At a time when opera companies are calling it quits out of financial necessity, North Carolina Opera has emerged in Raleigh. Here’s my review of NCO’s inaugural production starring Cynthia Lawrence, Grant Youngblood, and Steven Harrison.
North Carolina Opera
North Carolina Opera — newly formed from a merger between two smaller pre-existing companies, Opera Company of North Carolina and Capital Opera Raleigh — opened its first-ever season with an inspiring production of Puccini’s Tosca (seen Oct. 17). General director Eric Mitchko kicked off the evening with a greeting to the patrons, saying, “Opera is essential. Opera is indispensable,” and promised that North Carolina Opera would enhance the rich cultural life of the Triangle. Mitchko is the former director of artistic administration for Atlanta Opera as well as a former vice president at Columbia Arts Management; it was evident that he was able to use his history in the business to recruit some superior singers for Tosca.
This inaugural production had some strikes against it: the redecorated yet antiquated Memorial Hall, built in the 1930s, is unsuitable for opera acoustically and wanting in backstage space. The set, designed by David Gano and provided by the New Orleans Opera Association, looked sparse and seemed incomplete. Regrettably, there was no hint of reference to the real landmarks of Rome that serve as backdrop to Puccini’s opera. NCO plans to make use of several performance locations throughout its first season, perhaps testing out each site in the hopes of finding a proper home. In any case, a cast of fine singers, headed by the Tosca of soprano Cynthia Lawrence, more than compensated for Memorial Hall’s imperfections.
Conductor Timothy Myers and the orchestra began with a tentative opening statement of the Scarpia motif and sluggish tempos, but they hit their stride in Act II and played well for the rest of the evening. Stage director James Marvel provided a traditional diva-centric interpretation of the opera, but with quite a bit more detail than was expected. Each player was thoroughly choreographed. Sacristan Donald Hartmann was a scrawny fellow with an unholy attitude problem and a flask tucked under his robes. Spoletto and Sciarrone, played by John Cashwell and Lane Johnson respectively, had limited stage time but oozed menace when they were present. Bass Matthew Lau gave a strong performance as Angelotti, stumbling around the stage fatigued by the abuses of prison.
Lawrence captured the essence of Tosca and her sudden alterations of mood — petulant jealousy, girlish charm, fetching allure — singing the role with utter mastery. Together Lawrence and baritone Grant Youngblood, her Scarpia, created a tightly wound Act II that was climactic in its entirety, the highlight of the opera. Youngblood was a classic Scarpia. No one was immune to his intimidation, not even an innocent Act I choirboy who was grabbed by the collar and thrown to the floor prior to the Te Deum. Youngblood brandished a small whip as he inspected the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and sang elegantly, with supple legato.
While the production featured thrilling singing, it seemed a bit off-kilter too. Tenor Steven Harrison was a dependable Mario Cavaradossi, but he was curiously ill-suited to the romantic aspect of the role. Harrison’s exciting tenor was a serviceable match for Lawrence’s rather sizeable voice, a fact that should not be understated, but his small stature and outsized gestures impeded suspension of disbelief.