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Kara Shay Thomson, Massimiliano Pisapia (front) and Luis Ledesma.. (Photos by Ken Howard)

Kara Shay Thomson, Massimiliano Pisapia (front) and Luis Ledesma. (Photos by Ken Howard)

The Atlanta Opera’s 2013-14 season got off to a slow start — literally — at Saturday’s opening-night performance of Puccini’s “Tosca.” Arthur Fagen, the company’s music director, chose a languid pace for the overture and first act, robbing the work of much of its innate energy and playfulness.

The first act introduces us to Tosca, a flamboyant and capricious singer, her lover Cavaradossi, and the villainous, powerful police chief Scarpia. It’s all set against the lively background of preparations for a church service, complete with a children’s chorus and a buffoonish sacristan. An energetic approach to the first act makes for a vivid contrast with the darker acts that follow, which were performed Saturday with just the right emotional intensity.

The singing, from a principal cast entirely new to Atlanta, was rather mixed. American soprano Kara Shay Thomson (as Tosca) has a large, bright, liquid voice with nice intonation. Except for an alarming lack of diction, which seems to be on the decline in this age of projected titles, she has an old-fashioned sound, along with the kind of exaggerated gestures and expressions of singers from a generation ago. She’s riveting to watch, and truly fearsome in the scene where she murders Scarpia. The voice always delivered for the big moments: Her “Visi d’arte” aria alone was worth the price of admission.

As Cavaradossi, we got Massimiliano Pisapia, an Italian with a big, rich voice. There’s an effortful feeling to his sound, and the top is a bit hard. But this is the authentic pinging tenor sound rarely heard here, and the audience was enthralled. Pisapia seemed unusually well matched with Thomson, right down to the stodgy, sometimes awkward acting.

Mexican tenor Luis Ledesma, who portrayed Scarpia, was suitably menacing; he is an able actor. But the voice is simply inadequate: tremulous with serious intonation issues. Bass-baritone Jason Eck, as Angelotti, is similarly problematic, with a dry, colorless sound. But Tyler Simpson, also a bass-baritone, is superb in the character role of the sacristan.

In the final act, soprano Megan Mashburn sang sweetly from the balcony as the Shepherd Boy.

Thomson and

Thomson and Pisapia, a well-matched pair.

This is the first season for Tomer Zvulun, the Atlanta Opera’s new general and artistic director. He also works as a stage director around the globe, and had been engaged as the director for “Tosca” before being hired to run the company. As with each of the operas this season, casting and all other important decisions had been made a year ago, before he came on board.

In an interview with ArtsATL and again in the program notes, Zvulun described “Tosca” as “the greatest Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never directed.” In that quote, you can hear the wheels turning. Like any good director, Zvulun would prefer to build his own new production (sets, costumes, lighting and stage direction) from scratch, and he already has a fairly clear concept of what it would look like. Unfortunately, the economic reality at the Atlanta Opera is that it must make do with sets and costumes rented or purchased from elsewhere, in this case from the Fort Worth Opera.

These sets, designed by Andrew Horn, look nothing like the Hitchcockian world envisioned by Zvulun, but they are quite impressive by local standards: realistic, 35-foot-tall re-creations of Castel Sant’Angelo, the cylindrical castle in Rome where the opera is set. The costumes, designed by Lena Rivkina for the Washington National Opera, added to the period authenticity. And Robert Wierzel, an internationally known lighting designer, added to the professional look.

Atlanta has much to answer for in the karmic universe, including the custom of restaurant waiters who introduce themselves and then take over the table with a chatty uninvited presentation. This horror is said to date back to the arrival of the Peasant restaurants and then to have rapidly spread. Then there’s the “Atlanta standing ovation,” which holds that every performance of everything warrants a “big S.O.” In truth, ovation inflation has surfaced elsewhere, but there is no other city this size where it’s taken hold quite as badly. And in the latest example, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has suddenly introduced us, and the world, to a “new format” for its printed programs, gutting them of their principal content:  the program notes.

Almost as awful is the “Atlanta Opera speech,” when the company’s director patronizingly appears before the curtain to thank donors, update the audience on football scores, and draw attention to himself. This recent custom dates from the era of Dennis Hanthorn, who made it his trademark. Sadly, it has continued and even grown longer with Zvulun’s arrival. The audience here is sufficiently literate to read the program, as opera audiences do around the globe. The only time an announcer should appear before the curtain is when something needs to be communicated for which there is no time to print a program insert, usually regarding a last-minute cast change.

Speech or no speech, Zvulun has his work cut out for him. In recent interviews, he has drawn comparisons with opera companies in Atlanta’s peer cities, such as Houston and Seattle. But each of those has an annual budget in the $20 million range, compared with $5 million here. At that price point, severe compromises must be made in terms of repertoire, casting and staging. Zvulun is relentlessly energetic and optimistic, and wants to find ways to bring in more money. Atlanta needs to pitch in and help him on this one. It’s time to decide whether we really want a serious opera company.

I usually prepare for an operatic performance with a favorite recording. In the case of “Tosca,” there really is a gold standard: the fabled 1953 Angel recording with Maria Callas, Gluseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi, with Victor de Sabata conducting the La Scala orchestra and chorus. An electrifying performance, lovingly remastered, it’s available from Amazon as an MP3 file for $2.97.

Additional performances of “Tosca” will take place Tuesday, October 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, October 11, at 8; and Sunday, October 13, at 3 at the Cobb Energy Centre. Tickets range from $31 to $159. Note how inexpensive this can be. And there are no truly bad seats at the Cobb.

Click here to view more photos from the performance. 

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