On Friday night, the Kentucky Opera celebrated the opening of its Brown-Forman Sixtieth Anniversary Season with a gala evening. Studded with tuxedos and evening gowns, the W. L. Lyons Brown Theatre sparkled in all its glory – excitement and anticipation palpable with the return of the Louisville Orchestra to the pit of the Brown, and the “Pope” was out front to take pictures for the society papers. On first glance, one might expect that what was about to happen would be only for the Society elite – that this evening’s pageantry would not be for the masses.
In one sense, they would be correct. The finery sitting in the house might not be available or affordable for most entertainment seekers. However, what was presented on the intimate stage of the Brown would and should, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, appeal to anyone seeking to hear and experience a story that is both entertaining and thought provoking.
Under the delicate direction of Kentucky Opera’s General Director, David Roth, this offering of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca sets the bar high for the rest of the season and is one that will be sure to bring back opera afficiandos and, hopefully, lovers of good stories well told.
Set in early 19th century Kingdom of Naples, during Napoleon’s invasion, the story revolves around the love affair of the artist Cavaradossi (Jonathan Burton) and his paramour, the jealous Tosca (Kara Shay Thompson), an opera singer whose mercurial impetuosity is at once humorous and aggravating yet, as seen in this production, masks a vulnerability which leads to her tragic end. Cavaradossi, in attempting to aid an escaped political prisoner, Angelotti (John Arnold), incurs the jealousy of his love Tosca and the wrath of Chief of Police Baron de Scarpia, who is searching for the escaped Angellotti and pursuing the physical love of Tosca.
Michael Chioldi & Jonathan Burton in Tosca. Photo by Patrick Pfister.
The performances in this beautifully crafted production are nothing if not understated and powerful. Burton’s Cavaradossi is a man caught between the jealousy and love of Tosca and the attempts of Scarpia to destroy him. Mr. Burton finds humor and agony as he fends off the paranoia of his love and then is tortured and betrayed by both Scarpia and Tosca. In the role of Tosca, Kara Shay Thompson returns to the Kentucky Opera where two seasons ago she appeared in Cavallaria Rusticana, and we can be thankful for that. Ms. Shay is superb. Her strong soprano voice is able to capture all the delicacy and power that this role seems to call for: soft and delicate, humor, beauty, wrath and pain. She is beautiful in the sumptuous gowns designed by Howard Tvsi Kaplan.
But I believe the evening belongs to Michael Chioldi’s portrayal of the villain Scarpia! Mr. Chioldi’s warm, rich baritone is stunning. Physically imposing, he commands the stage with ease and grace. While being the essence of an operatic villain (even one time making a reference to Shakespeare’s Iago), Mr. Chioldi never makes us feel as if we were watching a caricature. His scenes are solid and filled with nuanced rage and pain. In “Va, Tosca!” (“Go, Tosca!”) and “Già, mi dicon venal” (“Yes, they say that I am venal”), the full range of his talent and power are apparent. The beauty of Puccini is in full bloom during the “Te Deum Laudamus” (“We Praise Thee, O God”), where Mr. Chioldi and the Kentucky Opera Chorus bring the first act to a thundering end.
The supporting cast does able work: Studio Artists Brad Raymond (Spoletta) and Greg Jebaily (Sciarrone). Noel Bouley as Sacristan has some nice moments that add a lightness to the beginning, and John Arnold as Angelotti contrasts that with the urgency and fear that pervades the town.
The Louisville Orchestra, under the direction of returning Maestro Joseph Mechavich, is a welcome sight and an aural delight. They’ve never sounded better.
Design in the production is both bold and understated. Scenery was designed by Robert Little and is perfect for the space. It was lit with a deft hand as that of Jeff Bruckerhoff. Atmosphere and mood are expressed with subtlety and natural light sources are enhanced with care. This adds to the production in an almost subliminal way.
Friday, September 21, 8 p.m. Sunday, September 23, 2 p.m. Friday, September 28, 8 p.m.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner