Monday, March 26, 2012

RovingPittsburgher Review, It Takes Three to "Tosca"

Te Deum in the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Valle.  
By Tamar Cerafici, Esq.

Reviewer’s Note: This remarkable production is available for only three more performances, Tuesday, March 27, Friday, March 30, and Sunday April 1, at the Benedum Center. Performances begin at 8 pm, on Tuesday and Friday. Sunday’s performance is at 2pm.

One of the perks of living in Pittsburgh and writing for this publication is the many chances I get to see Pittsburgh’s finest artistic offerings. I usually manage a hundred words or so, for a production like the Pittsburgh Opera’s latest rendition of Tosca, but I’m have some difficulty getting beyond --

Um, Wow. (Sigh) Wow.

I’m just that washed out by it.

A brief review of the plot might help me get my head straight. Problem is, the plot is complicated and it’s too long for the restrictions of this review. You can find a good synopsis on the Pittsburgh Opera’s Tosca site,

Mario Cavaradossi (Hugo Vera) ponders his portrait of Mary Magdalene,
"nothing like his raven-haired, dark-eyed Tosca." Photo: David Bachman
Let’s just say here that Tosca and Mario love each other to distraction, there’s a lot of gorgeous singing, dramatic irony, and three really juicy death scenes, including a leap from a castle battlement. You’d think this would all be vaguely silly, and if Verdi had written the music it would be. Fortunately, Verdi was too old by the time the libretto came along – in Puccini’s deft hands Tosca is achingly beautiful. There’s a gigantic choral scene, the love duets soar, and the villain gets what he deserves, dying at the hands of the heroine, stabbed to the heart with his own dinner knife.
The lovers:  Tosca and Mario

Did I mention I love Italian Opera? My husband, not so much. He prefers to understand what’s being sung, and came with me only on the promise of supertitles. (This is the level of his dedication: I once made him sit through an entire recording of Turandot without program notes and he still married me.)

Even my husband was satisfied at the end. He actually used the word “like” and hummed a few bars of E lucevan le stella on the way home. Though I doubt I’ll get him to another opera, I have a theory about why he liked this production.

First, it satisfied on many levels. Ercole Sormani’s sets are STUNNING. The scenery was appropriately dark, menacing, and Italian. The grand first act, set in the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle, in Rome, was remarkably detailed and seemed huge. On the other hand, thanks to Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design, the action was surprisingly intimate, and never got lost.

Tosca before she leaps to her death
Kevin Glavin’s Sacristan (a Pittsburgh native) gave just the buffo support that the otherwise drab opening needed, and Adam Fry’s Angelotti (later to appear as the Jailor) gave substance to an otherwise dramatically weak first act. Angela Brown’s Tosca and Hugo Vera’s Mario managed to make the huge space sweetly intimate.

Kristine McIntyre’s stage direction was nothing short of brilliant. The famous Te Deum at the end of the First Act was deftly choreographed: although there is no actual dancing, we are seeing two events unfolding – Scarpia’s corrupt manipulation of Tosca, and a papal procession celebrating an apparent Roman victory over Napoleon (“Italy” as we know it today didn’t exist until the 1860’s). It’s complicated, and can be disastrous in the wrong hands. McIntyre deliciously captured the deep ironies in the music and the libretto, and continued to explore those contradictions throughout the performance. Antony Walker managed the orchestra and singers in a delightfully nuanced way.

Normally, such reviews reserve most of the accolades for the tenor and soprano roles. I must say that Vera and Brown were both endearing as Mario and Tosca. Brown’s Vissi d’arte, where she wonders – without losing her faith – why God has placed her in Scarpia’s clutches is breathtaking and deeply moving. Vera’s E lucevan le stella rang clearly through Mario’s heartbreak. Both singers matched each other beautifully in their duets, with a level of chemistry that’s often lost in lesser performances.

But Mark Donovan’s Scarpia was positively Machiavellian, and my favorite of the evening. His manipulation of Mario and Tosca is demonic. His death scene was melodramatic without being silly.  In fact, Donovan’s command of the character dramatically and vocally dominated the entire production.

And that’s how it should be. The opera opens with fateful chords that are Scarpia’s theme throughout. Scarpia and the corrupt government that continues even after his death, IS the driving ambiguity of this drama. Although true love apparently wins as Tosca leaps to her death, Scarpia’s henchmen are the players left on the stage.

On the other hand, as Puccini suggests, maybe art and love are the only things worth fighting - and living - for. Maybe that’s why Mario’s theme ends the opera. And maybe that’s why I cry every time the curtain goes down.

Tosca (Angela Brown) asks God for mercy in the famous aria "Vissi d'arte" 
Whether you like opera or not, you must see this production. You don’t have an excuse. There are supertitles so you understand what the characters are saying. And I bet you’ve sat through a production or two of Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera, so don’t tell me you don’t enjoy people singing at each other over a loud orchestra. Les Miz and Phantoms are operas – the fact they’re in English and on the Broadway tour circuit is not an argument.

If you bought tickets to either of those productions, support this gem of an opera company, and see this powerful show.

Photos by David Bachman, copyright 2012. These images and others are available at the Pittsburgh Opera Tosca Website.

  • Author, Consultant at Dominate! How Smart Lawyers CRUSH the Competition
  • Environmental Lawyer at Cerafici Law Firm
  • Owner at The Barefoot Barrister
  • Spent her Pre Law Years at Brigham Young as a drama major.

Attorney Cerafici is an internationally recognized leader and legal specialist in the often complex and challenging nuclear regulatory industry. She has been at the forefront of the industry in building regulatory and policy framework for a new generation of nuclear plants. She was a major contributor to the first Early Site Permit granted under 10 CFR part 52, successfully implementing alternative site analyses that have become the general standard.

She's also an internationally known expert on marketing techniques for lawyers, and other billable-hour professionals, speaking around the world to delighted audiences everywhere. 

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