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At first it seemed that Pittsburgh Opera's Tosca, which opened in the Benedum Center on March 24, was to be a drab, provincial affair, with generic costumes by Malibar, Inc., and sets by Ercole Sormani, who died in 1985. Kristine McIntyre's staging was mostly traditional, and the cast — on paper, at least — might have been described as mid-level. What emerged, however, was more than the sum of these parts, thanks to the totally compelling embodiment of the title character by Angela Brown, and to a surrounding cast that jelled as a musical and dramatic ensemble under conductor Antony Walker.
Brown has sung Tosca before, but she recently called these Pittsburgh performances "my first Tosca in my new body" — after gastric bypass surgery, that is. She is indeed more svelte and glamorous than before, but it's more to the point that she possesses all the essentials for this most elusive role — a juicy, voluptuous sound that rode the orchestra with penetrating high notes and a strong chest voice, which she used sparingly but to great effect; the passionate, fire-and-ice persona of a genuine diva; control of line to deliver "Vissi d'arte" with the right balance of tonal beauty and expressive color; and the individuality to inhabit this role and make it something very much her own.
Added to this, Brown imparted a quality rarely encountered in this character — humor. Her playfulness in the love duet, and an ebullience in Act III when Tosca (wrongly) believes that her lover's execution will be simulated, gave this tragic heroine a whole new dimension. This did not diminish her gravitas elsewhere. Tosca's encounter with Mark Delavan's Scarpia was a convincingly staged crescendo of terror, from the initial discovery of Mario's torture to a battle on the floor that graphically depicted an attempted rape. Killing Scarpia was an act of passion as well as self-defense, with Tosca stabbing him not once but twice and quivering as much as he did as she waited for him to die. Even more significant was the consistency of her singing. There was no meaningless screaming; every note was right on, and she had he ability to apply principles of bel canto to verismo declamation without slighting the emotions or the words.
Delavan is not a subtle artist, but his burnished baritone had the vocal force to match the soprano, and his acting underlined Scarpia's menace along with the requisite melodramatics. He was very effective in his interactions with his henchmen, portrayed with edge and differentiation by resident artists Juan Jose de Leon (Spoletta) and
Kyle Oliver (Sciarrone). Tenor Hugo Vera enacted Cavaradossi with ardor, but he was out of his league in the company of Brown and Delavan. "Recondita armonia" was uncertain in technique and phrasing. The role's subsequent leaps to sustained high notes taxed his powers to the limit, and he shied away from holding on. When not pressed by the more dramatic vocal exigencies, Vera was capable of some admirable lyrical singing, but the heavier moments were beyond his grasp. Kevin Glavin's sonorous Sacristan was no mere buffo caricature but an obsequious toady concerned with saving his own skin, all the more scary for that. Adam Fry, doubling as Angelotti and the Jailor, made an impression with a deep bass voice that has real presence.
Some details of McIntyre's staging proved awkward for the actors to execute — Angelotti's intended fall at the beginning, for example, and extraneous business between Tosca and Spoletta just before her jump. Attention to detail, in the best sense, was the earmark of Walker's treatment of the orchestral element, bringing out instrumental subtleties that too often get lost in the shuffle.