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Puccini's Tosca Positions Madison Opera for Future

The Madison Opera's production of Puccini's dramatic masterpiece Tosca at the Civic Center Friday evening (8:00) and Sunday afternoon (2:30) will not only cap our local company's successful season but also offer a number of firsts. In addition, Tosca is a good introduction to opera for newcomers, as its late-18th-century story has many parallels, especially in its deeply passionate psychological themes, with modern life.

Though experienced in many other roles, the highly acclaimed soprano Ashley Putnam adds the glamorous Floria Tosca to her repertory with this production. As Tosca's great love, the republican painter Mario Cavaradossi, leading American tenor Patrick Denniston assays his role for the first time. It's a first Tosca as well for stage director Ken Cazan, whose earlier realizations have earned him a fine, growing reputation. Metropoltan Opera baritone Brent Ellis will round out the major singing roles as the murderous, lecherous Baron Scarpia, a role he's done before with great success. Music Director John DeMain has performed the work many times.

Area audiences will therefore have the opportunity to see and hear both seasoned veterans and promising new stars, on stage and behind the scenes, as the Madison Opera unfolds one of the most compelling stories of art, devotion, love, lust, and betrayal in all of opera, all of it set to one of Puccini's most sublime scores.

"Puccini, unlike for example Mozart, provides music to set each moment of the drama's unfolding," says DeMain. "In Mozart, the story moves forward mainly during recitatives, accompanied only by the harpsichord, while the orchestra participates in the arias and ensembles. Not so with Puccini; he writes with an actual stage setting in mind, for instance visualizing the time it takes the Sacristan to climb four steps at the beginning of Tosca and giving us music to accompany that action. And so on throughout the whole three-hour work."

I wondered what special creative challenges this Tosca posed for the stage director and singers. Cazan was particularly forthcoming: "We spent hours talking about it, working out what all the relationships are between these characters, what motivates them emotionally and psychologically. In many ways this story speaks to the values of our own time. Tosca comes from humble beginnings and almost by accident achieves remarkable success as an opera singer. She preserves her great piety from convent days, but her life in art has brought her great sophistication. She is nevertheless overwhelmed by her situation, a woman without power in a world owned and manipulated by men alone."

The climax of the opera psychologically comes in the second act, when Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, infatuated with Tosca's beauty, determines that he must have her. "We had to decide how to reveal his psychological profile as well as how graphically to portray what is after all a setup for rape," Cazan says.

Scarpia's agent has arrested Cavaradossi and Scarpia has Mario tortured within Tosca's earshot, but promises Tosca to set her lover free if only she will accede to his advances. When at last she agrees and sings the famous Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore (I lived for art, I lived for love), Scarpia is transformed. "It is a remarkable moment," Cazan continues, "for Scarpia is genuinely awed by her but now driven wild by his obsession to possess her."

This immediately precedes the central climax of the whole work, both dramatically and psychologically. Here DeMain has an interesting insight: "In some ways opera plots are melodramatic on the level of B movies, but it's familiarity with film and television that informs much modern opera acting, helping to transform the material into high art." Torn between love and compassion for Mario, the unfortunate Tosca, a woman of 1800 and therefore essentially powerless, remarkably finds great inner strength, a resource sufficient to resolve her situation in a definitive way, though to say how would give too much away.

"Puccini spent years getting it exactly right," DeMain says. "His feeling for the theater, his careful annotations in the score of the characters' behaviors, and his underlying sense for the temporal space needed to support both physical and emotional action are all combined in Tosca to give the audience an emotional whammy."

Suffice it to say that modern productions have banished the highly artificial, formalistic traditions of opera's earlier history, bringing to the stage instead a dramatic situation that contemporary audiences can relate to. In Tosca there is indeed much truth and transformation in terms of art, love, passion, violence, regret, and resignation.

A final and extremely important aspect of this production, I think, is that the Madison Opera is now on the cusp of making the great leap forward to international recognition, a step in which the enthusiasm and support of local audiences is key. DeMain recalled the occasion when this change took place for the Houston Grand Opera, where he was artistic director before coming to Madison. "The audience let us know they appreciated having the greatest international stars upon their stage; it was what they had been waiting for." The vehicle, one hopes prophetically, was Tosca.

Isthmus, April, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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