benefits from the smaller, more intimate scale that the Julia Morgan Theater provides. The sensationalist action and lush score can easily become melodrama or pantomime, embodying the stereotype of over-the-top opera, but when the singers don’t have to worry about projecting to the back of a 3,000-seat house, or singing over an enormous orchestra, the stereotypes fall away and the drama becomes more real.

Tosca comforts Cavaradossi, who has been imprisoned and tortured, while Sciarrone plots Cavaradossi's eventual death with Spoletta

Photos by Julie Farias

Berkeley Opera’s Tosca, directed by Barbara Heroux, is a tasteful, traditional production. The company continues its practice of augmenting the simple set with images projected onto a screen above and behind the action.

Led by Artistic Director Jonathan Khuner, the 24-piece orchestra played with great sensitivity. The delicate moments were rendered more so, and the dramatic passages sounded as full and intense as one could hope for. Indeed, for an ensemble a fraction of the size typically used, the depth and richness that Khuner coaxed out of his players were quite remarkable. Occasionally the sound was too rich, as the chorus and a couple of the small roles were sometimes covered by the orchestra.
Divine Tosca
No matter the quality of the ensemble, the emotional realism of the characters or the production values, the true test of any Tosca is the singers, especially the turbulent lovers, Floria Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi. Jillian Khuner and Kevin Courtemanche both gave solid, finely crafted performances. They made a wonderful pair, with well-matched voices.

Floria Tosca (Jillian Khuner) and her lover Mario Cavaradossi (Kevin Courtemanche)

While some might consider Khuner’s voice on the small side for Tosca, under these conditions it was perfectly suited to the role. She handled the difficult, high-flying lines with passion, and her loving moments with Cavaradossi with delicacy. Her Tosca is conscious of her body language and its effect on others, always moving perfectly to show coy interest, saintly innocence, or rage. The only thing that didn’t ring true was the choice to end the aria “Vissi d’arte” (I lived for art) on her knees. Khuner commanded such attention at the beginning of the piece, while standing — a moment of stillness in a character otherwise mobile — that I would have liked to see her maintain that power through to the end. In that aria, which everyone waits for, Khuner took advantage of the small space to deliver the pleading lines with quiet desperation. Knowing that projection would be no problem, she made the aria as personal and private as possible, most of it never rising about a mezzo-piano, as Puccini’s score suggests.

As Cavaradossi, Courtemanche played an intelligent, cautious lover. His voice is direct and resonant, and even the most impassioned of lines was sung rather than hurled, as many tenors might do. He never over sang, and gave a classy performance. In “E lucevan le stelle” (The stars shone), his Act 3 aria, Courtemanche ably conveyed the drama while avoiding cliche, which could indeed be the motto of the entire production. It was refreshing to hear a Cavaradossi with such freedom and grace.

Scarpia (John Minagro) attempts to seduce Tosca

As the villain Scarpia, John Minagro portrayed a man so confident in himself and his power that he thinks he is invincible. Everything from his singing to his stride conveyed that imposing, suave, but simultaneously slimy demeanor. Minagro managed to convince us that Scarpia might be more than just evil for evil’s-sake, when he showed his contempt for Cavaradossi’s revolutionary politics. Here was a man whose existence revolved around the stable, old rules and power structures, one who will do anything to keep change at bay. Even his costume displayed this, with the embroidered white stockings and white wig (causing a teenager in the audience to ask who the “George Washington guy” was), which were fast going out of style in 1800.

In the smaller roles, John Bischoff sang a gruff and serious Sacristan. José Hernandez, as Spoletta, needed a bit more volume, and Steven Hoffmann, as Angelotti, seemed awfully calm for an escaped political prisoner. The choirboys were well sung by members of the Piedmont Children’s Choirs.

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Miller holds degrees in singing from London's Royal Academy of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.