Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Opera San Jose's "Tosca"

November 14, 2010

It's always a pleasure to see the young singers that Opera San Jose is developing - but perhaps even a larger pleasure to see the end results. Such was the case Sunday, when alumni Christopher Bengochea and Rebecca Davis returned to play Cavaradossi and Tosca.

It's a special time for Davis, who went directly from her OSJ residency to this summer's Merola Program in San Francisco. After a series of light lyric roles in San Jose - the Countess in Figaro, Adina in Elixir of Love - I had some doubts about her taking on Tosca, but it turns out that the darker, more dramatic side is where her voice more naturally "wants to go," as she puts it, and it certainly comes across onstage. Her Floria is downright ferocious, particularly in the dark, foreboding passages as Scarpia lures her into the trap of jealousy. She begins "Vissi d'arte" in a prone position and taps into her lyric side to produce a beautifully tiered three-step dynamic drop from the final top-note.

Bengochea's transformation continues to be a highly entertaining ride. He began his OSJ career as the ultimate lirico but has matured into a forceful spinto. Sunday, his instrument was a bit of a wild beast - he strained at the upper reaches of "Recondita armonia" - but once he warmed up the results were fantastic. His "E lucevan" was heart-wrenching, and he followed with a tender reading of the oft-overlooked "Dolci mani," Cavaradossi's tribute to the sweet hands that were forced to kill on his behalf. (A Pucciniphile can't help flashing on "Che gelida manina.)

Current resident Torlef Borsting did superbly with Scarpia, favoring "nasty" and "creepy" on the Scarpia buffet. He did especially well with the divinely hypocritical Te Deum, over the excellent singing of the OSJ chorus.

Stage director Sandra Bengochea led her players through a passionate, physical production (and freely abused her husband, who at one point was dragged into Scarpia's apartment on a sheet). The hand of veteran fight director Kit Wilder shows, as well. The tussle between Cavaradossi and Scarpia's henchmen was Eastwood-grade, and the pivotal stabbing was superb: Tosca lying in wait till the Baron leaned over her, then two solid thrusts to the midsection with a shiny, nasty-looking knife. The torture scene was agonizing and visceral, punctuated by a scream from (Christopher) Bengochea that was downright primal. The clincher was Davis's leap from the parapets, which was purposeful and fearless, with a defiant look back at her pursuers.

The orchestra under David Rohrbaugh played well, with the exception of some sour strings in the third-act reprise of the "Mia gelosa" theme. The creaking doors to the Attavanti chapel and the torture room were nice, authentic touches. And Tosca's second-act gown - a black-and-gold ensemble designed by Elizabeth Poindexter - was divine. Supertitle of the evening: "He's dead - now I forgive him."

Through November 28, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$101, 408/437-4450,

Image: Christopher Bengochea as Cavaradossi. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and novelist. His latest book, Operaville, is set for release in early 2011, with a companion CD by soprano Barbara Divis. Available at

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