Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca, Virginia Opera, 2009 (photo by Anne M. Peterson)
Making her company debut in this demanding role, Williams stood out for the strength and refinement of her voice, true intonation, and breath-taking dynamic range from ear-splitting to sweet pianissimo. The top gave out a bit at the high point of the torture scene in Act II, where she seemed to cut short some of the high notes, but her rendition of Vissi d'arte (see photo) was affecting and dramatic. It was a splendidly sung and movingly acted performance, right down to a full leap from the parapet of the Castel Sant'Angelo. Williams was scheduled to reprise the role with Augusta Opera in March, but that company has just announced that the rest of its season is canceled. Happily, she has also been engaged to sing the role with Arizona Opera in March and April.
Anne Midgette, Woe, Hoarse: A Rough Ride For 'Tosca' at George Mason (Washington Post, February 16)
Tim Smith, Promising soprano lifts Virginia Opera's 'Tosca' (Clef Notes, February 16)
Walt Amacker, Smooth, soaring lyrics and melodies mark ‘Tosca’ (Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 15)
T. L. Ponick, Puccini's best in grand performance (Washington Times, February 13)
David Nicholson, Soprano makes or breaks show (Newport News Daily Press, January 30)
As is often the case with regional opera companies, the production was pleasing in a nondescript way. Director Marc Astafan's staging cobbled together sets originally designed by Michael Yeargan, with costumes borrowed from Opera Theater of St. Louis. Act I showed a Masaccio-like downward-sloping perspective with reproductions of decoration from the church of Sant'Andrea delle Valle, although better care could have been taken with the Catholic details (a minister who was clearly not a pope was vested like a pope; a bishop processes with only one crozier, not two). It was a nice effect to have the silhouette of Michelangelo's dome for St. Peter's in the background of Act III, although in reality it is nowhere near that close (see this panoramic view). The orchestra gave a pleasing sound but not unexpectedly maxed out short of the full sound Puccini wanted, for the memorable entrance of Scarpia in Act I, for example. The company was using a chamber orchestra arrangement (with far fewer numbers of winds and brass), and some of the bell and organ sounds, played by synthesizer, were just terrible. With the number of small opera companies going bankrupt, we should just be glad that Virginia Opera somehow survives on its limited budget.
The final stop for Virginia Opera's production of Tosca is Richmond's Landmark Theater, next weekend (February 20 and 22).