Were it not for the ministrations of Giacomo Puccini, the melodramas of Victorien Sardou might be little more than a footnote, consigned to oblivion by the scorn of George Bernard Shaw. Thanks to Puccini's 1900 opera, the many facets of Floria Tosca become vivid sources of discussion each time a new diva tackles the title role. Famous throughout Rome for her singing, Tosca is a proud and vain artist, a fiercely jealous lover, a vulnerable woman, and – when pushed too far – a cunning, cold-blooded murderer. At Opera Carolina, soprano Jill Gardner is starring in the company's ninth production of Tosca in the past 56 seasons, and the UNC Greensboro grad is making Tosca's notorious kiss her own in her Belk Theater debut. Flanked by Todd Thomas as the sadistic Roman police chief, Baron Scarpia, and Raul Melo as painter/patriot Mario Cavaradossi, Gardner captures the youth and fire of Tosca, stinting a little on the diva's hauteur while humanizing her artistry.
Compared with the sumptuous church interior that greeted me at Lincoln Center for the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca a couple of seasons ago, the set design by Donald Oenslager and Franco Colavecchia seemed rather impoverished for the entrances of our stars. Cavaradossi's painting could not be seen from the center of the house, and despite the faux depths of the design, the influx of priests and choirboys into the church, as the defeat of Napoleon was heralded across the city, was hardly more robust than a single-file crossing of the stage. Baron Scarpia's palatial apartment was far better served by the designers in Act II, though the lurid glow from the adjoining torture chamber by lighting designer Michael Baumgarten tempted me to laugh. Best was the roof of the prison castle for Cavaradossi's sunrise execution in Act III, where none of the Met's dubious innovations were attempted, allowing Gardner to make a glorious final leap as Scarpia's angry henchmen pursued her.
Costumes provided by AT Jones and wigs designed by Martha Ruskai could hardly be truer to the era. When Thomas sang Scarpia's dramatic "Ha più forte sapore" monologue at the start of Act II, reveling in his own depravity, I could barely escape the notion that I was gazing into the grim visage of Napoleon's most celebrated contemporary, the implacable Ludwig van Beethoven. Ruskai's makeup artistry was best appreciated a few minutes later when Melo, dressed up for a romantic rendezvous with his Floria as Cavaradossi, is hustled off to the torture chamber, returning after his ordeal liberally caked in blood. You can rest assured that Cavaradossi's trials do not affect his singing, for Melo's "E lucevan le stelle," as he awaits his execution, is as luminous and full-throated as his "Recondita armonia" was at the start of Act I, contemplating the face of his sweetheart. The opening night audience didn't seem to appreciate Melo's merits as much as Gardner's, but I won't fault their judgment. Gardner's was more like the Tosca I wished to see than Sondra Radvanovsky's domesticated diva had been at the Met. Where Radvanovsky's jealousy toward Mario and her rage against Scarpia seemed like the reactions of a wronged housewife, Gardner was more like a lover in Act I, a hellcat in Act II, and a romantic in Act III. Her "Vissi d'arte" in Scarpia's apartment is more thoroughly tinged with pure religiosity than bitterness, and there is vibrancy in her optimism as she joins Melo for their final duet, poignantly envisioning their future happiness before the firing squad arrives.
Supporting roles are beautifully handled overall. Stage director Jay Lesenger overdoes the melodrama for Dan Boye in Act I, where he appears as the fugitive revolutionary Cesare Angelotti, unable to move five feet without flopping to the ground – until he needs to make a quick escape. Donald Hartmann is a pleasing nuisance as the Sacristan, craven and intrusive, and Lesenger's demonizing distortions of Scarpia's lackeys are delectable. Noah Rice turns the spying Spoleta into an unctuous hunchback, while Darris Jackson makes chief torturer Sciarone a towering menace every time he emerges from his inferno. From the abrupt opening at the church to the aching clarinet obbligatos at the prison castle, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is sharp, alert, and emotional under Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena's knowing baton. Maybe the company is presenting Tosca a little too often, but nobody onstage or in the pit sounds even slightly weary of it, and the audience is responding lustily to the excitement.
Tosca will be repeated on October 18 and 21. For details, see the sidebar.