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Doomed Tosca at Virginia Opera

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca, Virginia Opera, 2009 (photo by Anne M. Peterson)
The troubles of Virginia Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca may not have had any connection to the supposed curse of Friday the 13th. Even so, on Friday night at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, many singers struggled with vocal problems and even the candelabra lights on the back set wall in Act II flickered on an off. If the theater had been lit by large chandeliers dangling over the house like the Sword of Damocles, I probably would have left at the first intermission. While the Washington National Opera's last production of Tosca was noteworthy for its male cast outshining its Tosca, the only real reason to stay after the first act was the robust dramatic soprano of Mary Elizabeth Williams.

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.

Other Articles:

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)
Unhappily, the rest of the cast fell victim to the cause of paraskavedekatriaphobia. As Cavaradossi, tenor Michael Hayes struggled through the first act, eventually singing most of the high passages an octave lower and withdrawing at the first intermission. He continued to act the role while his cover sang from the pit -- Kevin Perry, the evening's Spoletta, whom we can only thank for making the show go on. Baritone Stephen Kechulius had the right menacing sneer for Scarpia, although without some of the stentorian power at the top of the role's ambitus; regular throat-clearings hinted that he, too, was not feeling well. Among the supporting cast the best performances came from the avuncular Sacristan of Jason Budd and the boyish Shepherd song of Kimberly Smith Markham.

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).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was fortunate enough to be present for the Virginia Opera's performance of Tosca on Friday evening. It was fabulous -- one of the best performances I've seen in the last year or so. I agree with the critic that Ms. Williams was superb -- I hope to hear her sing again soon and will be watching her career. Not only was she a fine singer, she was a wonderful actress as well. She was compelling in the role. The young tenor who assumed the role of Cavarodossi showed courage and increasing strength during his performance. Bravo for the way the Virginia Opera managed the situation. I have season tickets to both the Virginia Opera and Washington Opera -- overall, the Virginia Opera is better. Placido Domingo could take some lessons from Peter Marks, a far better conductor who never overpowers his singers (as Mr. Domingo does). The orchestra is always top notch. Thank God for regional opera -- the Virginia Opera is truly a gem and a value in many, many ways. Well done, VO.