‘Season of Love’ ends in woe

The San Antonio Opera’s Season of Love wrapped up under close watch as the curtain fell for the last time before David O’Dell takes over as executive director. For Friday night’s finale, the Opera chose an established and ambitious production, Giacomo Puccini’s emotional rollercoaster, Tosca. Cast and crew hit home runs on every count (the orchestra was spot on, the drama was unrelenting), and with each success the company seemed to telegraph a single message: Get used to it.

Like most opera buffs, I know the story of Floria Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi by heart, but the comedy and passion in Act I was so fresh, so playful, that I was distracted from the tragedy I knew would come (think savory kisses and slapstick butt-scratches). Soprano Carter Scott owned the stage as the fiery and charming Tosca, delivering delicious swells and a brassy tone that hovered sweetly over the orchestra below.

At her side was tenor Don Bernandini as Mario, the earnest and energetic suitor. Their chemistry flooded the stage during a blissful performance of “Non la sospiri,” and even though Bernandini strained to hit the top of his range, the result was a wild yearning.

But the duo’s highest rapture is soon met by the deepest misery.

Set in 1800 Rome, Tosca feels more relevant than ever. After all, this is the tale of an out-of-control police force; of civilians tortured for information; of lovers destroyed by a corrupt, profligate government. When the comedic sacristan (Scott Sikon) joked about liberals being enemies of the state, the house chuckled at its contemporary application, but the injustice was harrowing by the end of Act II.

In short, when Cavaradossi harbors a political fugitive, Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, takes advantage of opportunity and steals Tosca for his own sinful pleasures by threatening her lover’s life. The traitor will be executed unless she submits to him.

Scarpia, played by Luis Ledesma, is a formidable villain, throwing all the requisite punches — a robust voice, a wormy demeanor, and the audacity to sing apostasies like, “Tosca, you make me forget God.” Ledesma is a smart Scarpia and resists playing up his repugnance. Instead he gives us an eerie, insidious criminal capable of carrying out a travesty only Puccini could dream up.

Billed as “shock opera,” Tosca dishes out the most extreme emotions, and in Act III, Carter Scott lies prone and sings a haunting “Vissi d’arte” (“I have lived for art”) with grace and despondency. Scott’s sweetness is both heartbreaking and maddening. Her characteristic jealousy got her into trouble in the first place — Scarpia convinces her that Mario is a cheater, and that’s the only reason the weasel gets as far with her as he does. The depth of Scott’s despair is unforgettable as the pious Tosca turns murderess, stabbing Scarpia (repeatedly!) to death.

Staging director John Gillas takes nothing for granted, wringing the last drops of passion out of each effect. Just before post-murder curtain fall, Tosca staggers out of a darkened room, lit only by jagged slivers of blue light. The effect was astonishingly cinematic and the audience was abuzz at intermission.

With this production, the San Antonio Opera registered a decided victory. It staged a tried-and-true story and created the immediacy every company strives for but rarely attains, living up to this season’s slogan: “First Time. Every Time. A New Experience.” •

The company kicks off its 2008-2009 season on September 26 with Georges Bizet’s Carmen, starring Audrey Babcock and Michael Wade Lee. Get more info at saopera.com