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Dining with the Devil: Opera Carolina's Tosca

by Phillip Larrimore

Dining with the Devil: Opera Carolina's Tosca

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Picture by jonsilla.com

October 18, 2012

"When I was a child, I was told that when one dined with the devil, one should always eat with a long spoon. Unfortunately every time I've dined with him I've always been served with a short one." (Eugenio Montale)

"That shabby little shocker" is how composer Benjamin Britten described Puccini's Tosca, a view possible to understand, but not agree with. What disconcerts about Tosca is its unbridled sado-sexuality as propounded (preached, almost) by the principal male character, Scarpia, in music of rapturous ominousness. Much like Shakespeare's Richard III, Scarpia confides his evil schemes with a gleeful, self-regarding insouciance, as if to rape, murder, and plunder were all in a good day's work, and he puts this with such charm that the audience falls under his spell.

It is our own little bit of evil - which he has distilled and magnified - that Scarpia addresses, and much as he does with Tosca, Scarpia puts a worm of doubt in our hearts.

Puccini has frequently been accused of misogyny, which is probably true, but in Tosca he has portrayed a heroine who has the integrity to stand up to Scarpia, and the singer who portrays her must convincingly show her transformation from a coquette into a fury.

The third primary role, Cavaradossi, has one of the greatest tenor arias of all in act three, but is otherwise a bit of a stick, due to the libretto, though the singer who portrays him must do everything in his power to keep him from seeming so.

Opera Carolina's production was a tasteful, traditional one, mercifully free of directorial hijinks. I continue to admire James Meena's way with a score, in which the nuances are emphasized but not exaggerated, and the playing of the orchestra was ravishing.

Todd Thomas' Scarpia was good but not excellent. It takes many years to make a great Scarpia, as Tito Gobbi observed, and some fatal lack of imaginative identification kept his Scarpia from setting afire. He lacked the one thing that the hugely different Scarpias of Gobbi, Milnes, London, and Bryn Terfel share in common: implacability.

Jill Gardner's Tosca was quite good, but the second act confrontation with Scarpia following "Vissi D'Arte" was more than that - then she was thrilling, and there was no distance between her and the part. What would it require to get the rest of her performance to this level? Perhaps only the luxury of a few more rehearsals.

Raul Melo, the Cavadarossi, seemed to me to be naive to the problems of his part, and though he sang "E lucevan le stelle" with skill and beauty as a singer, it was not as a condemned man.

In the secondary role of the police spy, Spoleto, Noah Rice made a strong, spider-like impression; and the shepherd's aubade that begins act three was sung sweetly by Margaret Tyler.

 

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Tags: opera carolina, tosca, phillip larrimore, review, music, opera, puccini

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