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OPERA REVIEW

A democratic `Tosca'

Amplification issues erase the distinction between major and minor roles, but some lovely singing is loud and clear.

July 11, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Sunday was quite a day. There was jubilation on one side, despair on the other, as Italy beat France in a nail-biting finish to the World Cup. There was French captain Zinedine Zidane's head-butt foul, a flash of anger late in the game that ended his glorious career in ignominy.

The last thing anyone might have expected later was the emergence of a new Tosca to reckon with. But that's what happened at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night when John Mauceri led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert version of Puccini's most extreme verismo opera.

Patricia Racette, who created the role of Love Simpson in Carlisle Floyd's "Cold Sassy Tree" for Houston Grand Opera and who appeared as Cio-Cio San at Los Angeles Opera last season, was singing her first Tosca. She gave a vocally and dramatically rich portrayal, with velvet and steel in the voice, and feminine strength, vulnerability and allure in the acting.

If she didn't quite make "Vissi d'arte" a showstopping moment -- somehow it lacked its wonted dramatic peak -- doubtless that will come in the future.

Her Cavaradossi was Frank Porretta, son of opera singers Frank Porretta Jr. and Roberta Palmer, who was making his Bowl debut. With baritone vocal coloring -- think Domingo more than Pavarotti -- Porretta was somewhat pallid in the low and midrange but nevertheless had thrilling high notes, which he savored to his and the audience's delight.

He was alert to the drama as well, even in Peter Hunt's minimal staging, whether showing Cavaradossi's exasperation at Tosca's jealousy or anguish at approaching execution.

James Morris' Scarpia was grandly but monochromatically menacing, at least in the first act. He showed more subtlety in the second, beginning Scarpia's brief confessional aria ("Ha piu forte sapore") with lyrical finesse before exploding into the character's vaunting of voracious appetite. Other details might have been minimized because of the amplification of the soloists.

The amplification, perhaps reasonably, favored the singers, but the right balance sometimes proved elusive. Veteran Paul Plishka's Sacristan was easily a match for Morris, with the churchman hardly cowering in fear as he should of Rome's dreaded chief of secret police. Porretta initially almost overwhelmed Racette. Morris, in the first act, seemed to have only two dynamics -- loud and louder. The Philharmonic, for all its sumptuous playing, often faded into the background.

There were interesting discoveries, however, in the flattening out of the usual foreground-background figures. Puccini, it turns out, wrote some beautiful church polyphony for the offstage cantata sung as Scarpia begins his interrogation of Cavaradossi. In the theater, nobody pays much attention to it, but here, even as it overshadowed the tense confrontation between the two antagonists, it proved quite lovely.

The whole experience also showed how tied to the theater Puccini's score is. Long stretches of tense, even nerve-racking music that serve a dramatic purpose for stage action sounded like filler, although Mauceri's conducting could be faulted here.

Mauceri introduced each act from the stage with his usual engaging and illuminating remarks. He supported the singers carefully, collaborating with them at the important moments. But elsewhere he led a generalized account of the score that often bypassed its expressive possibilities.

In addition to the Sacristan, the other secondary characters were Craig Verm as Angelotti, Jason Karn as Spoletta, Charles Unice as Sciarrone and James Martin Schaefer as the Jailer.

They are all just starting their careers with promise, even as Zidane has ended his in shame.

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