What a wonderful day of music at Lyric Opera for its production of “Tosca” on March 8 at the Civic Opera House! It was such a gas because I went fully expecting to be satisfied with the afternoon’s performance by the singing of who I think is the best baritone in the world — and that was plenty. I got that all right, but there was something more — something I was totally unprepared for. A tenor. Not just a professional singer with a decent voice, mind you, but a singer with an outstanding, powerful sound — especially in the upper register — the likes of which I have not heard in many years.
His name is Jorge de León, a Spaniard, and he has only been singing big-time opera for about four years. This performance as Puccini’s Cavaradossi marks his Lyric debut. I (and I have no doubt that virtually everyone in yesterday’s audience) will want to see and hear him again, in other major tenor roles. In the preliminaries right before “Recondita armonia” my ears perked up and I thought to myself, What is this? when I heard his strong pure tone. Then I thought, Well, he’ll probably be just like so many others when he gets to the aria — sing all the right notes in tune and everything, but … But what I heard was magnificent! And so he sang throughout, including the “E lucevan’ le stelle” in the final act. If de León has a weakness, it’s only that he seems to be too modest, and he won’t hold on forever to the high notes, even though it sounds like he can do it easily. I’m sure the audience would love it!
Lyric’s Hiu He is a veteran of performing Tosca. She certainly has the pipes for it — plus she’s good looking and a good actress. She has that huge and colorful voice, and she well knows how to seize what Puccini’s music will yield. She was great in the first- and third-act love duets and her second act, signature “Vissi d’arte” was splendid. Naturally, the audience was very appreciative of her effort and let her know it with a rousing ovation at the opera’s conclusion.
The first time I saw and heard Mark Delavan — it was well over ten years ago. He was singing Rigoletto with the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee and I was utterly stunned by the excellence of his performance. What a voice! From that one hearing I had absolutely no doubt that he was marked for super-stardom. The next time I heard him was maybe just two years later on the radio in a Saturday Met broadcast of “La forza del destino,” which, as I recall, boasted an excellent cast — but Delavan was head-and shoulders the best that day. I was not surprised.
Until yesterday, I had never heard or seen Delavan do Scarpia, but I knew that with his monster voice and superb acting skills, he’d be perfect as “Tosca’s” villain — the Iago of opera! From his entrance and his oily patter with the diva, his “Va, Tosca!” that cut through the mighty “Te Deum” like a knife through butter, all the sinister sadism of the second act, he was completely in command. Here’s one of the toughest, most celebrated baritone roles in all of opera, and you could tell that he actually had FUN with it! Now, that’s a virtuoso! And when Delavan took his bows there was a smattering of “Boos!” from the crowd. That wasn’t because he didn’t perform well, it was a reaction by some to his extremely believable villainy. I’ve seen “Tosca” I don’t know how many times, but that was definitely a first.
Three other singers made the most of their smaller roles in yesterday’s performance, singing and acting very well indeed — tenor David Cangelosi, as Spoleto, bass Dale Travis, as the Sacristan and bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba, as Angelotti.
I have the feeling (mistakenly, I hope) that too many Lyric attendees take the orchestra for granted. It is a marvelous ensemble of excellent musicians, and under the direction of conductor Dimitri Jurowski, they played Puccini’s difficult score to “Tosca” perfectly, with great warmth and vigor. There was never a problem I could see keeping thing together with the singers, who had all the liberty with phrasing that they needed. I would like to single out for praise the entire cello section for that dreamy ensemble at the beginning of the third act.
As the 2014-15 season draws to a close. I feel it incumbent on me to give thanks to Lyric Opera for providing the folks in the Chicago Metropolitan area with the opportunity to experience fine music such as can be found in only a handful of places on this planet.