By Drew Neneman // World-Herald correspondent // Nov 4, 2017
Omaha doesn’t need an excuse for Champagne and music, but its audiences will take it. At the Orpheum Theater’s Slosburg Hall on Friday night, Opera Omaha celebrated the opening night of its 60th season. Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” directed by Crystal Manich, was presented with the Opera Omaha Chorus and the Omaha Symphony under conductor Carlos Izcaray in his Opera Omaha debut.
Omaha welcomed the evening with applause as the sublime set was revealed during the overture. Scenic designer Julia Noulin-Mérat created an inspired world in which a neoclassical Romanesque cathedral space could serve flexibly as an oligarch’s dining room or a prison’s execution yard. Costumes designed by Deborah Newhall further illustrated the turn of the 19th century. It was Newhall’s Opera Omaha debut as well.
There is a timeless political element to the riveting story of “Tosca,” which has made it a crowd favorite since it premiered in Rome 117 years ago. The characters aren’t safe from the powers above and around them whether they live in piety, honesty, betrayal or conspiracy.
The orchestral backdrop to the opera is effectively a character of its own, highlighting the tensions and tragedies of the story. A horrific Napoleonic army is invading and a corrupt Italian monarchy is fighting back. So famous is the masterful use of music in illustrating this abominable geopolitical reality that the 2008 James Bond film, “Quantum of Solace,” used “Tosca” as a backdrop to its conspiratorial climax.
The orchestra and conductor were uniquely visible as characters on Friday. Not in the pit but staged above the action on scaffolds, the orchestra served as a transcendent commentator and basilica choir loft ensemble.
Tenor Jonathon Burton was revelatory as the painter and revolutionary sympathizer, Cavaradossi. His voice never faltered through the demands of the role and his tortured humanity was palpable. The audience cheered him onstage with affectionate excitement when he returned for his bow. Burton returned to Omaha for “Tosca,” most recently have appeared with Opera Omaha in the 2013 production of “Carmen.”
Malcolm MacKenzie, baritone, brought seductive life to the villainous character and chief of police, Scarpia. His detestable allure illustrated the captivating nature of the wicked officer, but it was his deep and powerful voice that earned him the evening’s initial standing ovation when he returned to the stage for his bow. “Tosca” was Burton’s Opera Omaha debut.
Though the house was already on its feet to applaud Burton and MacKenzie, soprano Lee Bisset, back in Omaha for the second season in a row, deserves particular praise for her portrayal of the title role. Bisset’s Tosca was heart-wrenching and real. Furthermore, her voice carried the role with remarkable beauty.