They say you can't go home again, but don't tell Stella Zambalis. A soprano who has sung on exalted stages around the world, from La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera, Zambalis grew up in Clearwater, but her only appearances within hailing distance of the bay area in recent years were at Sarasota Opera.
Now Zambalis is back on her home turf, and she was magnificent as the doomed diva in Tosca, bringing down the house in a sold-out Super Bowl Sunday matinee by St. Petersburg Opera at the Palladium Theater. She was joined by another hometown talent, bass-baritone Todd William Donovan from St. Petersburg, who gave a deliciously evil interpretation of the debauched police chief of Rome, Scarpia.
Yes, it's nice that a pair of singers with local ties are shining in Puccini's crowd-pleasing melodrama, but these performances would be impressive anywhere.
Zamabalis, who is of Greek descent and has a dark, earthy quality to her voice (which she describes as "Mediterranean"), seems born to play the passionate prima donna. With a rare combination of nuanced expressiveness and plenty of punch, she is able to go from recitative to stirring coloratura in a measure or two, making the freakish transition sound utterly natural, almost conversational. On Sunday, Vissi d'arte, Tosca's signature aria, was a rich, red-bloooded anthem of despair against her fate in Scarpia's lair, echoing with the cries of her lover, the artist Cavaradossi, being tortured. This was a stunning contrast with the playful, high-strung coquette she was in better times while jealously teasing Cavaradossi about his portrait of a Madonna that suspiciously resembles a potential rival to her.
Donovan has grown into the role of Scarpia, which sits low in the voice and needs as much bass as baritone. He brought real weight to the powerhouse chords of Te Deum, intoning the chief's lascivious intentions toward Tosca against the sacred music, a wonderfully lurid moment.
There was some falloff in the rest of the Tosca cast, though not drastically so. As Cavaradossi, tenor David Gustafson lunged loudly in some of the phrasing of his first-act duet with Tosca, but he settled down for E lucevan le stelle as the heroic painter brushed aside a blindfold to await the firing squad at dawn in Act 3. Erik Kroncke was Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner who sought refuge in the church where Cavaradossi was painting, and Richard Zuch was the strong-voiced Sacristan. As Scarpia's henchmen, Fred Frabotta was a seasoned Spoletta and Rim Karnavicius was the officious Sciarrone. Sarah Coit was the voice of a Shepherd Boy at the top of Act 3.
Given the Palladium's problematic space, artistic director Mark Sforzini has rightly put his resources into musical forces, conducting a 38-piece orchestra that did justice to the Puccini score, except for the tinny peal of an electric organ. The 26-voice chorus sounded fine. Director A.J. Wester came up with some good solutions to the cramped stage, such as placing sentries patrolling the prison out in the auditorium. T.J. Ecenia cut a few corners with the primitive scenic design.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.