Opera warhorses are like clichés. There’s usually a compelling reason why they are so oft repeated; namely, that they are true to their words, or, in the case of opera, their music. Tosca’s popularity stems not only from its music, but also from the inherent truth in its drama and its in-depth portrayal of unrestrained human passions. San Diego Opera wisely chose to open its 2016 main stage season with this perennial favorite. As the packed opening night house can attest, this opera is a sure-fire way to attract an audience – especially with such an outstanding cast.

Alexia Voulgaridou (Tosca) and Greer Grimsley (Scarpia) © Cory Weaver
Alexia Voulgaridou (Tosca) and Greer Grimsley (Scarpia)
© Cory Weaver

The shining star of the evening, Greek soprano and SDO debut artist Alexia Voulgaridou, lived up to every one of her role’s expectations. Her full, lustrous voice with its beautifully rounded tone easily sailed over the brass-laden orchestra all the way to the last row of the house. Her passionate portrayal of the fiery diva revealed a deep understanding of her character, with all its aberrations – from winsome flirtation to blazing rage and uncontrollable hate. Notwithstanding her feverish outbursts and declamations, Voulgaridou maintained vocal beauty and dynamic integrity. She is a major talent whose Met Opera debut will hopefully be forthcoming.

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones matched Voulgaridou’s passion in intensity. There was never any question that with such impressive volume his voice was capable of reaching the rafters, and he handled the top notes and sustained phrases with seeming effortlessness. Nonetheless, his power-packed tenor voice was a bit raw for the subtleties of the sensitive artist Cavaradossi, and his voice lacked the richness needed for the more lyrical facets of the role.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi) © Cory Weaver
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi)
© Cory Weaver

Greer Grimsley’s imposing bass-baritone has become familiar to SDO audiences from numerous appearances since his debut here in 2000, and his winning stage presence has garnered him a faithful fan following. His portrayal of the fatally evil Scarpia was alternately powerful, shockingly unrepentant, urbane – and always gripping. His entrance in Act I was the most chilling in recent history, and his massive voice demanded attention in every scene in which he appeared. To witness such a clear command of this role is a mind-blowing experience for any audience.

Director Lesley Koenig showed her skilled acumen to great advantage. A SDO veteran and widely experienced in the field, she added her usual imaginative attention to detail to demonstrate the contrast in attitudes and behaviors of the players: the Sacristan’s spiritual piety and sly references to his earthly wants; Cavaradossi’s volatile changes from loving patience to maddening exasperation; Tosca’s wild swings from calculated ingenuousness and somewhat erratic piousness to wily shrewdness. Koenig also integrated the minor characters expertly, giving them enough action to bring attention to their presence, yet never interfering with the broader players’ portrayals.

Regarding these comprimario singers, Koenig had some adept players with which to work. Bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter, last seen here in Murder In The Cathedral, ably carried out his dual role requirements as besieged fugitive Angelotti and Scarpia’s henchman Sciarrone. Fellow Murder henchman Joel Sorensen was appropriately malicious as Spoletta. Former Samson Philistine Scott Sikon gave an engaging rendition of the Sacristan. All of them added to the drama, drawing just enough attention to complement but not overwhelm the main characters’ actions. Bridget Hogan’s lilting voice as the Shepherd Boy was sometimes difficult to hear – perhaps she was placed too far away to be properly heard – but nonetheless pleasing.

Act 3 © Cory Weaver
Act 3
© Cory Weaver

The one conspicuous lack of the evening was in the pit. Maestro Massimo Zanetti brought his Italian sensibilities and clear understanding to the score. Yet he did not draw the best playing from the orchestra, especially in the strings. The one exception was the performance of  the horns, whose rendering of the difficult introduction to Act III was note perfect, with the gorgeous, absolutely consistent sound of one immensely powerful instrument. But Zanetti’s interpretation, though powerful at times, seemed rushed at other times when he could have intensified the score’s inexorable drama. And Voulgaridou needed a bit more breathing room in the tempo for “Vissi d’arte”.

Much good could be said about Andrew Horn’s sets. The church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle in Act I looked noble and impressive, with realistically rendered columns whose lettering was clearly readable even from a distance, and a keen sense of the church’s depth. The third act set brought appreciative murmurs from the audience, with its immense but artistically rendered statue of the Archangel Michael. The blushing pink glow of Gary Marber’s subtle lighting as dawn broke behind the Castel Sant’Angelo added a shimmering atmosphere to the impending doom inherent in the action. Andrew Marlay’s costumes were stunning, especially Tosca’s second act gown, which was truly worthy of a performance in honor of a queen.