Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Post-Tosca Post

Judging from the audience response to this past weekend’s Tosca, we might be seeing more “concert opera” at the Forum.

Two hard-working rehearsals and a complete run-through at the Dress Rehearsal followed by a Saturday night and a Sunday afternoon performance – in all, 12½ hours of Tosca in 4 days – is a grueling challenge for the principal singers, something they would not normally do in an opera house. There, music rehearsals followed by rehearsals on the stage, a dress rehearsal and subsequent performances would usually be separated by “days off” to rest the vocal cords, easily music’s most delicate instrument. But a symphony’s schedule is not so luxurious – for the orchestra, a total of 14 hours – so I was amazed to realize that if anything Sunday’s performance was even more riveting and powerful than the night before.

When I chatted briefly with conductor Stuart Malina backstage at Sunday’s intermission, he was so excited about how well it was going, he wished we could be doing five more performances of it. I don’t think any of the singers heard him because I’m sure the principals would’ve fainted dead away...

But they clearly enjoyed performing here and it was great to hear them blend in with singers from our own community – bass Damian Savarino as Angelotti (who only gets to sing in the first act), tenor Christyan Seay as Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta, and bass Richard Zuch who came up from the Philadelphia area to sing the comic role of the Sacristan in the 1st Act, plus the two smaller parts of a policeman in Act 2 and the jailer in Act 3. Brendan McAlester was the boy soprano who made a brief appearance as a passing shephard boy during the atmospheric prelude to Act 3.

Opera is full of “smaller roles,” sometimes overlooked compared to the “stars.” The three principals – Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia – get all the big scenes, the arias and duets and the most memorable tunes. They have the meatiest roles, the most defined characters and the greatest work to do.

After Saturday night’s performance, Stuart did the post-concert “talk-back session” by himself, opting to give the singers as much chance as possible to rest up for the next performance, 17 hours later. The three principals joined him for the “talk-back” on Sunday and I was amazed to find out, after such a thrilling performance, that Othalie Graham woke up that morning feeling so awful, she could hardly talk, much less sing – allergies, probably, brought on by the unseasonably summer-like weather. I would never have guessed from the performance.

But, as she explained, you do what you’re supposed to do: she knew she would sing the performance regardless – after all, there’s no understudy in the wings to go on in her place – just something a trained singer knows how to do. To the question about ever being concerned her emotions in presenting her character would get in the way of her vocal control, she said as a singer, it’s your job so you show up, sing the notes and keep certain things separate from the voice production. As a woman, portraying a character like Tosca is a dramatic challenge, suffering a range of emotions from listening to her lover being tortured to her reactions to Scarpia’s smarmy advances, all in the space of a few minutes. It would be very easy to get carried away and put the voice at risk by getting too involved.

Grant Youngblood, our Scarpia, one of the most evil villains in opera (as one fan put it afterward, “you were so awful, you were wonderful”), agreed you have to keep separate the idea of what you’re singing from how you’re singing it, keeping in mind how you have to move on stage, coordinate action with the music, focus on hundreds of details at the same time and then try to make it all seem a natural extension of the vocal demands. In that sense, a concert performance might have different challenges but would be no less demanding.

It’s always fascinating to hear how musicians first become interested in music before they developed the talent that separates them from the rest of us who may have had similar dreams and experiences but never realized them. While none of them really grew up dreaming of becoming an opera singer, except maybe Stuart who would come home from school and listen repeatedly to his recording of Puccini’s La Boheme (his father called out from the audience, “Act III!”). Until they were in college and switched their majors to music to the initial disappointment of their fathers, they all had some exposure to music at an earlier age.

Othalie said her father, who was Jamaican, loved listening to operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss even though he had no idea what they were singing about: he just loved this music. Dinyar Vania said he and his brother and sister all took music lessons – he was a percussionist – so there was lots of music in the house, lots of concerts to go to. But his parents loved Broadway musicals and when they would go into New York City to hear the latest shows, they would bring back programs and recordings and soon he was singing along with the records. (Here, by the way, is Dinyar singing a duet from Act IV of La Boheme.)

