For more than half a century since the 1960s, several productions featuring some of the best-known celebrities in the opera world have set high standards for Puccini’s Tosca, that “shabby little shocker,” as a musicologist once called it. Maria Callas, Angela Gheorghiu, Carlo Bergonzi, Tito Gobbi, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel have all etched in the minds of the opera-going public varying images of how it should be done. Under the circumstances, it was only natural that I went to see Opera New Jersey’s performance on Sunday with some expectations.

Jonathan Burton as Cavaradossi and Kara Shay Thomson as Tosca, © Jeff Reeder.
Jonathan Burton as Cavaradossi and Kara Shay Thomson as Tosca,
© Jeff Reeder.

Based on a play by French writer Victorien Sardou, the story of Tosca has all the explosive elements of powerful drama: political upheaval, attempted rape, physical torture, murder, execution and suicide. Linking the dramatic events that befall the protagonists are struggles between opposing forces – royalist reactionaries and republican revolutionaries; good and evil; love and lust; honour and corruption; power and helplessness; military and civilian. As vested interests in positions of power exploit human frailty to feed insatiable lust, everyone becomes a victim in the end.

Kara Shay Thomson as Tosca has all the qualities of a diva. Her luscious tone and versatile projection rang through the auditorium. She was particularly impressive in “Vissi d’arte” in Act II, displaying subtle lugubriousness in impassioned pleas for justice. Her steadiness in the sustained long and high notes earned her rapturous applause.

Jonathan Burton, in the role of painter and revolutionary accomplice Cavaradossi, has a refined and velvety tone. Although he glided up and down the high register with agility, his dynamic power was lightweight, for a resilient character who survives severe physical torture. His rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” and “O dolci mani” was sweet enough, but his delivery sounded comparatively tepid in duets with Tosca.

The resonant boom of Scott Bearden as the police chief Scarpia clearly portrayed a character of strong will. Yet he fell short of the underlying spine-chilling evil this character should be dripping. Bearden’s Scarpia was more brutal than cunning; more forceful than psychopathic. He was also curiously inconspicuous in the evocative “Te Deum” in Act I. Steven Condy, as the duplicitous sacristan, provided some light relief in Act I, but Michael Ventura as the fugitive Angelotti, former consul of the Roman Republic, was not as memorable.

Most of the moments of acting brilliance belonged to Kara Shay Thomson, who seemed to breathe the very soul of Tosca. Scarpia was periodically detached, while Cavaradossi was wobbly. Michael Schweitkardt’s set was functional enough, but lighting was too bright for my liking in the second act, taking place in Scarpia’s apartment in the Farnese Palace, the very receptacle of his evil. The costumes were faithful to the historical background, but Tosca in her Laura Ashley light green dress in the first act looked decidedly frumpy.

Valery Ryvkin, conducting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, brought out the orchestral texture of Puccini’s fine score, keeping pace with the drama at times, and leading it at other times. I would have preferred a little more lyricism.

Anyone attempting a new production of such a frequently performed work as Tosca deserves full credit for courage. Director Stephanie Sundine, a soprano herself, might have felt that she was standing on the shoulders of giants such as Franco Zaffirelli, Jonathan Kent and more recently fellow soprano Catherine Malfitano, but her effort was commendable. Despite my high expectations, I left the New Jersey Performing Arts Center satisfied that I had seen a decent performance with memorable highlights.