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14.5.05

I Toschi

Juan Pons as Scarpia, 2005 - Photo by Karin CooperWho needs women for Tosca, anyway? It's the boys who made the night, because 'the boys' were awesome. From Valeriano Lanchas' Sagristano to Philip Skinner's Angelotti to Salvatore Licitra's Mario Cavaradossi to the most fabulous of them all: Juan Pons' deliciously evil, magnificent Scarpia. Pons was all narcissistic enjoyment of his own position of power, his wickedness... and yet contained that all-important, if faint, subtleness that makes the difference between Scarpia being one of the most grateful characters in opera or a mere cartoon. Not for a second did Pons stoop to the latter. His voice befitted all these qualities - large and with heft and character. He was a pure joy to watch and hear. Unfortunately, he got killed in the second act.

Licitra's voice, if not his character (Licitra did as much as he reasonably could with Mario), was splendid, too. With a great register, ringing low notes, ample power and security and burnish in the high notes, I have heard no live performance of Italian opera (not all that many, admittedly) in which there was a more pleasing (as opposed to 'pleasant-sounding') tenor.

Additional Comments by Charles T. Downey:

When I took my students to see the dress rehearsal of Tosca (see post on May 5), they all were very impressed with two of the singers in particular, tenor Salvatore Licitra as Mario Cavaradossi (whom we had the extraordinary good luck to meet afterward), whose vocal power stunned them (we were sitting in the upper tier), and Juan Pons as Scarpia. It should have been no surprise to me that a group of tenth-grade boys would identify so much with Puccini's great villain. Judging from Friday night's performance of the opera, these are the two great assets of this production.

Let's face it. Other than the uninitiated (like most of my students), who actually needs to see anything but a truly extraordinary production of Tosca ever again? The slate of performers in this case was really very close. Conductor Leonard Slatkin did an extraordinary job with the orchestra, drawing out colors and sounds and coordinating a chaotic range of onstage, in pit, and backstage elements (not always exactly to his precise expectations). The opening of the opera, those three chords (B-flat, A-flat, and evil E major) that follow Scarpia throughout the opera (even once in Act III when his name is mentioned, although he has already been murdered) set the tone for what was a very exciting instrumental contribution. This was especially true when those three chords reappeared again, at their most bombastic, for one of the greatest villain's entrances in opera, when Scarpia storms into Sant'Andrea della Valle with a snarl. As for Salvatore Licitra, I could do without ever hearing another tenor promoted in connection with the "Three Tenors" concerts, but he does have a potent instrument and can act. He was a pleasure to watch and hear. (I count it as a personal success that some of my students are going to buy copies of Licitra's newest CD so that they can get them autographed at the Kennedy Center on May 20.)

However, all of this good sound is in some sense squandered when the only female role, one of Puccini's most effective tragic heroines, is just not there vocally. Ines Salazar had some nice dramatic moments, hit the high notes more or less, and although her outrageously heavy makeup made her look more like Aida than a 19th-century actress, she could be believed as Tosca. However, when you have gone through an act and a half and you arrive at "Vissi d'arte" with more dread than anticipation, it's a bad night. (And Salazar's shaky start on that aria, in terms of where the pitch was, confirmed my worst fears.) It's hard for me to say this because I admire singers and their gutsiness so much, but what good is the jealousy, the stridency, the single-minded passion of Tosca without the vocal force to back it up? This performance might have been acceptable in another production, but against Licitra (most noticably in their unaccompanied duet in Act III) and Pons, the deficiencies were brought into further relief.
All that made this run of Tosca, the next-to-last production by the Washington National Opera this season, a wonderful, fabulous night at the opera. Of course there is no official 'secondary' cast - and Giordani would admittedly be many a productions top bill - but you should hear Licitra, and no one would want to miss Pons, even if Scotti, London, and Gobbi were rolled into one and came back from their graves for the next performances.

What about Tosca... Floria Tosca? Do you know the new Wendy's salad advert where the office workers make the annoying squeaky "So-so" sound? Ines Salazar was fine in that she did not obstruct, acted along pleasantly enough... but voice-wise she had to fight for herself and never had a chance. Philip Kennicott, in what is really a spot-on review of Tosca in the Washington Post, came close to defining her deficiencies: "A great voice can go from zero to 60 in an instant; with Salazar you can occasionally hear the gears shifting." The word 'occasionally' is perhaps due to Mr. Kennicott's niceness. Ms. Salazar lacks agility, causing her voice to be almost inaudible where it moves around between notes. Despite her visible and conscious efforts to present herself from the best side, the voice only worked when she zeroed in on a tone, and then, having it securely, opened the valve. From zero to 60 in roughly 3 seconds. When Pons or Licitra or the orchestra (under the discipline-inducing good neighbor from the NSO, Leonard Slatkin) made sounds, Tosca disappeared.

The direction of the opera was very good: everyone acted to the full extent of their abilities... and only good acting makes good drama - and good drama is the sine qua non of opera. What was not good was the set. In the rehashing of the 100th anniversary set of Tosca (a recreation of the original) there was 104 years of dust, and evidently zero new ideas. An opera can get away with it, when the singing and the acting is strong that the stodgy set doesn't actively ruin anything... but it is a sad day for opera and art when there hasn't been new insight, a new idea about the way to present an opera in 105 years that the company thought might be better than to repeat the recreated. It's a broader point than the particular Tosca at the Washington National Opera, though. It's the problem that especially 'popular' operas, crowd pleasers, are seldom touched for fear of offending or puzzling the paying public. Why take risks, when the very name of the opera secures sold-out performances, assuming the critics don't assail it, or the conservative crowds don't shun it?!

Other, minor, quibbles were the presence of a cheap, all-too-cheap retractable knife, the spring of which made very audible noises everytime Floria energetically applied the 'kiss of Tosca' to Scarpia, and the over-amplified treble in Act III whose voice, ghost-like, bounced all around the house.

Having gotten this off our chest (Ionarts sees eye-to-eye on this issue, internally), I must reiterate how excellent the male singing is... good enough to convert lovers of orchestral music to the sound of the voice. Yes, it is a "shabby little shocker" - but do yourself a favor and hear it!

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