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13 November 2005

Tosca

By Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa

Performers: Zvetelina Vassileva (Tosca), Ted Lee (Cavaradossi) & Christopher Robertson (Scarpia); John DeMain conducting the Madison Symphony Orchestra

November 11, 2005

Want to know the plot? And what did the critics think?

What a wonderful night out! More elaborate and formal than heading to the local multiplex, this was a night at the theater. We got to have drinks and play dress-up and sit next to people holding opera glasses (I want one!). As for the performance itself, it was visually stunning, vibrant, and twice goose-bump inducing.

I had been looking forward to this for months because it was the first opera I listened to, therefore marking my entrance into a new realm of entertainment, and it is one of the most accessible works I've heard, meaning that Keven might enjoy it as well. The story is compelling, the score is dramatic, and there are few drawn-out arias to put off non-opera types (I still have one foot in that camp, too).

I enjoyed Vassileva's interpretation of Tosca. She was very sweet, actually, without the vanity and lofty inaccessibility of more experienced divas. Keven wondered if her voice cracked a few times in the second act, but I think it was the drama of the torture scene. The most impressive part of her performance, by far, was the famous aria "Vissi d'arte," the first four lines of which she sang lying prostrate on her stomach (goose-bump moment number two). Where did she find that much air? How was her diaphragm not collapsed and gasping? How was it that I heard her so clearly and powerfully from our seats up in nose-bleed country? So impressive!

Scarpia (insert theme here) was nasty enough that I felt like hissing - it was nearly that campy and certainly than fun. Ted Lee as Cavaradossi was impressive as well, especially his very powerful "Vittoria!" solo. However, and this is where I would have to listen to Carreras again to determine whether I have issues with the score or the performer, I did feel that the expressive timbre of his voice was not so well-developed in that a number of his recitatives dragged toward monotone. He redeemed himself, however, with the final duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca, "Trionfal... di nova speme," part of which is sung a cappella. Their intertwining voices - and only their voices - filled the giant hall with force, grace and beauty.

In only one respect did this performance notably fall short of the recorded version. In my previous review I wrote:
I particularly enjoyed the trio during which the villain Scarpia has Tosca's (literally) tortured lover Cavaradossi hauled to the gallows. Tosca is terrified and desperate, Cavaradossi is stoic and defiant, while Scarpia revels in his apparent victory over the lovers. Their voices mingle in something akin to a physical confrontation as each tries to gain prominence in the song and success in the story.
However, this trio was much harder to discern in the live performance, and the impact was considerably less than in the recording (where all voices are edited to possess equal volume with regard to each other and the orchestra).

Ah, but a recording cannot provide what I saw. Sure, my imagination is good enough, but the sets (in particular) and the direction made for a very impressive production. Toward the end of Act I when Scarpia proclaimed, "Tosca, you make me forget God," he did so standing within a church while a priest led mass. The priest turned to each side of the congregation, and they knelt in time to Scarpia's nasty, nasty theme. The contrast between the devout, humble, religious imagery and the abrupt, flamboyant motif of greed and lust was goose-bump moment number one. The lighting in Act II was also very impressive, from the shadows cast by Cavaradossi's torture chamber to the darkness enfolding Scarpia's body before Tosca brings her two candles.

One of the things I found amusing about the experience itself was the "opera fan" issue. A woman next to Keven asked if he was a "fan" of opera. What does that imply? What does it take to be a fan? No one sits down at a movie and asks the person next to him about their appreciation for the genre of film in general. So it was a bit stuffy, but you certainly won't find a more highly concentrated gathering of gay men and senior citizens in the whole of Wisconsin. And the only thing that would have made the night better (other than $85 "see the performers' faces" seats) was if we had realized Keven could have purchased his ticket as a student for $12 less... Next time!

Image: From the original production poster, 1900.

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