Puccini: Tosca. Virginia Opera production conducted by Peter Mark. Director: Marc Astafan. Scenic Designer: Michael Yeargan (design modified by Marc Astafan and Chris Kitrell). Lighting Designer: Chris Kitrell. Presented at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia, February 13, 2009.
It has to be one of an opera company’s worst nightmares: the lead tenor loses his voice during a performance. And that is just what happened during Virginia Opera’s Friday the 13th presentation of Tosca, resulting in a production that creaked and stuttered throughout despite Artistic Director Peter Mark’s sure-handed conducting and the strengths brought by Mary Elizabeth Williams to the title role.
It was obvious from the start that something was not quite right: Michael Hayes, as Cavaradossi, had far too much vibrato in his lower range, then sounded strained and breathless in “Qual occhio al mondo.” His unevenness throughout the first act served to highlight the vocal clarity of Christopher Temporelli as Angelotti and the particularly adept comic timing of Jason Budd as the Sacristan – but this sole light character in the opera ought not to become the center of attention by virtue of out-singing the lead tenor in “Scherza con i fanti e lascia stare i santi,” as happened here.
Before Act II, it was announced that Hayes had a cold and could not continue singing – but would still act the part of Cavaradossi while Kevin Perry, who had sung Spoletta in Act I, would sing Cavaradossi’s words (and Johnny Lee Green would take over as Spoletta). This on-the-fly attempt to handle Hayes’ illness produced a series of embarrassing moments in Acts II and III, as Hayes strove to lip-synch his arias while Perry, who was quite visible in the orchestra pit, actually produced the words – frequently with slight but disconcerting differences in tempo or emphasis. The result was what looked like one of those badly dubbed old Japanese monster movies: the drama of Tosca was thoroughly vitiated. Closing one’s eyes whenever the Hayes/Perry pairing was singing was not a good option, either, since that meant missing what drama there was in the action. Perry did a more-than-creditable job in his thoroughly thankless task, although his light tenor is thin on top and not really up to the demands of the Cavaradossi role. “E lucevan le stele,” normally such an emotional high point in Act III and the opera as a whole, teetered on the edge of comedy in this dual performance.
It was left to Williams as Tosca to carry the entire opera, and while she certainly gave it a try, there is more to Tosca than “Vissi d'arte,” which Williams delivered with strikingly intense emotionality and considerable vocal power. Elsewhere, though, her voice was less sure and her acting only so-so. Her lower register was her strongest in Act I, but in her confrontation with Scarpia in Act II, she repeatedly came perilously close to sounding shrill. Hopefully the numerous kisses she exchanged with Hayes in the first act – and presumably in rehearsal – had not given her a cold as well. By the end of Act III, when Tosca jumps to her death, Williams seemed tired and rather awkward. She did not outrun the soldiers on her way to the parapet – they stopped in their tracks and let her go there. Williams has considerable potential as Tosca, whose human side she seems to appreciate, but neither her singing nor her acting is yet as good as it could be.
As Scarpia, Stephen Kechulius made a highly dramatic entrance in Act I, dressed in black and with a Dracula-style cape, flanked by his two also-dressed-in-black henchmen. He initially sang well, but his acting quickly turned Scarpia into a kind of parody of Victorian-era evildoers, along the lines of Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore. Kechulius strutted and stamped and eventually crushed a flower, first petal by petal and then all at once, as he proclaimed that Tosca’s beauty made him forget God. He did everything but cackle. The result was that the character was too overdone to have the sense of real-world menace that the best Scarpias produce. This was true as well in Act II, where Kechulius dialed back some of his over-the-top acting to the point that Scarpia seemed more a government functionary ordering waterboarding than the man before whom all Rome trembled. The Scarpia-Tosca confrontation, so rich in drama and intensity, here became a conflict of unequals: Williams had Kechulius vocally overmatched and also seemed significantly stronger physically.
Virginia Opera’s staging is usually so good that it helps buoy even indifferent singing, but this production was not one of its best. The church in Act I was impressive, with a real sense of grandeur and scale, and there were some good lighting effects as the mood changed during the act. But Scarpia’s room in Act II, its walls mostly red, was mundane, and some sort of electrical problem caused the supposedly candle-filled wall sconces to go out from time to time. There was also no door to the torture chamber, which was behind a moving bookcase; so when Scarpia ordered the door opened so Tosca could better hear Cavaradossi’s cries, there was no door to open (and the bookcase had already been slid partially aside, so an opening into the chamber already existed). As for Act III, the setting was simply dull, being entirely open-air, with the inevitable parapet at the rear of the stage.
Virginia Opera is much better than this Tosca, and Michael Hayes is surely a better Cavaradossi than he was able to show at this performance. But perhaps the evening’s mishaps will start a new tradition for this company. Just as many Shakespearean troupes will not even say the name of the play Macbeth, calling it “The Scottish Play” to allay fears associated with the drama, so Virginia Opera may want to avoid Tosca on Friday the 13th in the future – or perhaps refer to it as “The Singer’s Opera.”