Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rehearsing "Tosca"

Sitting in on a rehearsal is a very different experience from attending the performance, a chance to find out what really goes on “behind-the-scenes” leading up to the concert.

This is, basically, where the work is done: the individual musicians get their individual parts and practice them at home – one 2nd violinist playing just the 2nd violin part – learning the notes and figuring out the technical challenges to work on before getting to the rehearsal. Then when everybody’s on stage and you hear your 2nd violin part in the context of what everybody else is doing, you realize how this needs to fit in there, that the conductor is doing something different than you expected there or that other changes and adaptations need to be made “for the greater good.”

For the Harrisburg Symphony’s Tosca this weekend, there were the usual four rehearsals. I arrived for the last hour of the first one as they were reading through Act II.

One of the issues here was simply the “operatic style” versus what symphonic musicians may be used to. Not that a Beethoven symphony or a Tchaikovsky concerto is so strictly metronomic in its tempos, but operas – especially Italian operas and particularly Puccini’s – require an amazing amount of flexibility to make it breathe naturally. There is a give-and-take with the singers to accommodate their phrasing, their breathing and their interpretation of the words.

So following the singers creates many subtle shifts in the tempo during a phrase or even within a single measure. This can be very difficult to get across to a musician who has several notes or rests that look no different than another measure.

If the orchestra doesn’t follow the conductor, there’s a mush in the accompaniment and the dramatic effect is ruined. If that trumpet player just counting along like a ticking clock doesn’t know one of those measures may be twice as long as the other measures, he could come in too early.

When it works, you don’t even notice there are 80 people breathing right along with the soprano like one person.

And it’s even harder to do without the singer there because there’s no one to follow – well, except for the conductor. So it wasn’t surprising to hear Stuart singing along - in Italian, not just scat-singing through the melody – to demonstrate for his players what’s going on.

Not surprisingly, there were problems.

They would stop, he would explain, they would pick up their pencils and dutifully mark their parts (put a fermata which means “hold it” over a note or rest, put hash marks where there’s a break, draw a squiggly line over a beat or two which indicates they need to stretch this beat, maybe even a pair of eye-glasses which we always used as a reminder to “watch” this one) then go back over and try it again.

What’s so wonderful about this orchestra is that if something is a problem, Stuart will stop, ask what he wants them to do to fix it and then when they try it again, it’s usually fine.

Meanwhile, Timothy Dixon who teaches and conducts at Messiah College, conducts the West Shore Symphony and who’s also giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance, was practicing running the super-titles. The set-up at the Promenade’s control board – a lap-top plugged into a projector with a music stand next to it for the score – projects this “closed captioning” onto a screen hanging over the orchestra. Line by line the translation appears just as the singers sing the line in Italian. It’s a coordinating nightmare, not magic, and so Tim is carefully following a heavily marked vocal score.

In all, there are 669 slides that have to be coordinated with specific moments of the music. With the computer, it’s not like anyone would be dropping the cue-cards, having Tosca murdering Scarpia (from the end of Act II) when the Sacristan is joking about setting the uneaten basket of food aside for himself (in the final scene of Act I).

*** ***** ******* ***** ***

Sometimes, you have to wing it: percussionists are used to this, creating solutions to problems with the barrage of instruments in their corner. Here, a pair of chimes for the cathedral’s church bells were too long for the stand. Solution: prop the stand up on something. In this case, old paint cans and a few chunks of wood.

In the break between rehearsals, the stage was empty except for the conductor, sitting hunched over his score with a pencil, conducting through various passages and trying out different sub-divisions, speaking of “flexibility,” transferring them from his score to the concertmaster’s part. This is one way the conductor communicates to the leader of the crucial first violin section. In subsequent moments during a rehearsal, the other string-playing principals – in the 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass sections – would watch the concertmaster and then relay that information to their own players, usually without needing to say a word. In this way, the communication goes from the composer to the conductor to a large portion of the orchestra all through the gestures a conductor makes with his baton.

At 6:15, the choir bursts through the Forum’s front door and for two minutes, chaos reigns in the hall before they disappear backstage into a rehearsal room. Amusingly, the chorus in character at the end of Act I hurries into place to perform the Te Deum with a similar burst of chaos. If I had known the opera better, I would have called out Scarpia’s line on his entrance, something about “such noise in a church, show some respect!”

The evening rehearsal began going over the choir’s involvements – not many but crucial: the Te Deum in Act I and in the 2nd Act, the off-stage cantata sung w/Tosca as the soloist. In the 3rd Act, the men have a brief walk-on part – well, run-on, actually – as soldiers who’ve discovered Scarpia’s been murdered and are coming to arrest Tosca as the murderer. In less than a minute, the opera is over.

