Eureka Springs' Opera in the Ozarks opened its 60th season with Puccini's "Tosca" last Friday. Set in Rome in the Napoleonic Era, the opera tells the story of Floria Tosca — sung on opening night by a vocally and visually stunning Sarah Jacobi — an actress in a relationship with the artist/activist Mario Cavaradossi (Nephi Sanchez).
This story of romance and political intrigue also involves Angelotti (Kyle Wheatley), an escaped political prisoner whom Cavaradossi hides at his villa. Detained by Scarpia, the chief of police (Chris O'Rear), Cavaradossi implores Tosca, who has also been summoned, not to tell what she knows of the arrangement. But when her lover is tortured within her hearing, she caves and reveals the hiding place. Cavaradossi still isn't out of the woods, however, and Scarpia will only release him in return for Tosca's sexual favors. She pretends to comply, but manages to free herself and — she thinks — Cavaradossi.
"Tosca" is a good choice for first-time opera goers with its glamorous heroine, hapless hero and treacherous villain. The action moves right along and the arias are short but achingly beautiful, especially Tosca's "Vissi d'Arte" and Cavaradossi's "E Lucevan e Stelle."
And first-timers at Opera in the Ozarks are always surprised by the quality of productions at the little outdoor theater. Comments such as "I wasn't expecting anything like this" are not unusual. Paula Consdorf's costumes for "Tosca" are gorgeous, though Matthew Helpert's ambitious sets make the small stage seem a little cluttered, especially in Act I.
All the singers in the opening night's "Tosca," were good, but Sarah Jacobi pretty much owned the show. Since most roles are sung by different singers on different nights, however, readers attending subsequent performances may hear Tiffany Hamilton or Sonia Kazarova in the title role of Tosca.
This season's talent roster represents all regions of the United States (with a baritone from Mexico and one from Colombia), including several singers from Arkansas. Tenor Perry Davis Harper of Paragould, who gives a fine performance as Scarpia's henchman, Spoletta, also did makeup for the production.
Sara Widzer's stage direction is generally excellent, especially in the last scene of Act I when most of the cast is assembled on the small stage. A notable exception is the dramatic scene at the end of Act II. Played down left almost on the curtain of the stage, it was difficult to see from our seats in Row H near the back of the house.
Opera in the Ozarks is an all-apprentice program, making it unusual — possibly even unique — among summer opera festivals. Some of the singers are college students, but some have already launched professional careers. So the mezzo-soprano singing “Carmen” in Eureka Springs this summer might be heard a few seasons down the road in Houston, Chicago or even New York. Alumnus Carroll Freeman was cast as Alfredo in "La Traviata" at the New York City Opera just five years after performing that role with Opera in the Ozarks.
The Opera in the Ozarks season continues with performances of "Carmen" (also a good choice for first-time opera goers) June 25 and 30, July 2, 6, 10 (3 p.m. at the Arend Arts Center in Bentonville) and 14. "Tosca" will next be performed at 3 p.m. June 27 at the Arend Arts Center. Additional performances will be July 1, 5, 8 and 16. "Don Giovanni" will open June 26 with additional performances June 29, July 3, 7, 9, 12, and 15. All performances are at 7:15 p.m. at the Inspiration Point Fine Arts Center, 16311 Highway 62 West in Eureka Springs unless otherwise noted.
Artistic director Roger Cantrell conducts the orchestra. Sur-titles clearly visible throughout the theater offer English translations of the music.