The term “site specific theater” or “environmental theater” refers to a theatrical production that is produced in a unique adapted location other than the standard theater, where the buildings and/or locations are transformed in a unique way in order to enhance the story and/or experience. These types of productions also allow the audience to be more interactive as well as the ability to move around within the context of the work yielding a richer and more personal experience.
Pacific Opera Project (POP) is a young opera company that has produced creative performances around the LA County area for several years, many in unusual venues and sometimes showcasing obscure works. Headed by Artistic Director Josh Shaw, POP opened their two weekend, six day performances of the opera “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa at the St James United Methodist Church campus located at 2033 E. Washington Blvd, Pasadena, California 91104 on Friday night to a packed house, or should I say packed church!
The first act or Tosca takes place in a church environment, so it was very appropriate that the audience members were seated in the main sanctuary as we watched the actors and singers tell the story in the first of three intimate settings within the church complex.
A former consul of the Roman Republic and political prisoner Cesare Angelotti, played by the talented baritone Ryan Thorn has just escaped from prison and has sought refuge at a private chapel owned by his sister the Marchesa Attavanti. Enter handsome painter, Mario Cavaradossi (tenor, Bryan Cheney) who is working on a portrait of Mary Magdalene to a waiting Sacristan (baritone, E. Scott Levin) who has brought him some food and drink. Levin is a regular with POP and possesses not only an excellent baritone voice but a knack for comedic acting which always brings smiles and chuckles to the audience.
In his first aria “Recondita Armonia” (hidden harmony), Cheney delighted the audience with his powerful and beautiful voice while pointing out the contradiction of painting a light eyed beautiful woman while his lover is the dark-eyed, impetuous, jealous singer Floria Tosca. Suddenly Angelotti appears from hiding while attempting to get at the food, Cavaradossi recognizes him and sends him off to a safe hiding place with some clothing for disguise that the Angelotti’s sister has left for him.
One of the great tragic heroines in opera, Tosca (Daria Somers) enters the scene from the rear of the church to meet up with her artist lover. She is suspicious about the light eyed woman in the painting and tries to convince him to take her to his villa. Somers brings a dulcet and striking voice to her aria “Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta” (“Do you not long for our little cottage”) while showing strong, believable acting chops.
Soon we meet the villain of the story Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia played by the bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell who is a large, imposing, menacing figure with a voice to match. He and his men have burst into the chapel looking for the escaped Angelotti and initiate a search. Scarpia wants not only to capture the escaped prisoner, he also wants to bed the beautiful Tosca by planting doubt in her mind about the fidelity of her lover by showing her a fan he found in the chapel with the coat of arms of the Marchesa Attavanti.
One of the best moments of the production comes at the end of the first act when director/set designer Josh Shaw uses the cast of children choristers, nuns and other church member roles to surround the audience in the final musical number. While holding lit candles, this mass of singers engulfs the sanctuary with glorious sounds and the smell of incense while creating a visual spectacle to be remembered.
For the second act the entire audience was moved to a separated space within the church complex which was set up in a more conventional theater layout with a set depicting Baron Scarpia’s apartment. In this scene we find Cavaradossi being tortured in order to find the whereabouts of Angelotti, which he refuses to divulge. Tosca has been summoned to the apartment in order to witness her lover’s fate so as to coerce from her the location of the escaped prisoner, which she does. Somers’ voice shows great power and vulnerability in the beautiful aria “Vissi d’arte” (I lived for art) as she asks God for help but wonders why he has abandoned her.
In probably the most dramatic and violent scene of the opera, Tosca agrees to sleep with Scarpia if he stops torturing Cavaradossi and grants her a safe-conduct passage for herself and her lover. While he takes time to draft the document she quietly grabs a knife from a table. As Scarpia approaches to embrace her she stabs him in the heart while crying “This is Tosca’s kiss” with each thrust of the knife. This is a crime of passion and Shaw’s direction makes us feel each blow and the agony and rage that brought it on. As she gets ready to leave with document in hand Tosca manages to place her crucifix on the body as a gesture of forgiveness and piety.
For the third act the audience was moved to the beautiful interior courtyard of the church where portions of the flat roofs of one of the structures were transformed into the upper parts of the Castel Sant’Angelo. The live orchestra headed by conductor Stephen Karr finally came out of hiding for act 3 (as their usual location for act 1 & 2 were behind the sets) to provide a fuller, more intimidate connection with the music.
It is early in the morning and Cavaradossi is to be executed. Tosca appears and tell him that his execution is just a “show” and they will be able to leave together after he plays dead. Together they sing “Amaro sol per te m’era il morire” (Only for you did death taste bitter for me) with passion and voice projection given the limitations of an outdoor setting.
As in a lot of operas a “happy ending” is never the case, so in the final scenes the bullets are real and both lovers meet their end together. Tosca plunges to her death from the castle’s walls after realizing her lover is dead and she is wanted for the death of Scarpia. But regardless of the tragic ending, this production of Tosca by the Pacific Opera Project shows that great, affordable opera is alive and well in the Los Angeles area.