Marble City Opera delivers a fabulous “Tosca” – Arts Knoxville
BY ALAN SHERROD
When I gave a preview of the very first performance of the very young Marble City Opera in a Pulse of the metro article in 2013, the concept of a chamber opera company performing in predominantly non-theatrical spaces seemed like just what it took to fill a niche in the Knoxville art scene. Fueled by an audience with eclectic tastes, this scene was then ripe for a low-budget experimentation that masqueraded as a night of music, always accompanied by adult drinks. Interestingly though, no one, including MCO founders Kathryn Frady and Kevin Doherty, really expected such a niche organization to continue, especially if success and enthusiasm waned and support grew. was ephemeral. However, as it turned out for Marble City Opera, an old adage applies: “Be careful what you want, you might get it …”
The current production of this weekend of Giacomo Puccini Tosca by Marble City Opera represents a quantum leap in artistry, complexity and sophistication from where the company began eight years ago. Nevertheless, one of its fundamental principles of using alternative places remains. With vaccinations alleviating serious precautionary limitations in the event of a pandemic, this Tosca was staged in St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Knoxville, its three acts taking place in three locations in the church: the nave, its meeting room, and the outer courtyard. Of course, with just a little creative license, these are meant to match Puccini’s actual (and existing) locations in Rome: a church interior, a private apartment, and the roof of a prison.
Before going any further, it should be made clear that performing without the benefits of an equipped theatrical environment changes the entire dynamic experience for performers and audiences. Singers and instrumental ensembles are at the mercy of existing acoustics, balance challenges, and tight spaces, while additional sets, lighting, and accessories are necessarily minimal. The staged action is dictated by the natural characteristics of this space. Audience members, too, may find themselves either delightfully enlightened, or uncomfortably dismayed, by the dramatic impact of the close-up storytelling in which they are spies by default.
Having said that, it was a fabulous Tosca. Staged by Marya Barry and the instrumental ensemble conducted by Brian Holman, the St. John’s spaces enveloped audiences in a blanket of sonic and melodramatic realism, allowing Puccini’s dramatic performances and score to unfold. fluidly. An unfortunate side of the clarity of realism, however, was that there was no practical way to project English subtitles to support comprehension for those in the audience less familiar with the details of the dramatic script.
Of course, Tosca’s title role is a dream role for all dramatic sopranos, not just for those with reach and power, but also for those with the dramatic ability to credibly float between passion. , arrogance, jealousy and physical determination. Kathryn Frady, Executive Artistic Director of Marble City Opera, made that dream come true in this production. Besides having those requisite vocal and dramatic qualities that make for a great melodrama, Frady, suitably costumed and styled, looked and sounded simply like the Tosca one carries in his mind. Delightfully too, Frady brought the romance to Act I and passed the Act II test by delivering a succulent and lyrical “Vissi d’arte” immediately after suffering Scarpia’s harsh and dramatic physical assault on her and her sadistic treatment of her lover Cavaradossi.
An obvious but ineffable romantic alchemy between Tosca and Cavaradossi is an important element for success. Tosca, one that was happily accomplished here by Frady and tenor Brandon Evans. Evans’ clean and magnificent lyricism and stoic portrayal of the manipulated painter was a perfect balance for Tosca and her interaction with Scarpia and her henchmen.
Jacob Lasseter sang the role of villainous Baron Scarpia with delightful solidity, in a gripping performance that drove the character not only into the usual quasi-fascist lust, but even more suggesting an interesting sadistic and quirky perversion. Wearing a claw-shaped ring gave his hand movements an evil dancing quality.
Baritone Daniel Spiotta played the role of the sacristan of the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle. In the small role of the escapee Cesare Angelotti was the powerful voice of notable bass David Crawford, who used this voice to portray the terror and fear of his situation. Maurice Hendricks as Sciarrone and Breyon Ewing as Spoletta gave Scarpia’s henchmen solid vocal moments and beautifully melodramatic characters. Shepherd Boy from Act III was sung by Kayla Beard.
Kudos to Conductor Holman for a miraculous instrumental ensemble balance and to Barry for weaving touches of romance and evil into the characters and movement within the St. John’s space.
For many members of the audience, this may have been their first live appearance at a theatrical event since the shutdown of performances as a precaution against the pandemic last spring. In many ways, a breath of fresh air, this wonderful Tosca de Marble City Opera was a welcome return to some degree of normalcy.