Not knowing how it’s notated in the score, I thought this last-minute eruption sounded like a moan in which half of them forgot their pitches. Their shouting was more sung than shouted. As it turns out, Puccini writes only rhythms, no pitches at all. Without seeing the action, it was difficult to realize what this “moaning” was: was their a way for them to be less concerned about singing and more into yelling?

The next biggest challenge – after flexibility – is one of balance.

By this point of the rehearsal, as everybody’s getting used to everybody else, Stuart thought it best just to let the orchestra play out to get the feel for the theatrical effect. It’s easier then to reign them back in. Creating a dramatic sound is better at full volume rather than playing softer where it might sound pale, edgeless. Once you know how it goes, you can keep that intensity while still cutting the volume level back.

The challenge is to “Think Pit.” This is not a symphonic mind-set and it takes a while to get used to it, the orchestra on the same floor-level with the singers. Stuart would stop and say, “it’s marked forte [loud] but think mezzo-forte [half-as-loud].” In fact at various times he would just say “cut all your dynamic markings down by half.” Some instruments project more than others: a dozen brass players can obliterate a string section of forty. At the very end of Act I, Scarpia has his biggest moment yet but I couldn’t hear him because the chimes and the brass were too loud. Cut back by half, the balance was fine and the drama no less thrilling.

A complication, though, is the stamina of the typical opera singer. This is a very demanding opera for its three principals – soprano Othalie Graham as Tosca, tenor Dinyar Vania as Cavaradossi, and baritone Grant Youngblood as Scarpia. (In the photo at left, during a break, Stuart discusses some cues with Tosca and Scarpia.) In real life, singers would not be doing two big performances like this on successive days: the voice needs to rest as much as the body needs to.

Usually, the symphony’s dress rehearsal is held Saturday, starting late-morning. Even though all three of the principals have died by the opera’s final chord, you don’t want to kill them literally. So the dress rehearsal was changed to Friday night with an afternoon one added to replace Saturday’s. In order to save wear-and-tear on the vocal cords, the singers would “mark” their part – that is, not sing full voice, just singing softly, or take soaring lines down an octave. Forget trying to judge balance.

But things had gone well enough that Friday’s 7:30 dress rehearsal was what one always hopes a dress rehearsal would be: a run-through without stopping. In fact, there was only one point in the whole opera where Stuart stopped and started a passage over when musicians thought something was going to be faster than it should. Given all that I’d mentioned about flexibility earlier and the almost constant changes in tempo, often turning on a dime, this is amazing, given only three rehearsals.

There were times when the principals marked their parts but only when it became strenuous: Cavaradossi still hit his “Victory” High C in Act II as if he could go on for another fifteen seconds. Tosca sang her aria “Vissi d’arte” with all the passion she would have used if she were on the stage of the Met. Scarpia was never less than evil, twisting Tosca into betraying her lover before agreeing to give herself to him (to use a family-friendly metaphor) in exchange for saving her lover’s life.

The only thing missing, though – this being a concert performance, not a staged one – was the interaction between Tosca and Scarpia when she sees the knife on the table where the Chief of Police had been eating his dinner, then stabs him in the heart and he falls to the ground after an agonizing death scene. Instead, standing a few feet away from Tosca, Scarpia turns and slowly walks off-stage. But you wouldn’t see that if you were listening to the recording, either: it’s just one of those trade-offs. Opera is, after all, music and theater. The drama is certainly in the music and you can read the text to know what’s happening, but still...

By the very end, as the soldiers should be rushing onto the stage in pursuit of Tosca the murderer, the men now sounded genuinely agitated – perhaps the operatic equivalent of the old “rutabaga rutabaga” – less like lost souls trying to find their pitches. As Tosca goes berserk realizing her lover’s execution was real after all, not faked, they sounded more genuinely berserk themselves.

In rehearsal, you pace yourself, fit yourself into the part. In the performance, comfortable in your character like a well-worn shoe, you forget (to an extent) the details and focus on the drama.

And in a moment, Tosca realizes the villain has won after all, shouts “Scarpia! Before God!” and at 9:42 the opera’s over.

The rehearsal, however, isn’t.

After checking just a few spots, none of which would’ve detracted from a real performance, everyone left the stage at 10:00, the end of 10 hours of rehearsal in two days, heading back to their homes and hotel-rooms and ready for the performance Saturday night at 8:00 with a chance to do it all over again on Sunday afternoon at 3:00.

Small wonder Stuart’s Facebook status, posted after midnight, read “Stuart Malina’s body is sore.”

- Dr. Dick

1 comment:

  1. I saw/heard Sunday's performance. It went like (flexible) clockwork. It was incredible to think that they had just done it before, less than 24 hours prior, with all the passion, emotion and musical expression they could provide. Truly a wonderful experience. The talkback was very good also; very warm people.