Making one of those debuts people are likely to be talking about for a long time, Violeta Urmana triumphed as Tosca in the Los Angeles Opera revival of Puccini's opera Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The Lithuanian soprano began life as a mezzo, singing Verdi's Princess Eboli at the Metropolitan Opera as recently as 2004, although she made her soprano debut as Maddalena in Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" at the Vienna State Opera in 2003.
Her voice retains that rich lower earthiness, and her top notes, at least initially, lacked a desirable freedom and gleam. As the voice warmed up, however, these qualities began to surface with sufficient power.
But it was her acting that vanquished everyone. In fact, she didn't seem to be acting at all. She was a soul present and revealed at all times, whether a statuesque diva whose jealously instantly punctured her security or a woman shocked into deep maturity by Scarpia's evil demands. Here, layers of artifice were stripped away and she was staggering in her vulnerability. "Heartfelt" is a meager word to describe her "Vissi d'arte."
Her Cavaradossi was Salvatore Licitra, also making his L.A. Opera debut. Licitra has been burdened with expectations of being the next great tenor after stepping in for Luciano Pavarotti for a Met telecast of "Tosca" in 2002. His career since then has had its ups and downs, chronicled as methodically, cruelly, as newscasters track the process of avian flu.
Here, initially, he too sounded somewhat tight and constricted in the upper range. But perhaps he was husbanding his resources, because his cries of victory in the second act and his "E lucevan le stelle" in the third had the thrilling top ring. Still, compared with Urmana, he remained a generalized actor.
Each sounded freer singing alone than together. Maybe this is why director Ian Judge placed them at opposite ends of the stage for their final declarations of love and hope. But it seemed an odd choice.
Judge had some inspired ideas. Tosca used Angelotti's suicide knife to kill Scarpia, bringing a kind of justice around to that persecution. She also took the time to stretch out her arms in a final farewell to Cavaradossi's corpse before throwing herself off the parapet of Castel Sant'Angelo at the opera's climax. (Opera Pacific's suicide leap, seen earlier in the week, remains the gold standard, however.)
But there's too much aimless standing and singing, moving here and there, running around a table in the Judge staging, first seen in 1989 and repeated in 1992, 1996 and 2001. After all these years, it still seems weird that Cavaradossi is painting his portrait of the Magdalene with the canvas placed on the floor. You keep worrying that someone is going to step on it.
Samuel Ramey remained a magisterial Scarpia, cold, reserved, suave and menacing, although his thunderous, focused voice gave hints of a shaky wobble. One could have done without the bits of self-stroking in the "Te Deum," but again, this was probably a Judge idea.
Kent Nagano conducted with a light, considerate hand, never swamping the singers, following them carefully and saving resources for major moments. Still, one would have liked more orchestral involvement and power.
In the secondary roles, Michael Gallup made a genial Sacristan and, unlike others, followed the indications in the score that the character has a nervous tic. Joseph Frank as Spoletta was made up to resemble Dr. Mengele and sang with focus.
The production updates the action to Puccini's time. John Gunter designed the handsome, painterly sets. It was lighted sensitively by Maidie Rosengarden. Performances continue through Dec. 18.
`Tosca,' Los Angeles Opera
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1, 7, 10 and 15; 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4 and 18.
Price: $30 to $205
Contact: (213) 972-8001 or