Grant joined the choir in college and thought it would be fun to try out for the chorus in a production of the opera department’s La Boheme. He had such a great time – walking around in this costume, creating a character in the background of all this great music – that another singer urged him to try out for the Opera Workshop himself. He said “But I’m not a trained singer.” She replied, as he mimicked her Southern twang, “Well, honey, neither am I.”

For Stuart, growing up as a pianist who loved opera and musical theater, his first conducting experiences in school were with Broadway productions and Gilbert & Sullivan. In fact, he didn’t really start focusing on symphonic conducting until graduate school. Given his early passion for La Boheme, it was no surprise he wanted to schedule it shortly after he arrived in Harrisburg in 2000, but it had just been done in concert the year before. He loves Tosca as well and decided he was going to do it because he wanted to do it, not for any other more or less practical reason.

He had met Dinyar and Grant when he conducted a gala performance with Opera Delaware a few years ago. He brought them both to Harrisburg for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th. When he was conducting Porgy & Bess in Delaware, Othalie auditioned for Bess but they thought she had “too big a voice” for the part, so she wasn’t chosen (she has sung power-house roles like Turandot and Elektra around the world but is frustrated by being typecast – I was amused she kept asking me, during rehearsals, if I could hear her out in the hall when even at half-voice she could still cut through the orchestra with this amazing sound!). However, Stuart knew immediately this was a voice he wanted to follow and a singer he wanted to work with. So they became kind of a “dream team” cast for a Tosca Project that finally came to fruition this past weekend.

Helping to bring the story across to the audience was the use of the “super-titles” which Tim Dixon operated through a lap-top’s Power Point presentation and a projector up in the Forum’s Promenade. Knowing the plot is one thing, but knowing the smaller details of the singers’ “conversation” is something else. It was good to hear the audience chuckle at certain lines – there being not much comedy to laugh at in an opera like this – even if sometimes they were reading the punch-line before the character actually sang it. It might take reworking a few of the slides for the text – there were already 669 slides for the whole opera – but it was a small price to pay just to have the audience respond to something few would understand from the original Italian. I’m thinking especially of the Act I spat when a jealous Tosca is telling the her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, to change the eyes of Mary Magdalene – a portrait of a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed woman he’d seen praying in the church but whom Tosca recognized as a potential rival – from blue to dark, like hers.

Though I’d seen or listened to Tosca many times in the years before “super-titles,” I never knew what happened to Angelotti, the escaped prisoner who, I’d assumed, spent the rest of the opera hiding in the well at Cavaradossi’s villa. But there’s a quick passing reference in one of Spoletta’s few lines that in fact Angelotti killed himself rather than surrender as the police were closing in on him (Scarpia tells them to hang his body from the scaffold anyway). After all these years, I finally found out what had happened to him.

While I’m not in the habit of writing reviews, I want to point out the fine – if brief – work the choirs did, especially in the Te Deum that concluded Act 1. Perhaps the hardest thing they had to do was sit there for most of the opera without being a visual distraction.

The impact of the whole performance, of course, is the sum of its parts – the music Puccini wrote, and how the conductor, singers, chorus and orchestra performed it. Stuart was delighted how quickly the orchestra picked up the “verismo” style with all of its suddenly changing tempos and stretched rhythms (see my earlier post on the rehearsals). There were lots of wonderful moments in the orchestra, but one of the most telling was the tenor’s aria, “E lucevan le stelle” in the final act where the principal clarinet “sings” the first verse of the aria. Janine Thomas’ playing was so achingly heartfelt, it became an extension of the singer. And in effect that is what everybody managed to create – all of these criss-crossing extensions that made for a single impassioned performance.

- Dr. Dick

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