Anchorage Opera's stark "Tosca" put the focus on the musical tension

Art Snob Blog

"It gets me every time," said one choked-up patron at the end of the opening night performance of "Tosca" on Friday. Puccini's tense drama has been getting 'em every time for the past 100-plus years and Anchorage Opera's current production is no exception -- but there are different ways of achieving the goal.

Director Marc Astafan has opted for a formal approach, geometric in its angles and action. Movement is closely connected to the music. Some might find it stiff and unexpressive, but to me it seemed to wind the anticipation ever-tighter. For instance, the villain Scarpia and his agents made their first entrance almost like a machine, slowly and in unison, visually unnatural, but a good fit with the inexorable sound from the orchestra.

Arnulfo Maldonado's stark, uncluttered sets further concentrated the effectiveness of the music. Lighting was a recurring key element, as when Tosca was spotlighted in her big aria, "Vissi d'arte," with Scarpia sitting statue-still in the shadows, emphasizing the scene as a soliloquy. The end of Act II, candles burning on either hand of the dead man and the shadow of Tosca leaving by a central door on an otherwise black stage was an excellent inspiration. On the other hand, the spot fell under tenor Michael Hayes' feet for most of his Act Three tear-jerker, "E lucevan le stelle," and he had to step out of the dark to get into it. Surely it wasn't planned that way.

Marie Plette as Tosca and Hayes as Cavaradossi exhibited fine, strong voices with lively inflection. Beyond that they were credible lovers, adults with enormous passions -- particularly an experienced understanding of how precious each is to the other and a fear of losing what they have -- yet never over the top.

The most arresting figure (no pun intended) was Luis Ledesma as the chief of police. Scarpia is often a fat, old ogre, but here we saw him young, ambitious, attractive and able to turn on real charm. Tosca had reason to be caught off guard by his smooth, confident baritone blandishments and insinuations.

In the secondary roles, Benjamin Robinson was a standout as the henchman, Spoletta. He's previously appeared here in "South Pacific" and "Macbeth" and one looks forward to hearing him again in Anchorage Opera's upcoming "Pirates of Penzance."

Among the local talent, Justin Birchell's Sacristan deserves special mention. As with Scarpia, this character was played much younger than one usually sees. It was a pleasure to hear Birchell sing full voice in a big space, as opposed to the notable work he's done at closer quarters with TBA Theatre and at Cyrano's. (He was the show-stopping Labrador in Cyrano's 2009 production of "Bark.")

Other Alaskans included Martin Eldred as the jailer, Steven Dixon as the battered political fugitive, Angelotti, and Christopher Hall as Sciarrone (he's slated to sing Pontius Pilate in Theatre Artists United's upcoming "Jesus Christ Superstar"). Grace Blohm of Wasilla sang the offstage lines of the Shepherd at the beginning of Act Three.

The orchestra, led by Andy Anderson, fell short of being ravishing but held up very well, the violins delivering a satisfying on-pitch and unified swell at the numerous climactic moments.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.