PICK! ASR Music ~~ “Tosca:” Creative Turns and a Fabulous First

By Jeff Dunn

How can you make your production of Tosca memorable to experienced audience members when it’s performed worldwide more than 500 times every year? Certainly a must: Employ one or more unforgettable singers. After that, you must either (a) try for a big-bucks, blow-them-away, gargantuan scenic design (Robert Dornhelm 2015, here: https://vimeo.com/171417034 ), or, more usually, (b) come up with creative turns here and there that leave a lasting impression.

Creative turns are what Stage Director Tara Branham and her team have attempted with Opera San Jose’s Tosca. All are memorable, and many succeed. But, as Nancy Pelosi remarked three years ago, the devil, as well as the angels, are in the details.

…Joseph Marcheso’s conducting and his excellent and substantial orchestra…

Maria Natale, in a fabulous first appearance in the title role, is the unforgettable singer, along with a fine-voiced, ominous Kidon Choi (Scarpia), and Adrian Kramer (Cavaradossi), who really blossomed in Act 3 opening night.

Floria Tosca (Maria Natale) is eyed by the predatory Scarpia (Kidon Choi – left) in Opera San José’s vivid production of Puccini’s thriller “Tosca,” April 15-30 at the California Theatre. Photo Credit: David Allen

Natale fills the auditorium with her voice, never shrieking even in the highest range. It amazed me the way her voice wafted into the onstage action when she sings as part of an offstage cantata–it’s usually unintelligible in other productions. Furthermore, she’s a consummate, expressive actor–you must witness, for example, her masterly shudder as Scarpia barrages her with predatory demands.

The list of creative turns is long; Audience effectiveness may vary. On the positive side:

    • Great direction, with emotional intensity
    • Tosca’s many, enthusiastic knife stabs into Scarpia–and an earlier slap in his face.
    • A large anachronistic head-shot portrait of the girl Cavaradossi was painting—for once, you could see her blue eyes!
    • Christina Martin’s irresistibly passionate wig for Tosca. It went everywhere while staying in place.
Adrian Kramer as Cavaradossi in Opera San José’s “Tosca”. Photo Credit: David Allen

Plusses that are also minuses:

    • Lots of stage action just prior to the Te Deum in Act 1. Probably interesting to some, distracting to other audience members.
    • Cavaradossi making out with another woman in the church at the beginning of Act 1. Indicates he’s a hot-blooded Italian and justifies Tosca’s intuitive jealousy, but decreases his customary heroic stature.
    • Scarpia’s Farnese Palace chamber in Act 2 has an upstage bed in it, an understandable if uncommon furnishing among productions. This emphasizes Scarpia’s goal regarding Tosca, but when Tosca sings her famous “Vissi d’arte” aria on it, which should begin quietly, she still has to reach the audience. From my position in the third row, its beginning seemed too loud.
Kidon Choi as Scarpia in Puccini’s thriller “Tosca”. Photo Credit: David Allen

Some minor minuses:

    • Too often, it seemed characters were having intimate conversations from opposite ends of the stage. Disconcerting.
    • Congregants in the Te Deum marching in front of Scarpia, obscuring him while he’s singing his “Va, Tosca!” aria.
    • Baron Scarpia’s anachronistic horseshoe mustache, rare for the 1800 date, and more suitable for a spaghetti western. Fortunately, Elizabeth Poindexter’s terrific costume gave him appropriate class.
    • Supertitles were out of synch much of the time on opening night.

Finally, some lasting impressions that were not necessarily unusual, but simply top-notch:

    • Joseph Marcheso’s conducting and his excellent and substantial orchestra. I was especially pleased with how the horn section handled the opening to Act 3.
    • Igor Vieira taking on a deformed foot to add to the bumbling character of his well-voiced Sacristan.
    • Robert Balonek’s strong voiced and desperate Angelotti.
    • Choreography by the Napoleon of fight direction, Dave Maier.


Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

Stage DirectionTara Branham
Producing CompanyOpera San Jose
Production DatesThru Apr 30th
Production AddressCalifornia Theater -
345 S First St, San Jose, CA 95113
Telephone(408) 437-4450
Tickets$50- $175
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!