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The time has finally come: after all the lawyers, accountants and merger specialists have come and gone, the inaugural performance of the newly-formed North Carolina Opera was ready to raise the curtain on a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, one of the grandest of grand operas. Formed as a merger of the Opera Company of North Carolina and the somewhat smaller Capital Opera Raleigh, the hopes of a healthy financial beginning seemed a little ambitious judging by the sea of empty red seats at the first of two performances at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts.
Based on a very popular French play by Victorien Sardou, written primarily as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, the acquisition of the rights by Puccini and his publisher Ricordi has an operatic tinge to it as they successfully conspired to wrest control from rival composer Alberto Franchetti. The premiere in Milan in 1900 was a moderate though not overwhelming success but has since gone on to become a staple of the repertoire in all the great opera houses of the world.
As is often the case, the lead roles are soprano and tenor, lovers, and ultimately doomed because of fate, vengeful gods, or, in the case of Floria Tosca, unbelievable gullibility. Cynthia Lawrence, a veteran of lead roles at nearly all the major opera houses, was bigger than life as the jealous woman who literally killed for her true love Mario Cavaradossi, sung by tenor Steven Harrison. It was Harrison who was the most electrifying of the entire cast as his clear tenor voice evoked, and was at least the equal of, many of the great tenors of the past. The first act interplay in the church between Tosca and Cavaradossi was especially entertaining and quite funny as it showed that petty jealousies have always existed and will continue to do so.
Tosca is set in 1800 and in part is an historical drama surrounding the Napoleonic wars, but it mostly involves the universal attributes of friendship, faithfulness to a cause and betrayal. Would Tosca succumb to Scarpia, the lecherous chief of police villainously played and wonderfully sung by Grant Youngblood, in exchange for Cavaradossi’s freedom and release? While she had the courage to kill the tormenter of her beloved, she had a fatal flaw present in much of theater – here, believing that the execution of Cavaradossi would be staged with fake bullets.
The sets – one for each of the three acts and on loan from the New Orleans Opera Association – were large, imposing and dark, which added to both the tragedy and grandiosity of the story. The very important supertitles (thankfully, the snooty opposition to these crucial enhancements in opera production has nearly completely abated) were clear, large and well executed except for some very minor delays that were quickly recovered. Chorus Master Nathan Leaf gave us one of the great highlights of the evening at the conclusion of Act I as a procession enters the church singing the "Te Deum." The power and pageantry of that scene was grand opera at its finest.
All of the pomp, glitter, costumes, sets, lighting and other facets that go into such an all-encompassing venture as this truly make it an evening out unlike any other, but all of that pales in comparison to the actual music. Puccini wrote Tosca between La Boheme and Madama Butterfly so his remarkable melodic and orchestration skills were at their height. Timothy Myers, conductor and music director, brings to North Carolina Opera an impressive international reputation as an operatic maestro and we are indeed fortunate to latch onto this young artist on his upward ascent. The large orchestra contained many members of the North Carolina Symphony in addition to many familiar names from other orchestras, so it was no surprise that the playing was quite extraordinary and unerring. Myers expertly balanced the singers and instrumentalists, but also allowed the singers the freedom to pull and push the musical line. Special mention is deserved for the ravishingly gorgeous cello solos in the third act played by Principal Nathan Leyland.
The long-awaited premiere of North Carolina Opera is a major boon to the Triangle area arts scene and hopefully will be supported by more and more patrons. Previous failures, bankruptcies and mergers are all in the past; we are now at the start of a new era in opera. Happy Birthday North Carolina Opera.