As far back as I can remember, I have loved stage performances of all kinds. I don’t care if I go see local community theater productions, professional tours and companies at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) in Nashville, or public school renditions of student-written plays. I just love shows live on stage. So when the Nashville Opera contacted me about giving their newest show a write-up, I couldn’t refuse.
First of all, let me say this: I’m no professional opera critic. Tosca is actually my first foreign language opera. I say foreign language specifically because I was lucky enough to see TPAC’s production of RENT last year, and it is technically an opera even if the film adaptation is not. I do, however, know a good deal about stage work and what constitutes a worthwhile event.
And Tosca is, indeed, a worthwhile event.
My fiancée printed out the reading guide, and we read it on the way to Nashville. Neither of us knows a lot about Puccini (or opera in general), so that the Nashville Opera provides a free, preparatory summary for the show is helpful; it covers the main plot and introduces characters and their relationships. The main difference in the summarized plot and the actual Tosca narrative was that in the summary, Tosca was made out to be very shrewish and jealous; however, on stage, her personality was more tongue-in-cheek than shrewish.
Obviously going in with knowledge about the basic outline of the opera was incredibly helpful given that my understanding of Italian is nil. What turned out to be even more helpful, however, was the surprise (to us, anyway) addition of subtitles on a screen above the stage. While the translation wasn’t the best—it seemed like a literal, word-for-word translation which led to some occasionally awkward or hilarious lyrics—the utility was incredible. I never once minded having to keep switching my gaze between the stage and the screen, and eventually, I only read the screen during extended scenes, giving more of my attention to the actors, who very much deserved it.
There was a gentleman behind us who also appeared to be attending his first live opera. He expressed worry about understanding the action on stage, and he was reassured by his friends that opera was not about understanding what is going on, but feeling it. And feel it we did. Despite a warning prior to the preview that the performers might not be singing full-voice all evening, the actors and actresses consistently belted out the notes in the operatic fervor I had, until then, only heard on recordings.
The entire cast was incredibly talented. No single singer stole scenes from any other. Erika Sunnegardh was spectacular as Floria Tosca; her voice never wavered. I never once doubted her as the character. Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi (William Joyner), was a different story, however. It took me a few minutes to really get into believing in him for some reason. Once I did, though, I very much appreciated his voice and talent. As the two main protagonists, their voices and performances left me wanting nothing more. For my first experience at the opera, I could not have asked for a more traditional, fulfilling duo.
And in regard to the antagonists, when Luis Ledesma came on stage playing Baron Scarpia, I laughed a little to myself. There before me stood what every bad guy in every story I have ever read aspired to be: a black goatee, hair peppered with grey, a pressed, black military uniform (including a cape!). With him was Tracy Wise playing Spoletta, who was also costumed perfectly for playing a villain: bald with a scar across his face. Does it really get more “I’m a bad guy” than that? Both men’s voices were strong and their acting was just what it should have been, leaving me despising them for their actions like any good villains. When the curtain call came, I knew that Scarpia and Spoletta had played their roles well for others, too, because someone behind me was simultaneously booing and applauding them as they bowed. There isn’t a more sure sign of successful villainy than good-natured booing.
Probably my favorite part of the evening, however, was the set design. For a show with such a limited run (October 8 & 10), I was impressed at the apparent quality the sets showcased. When the curtain lifted, I knew Tosca was going to be a traditional opera rather than a modern reimagining. I was happy about that. While I understand and very much appreciate adaptation and modernization, I am glad my first introduction to stage opera was conventional.
For Act I, Three black and red marbled columns rose in the center of the stage, with a wooden scaffolding framing an in-progress mural or fresco. What surprised me, however, was the stylized backdrop, which even from my off-center seat, opened the entire stage up by utilizing a perspective print on what was likely a large scrim. It made the stage feel like a cathedral.
Act II was a much simpler set, but it still kept the stylized perspective I liked—the walls and ceiling meeting at a much more severe angle than normal. If you’re familiar with the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, the hallway which led into Wonka’s Chocolate Room was depicted in much the same way. Act II also had the most impressive lighting of the evening; after Tosca was almost raped and left crying on the floor, most of the room went dark, and a diffuse light from stage right silhouetted Scarpia while highlighting Tosca as she sang. Describing it as “intense” might be a little weak.
Act III started off with a small child (probably between 7 and 10 years old) mopping up an executed prisoner’s blood and singing a love song. Creepy creepy creepy creepy. On top of that, Act III presented Tosca’s only exterior scene. Here, the scrim that gave the inside of the church perspective was equally impressive as it pressed gloom onto the characters and audience. It really felt like an overcast pre-dawn inside the theater. There was no doubt that the opera would end in tragedy after seeing that set, even if my fiancée and I had not read the summary.
Going in, I did not know who would be in the orchestra. I didn’t know if the Nashville Opera or TPAC had house musicians or if they contracted out. They must contract out because the Nashville Symphony was credited with playing the score, and my fiancée and I were pleased. She’s more of a music person than I am, and we’ve talked about going to a Nashville Symphony concert at some point. So to find them orchestrating Tosca was a nice surprise. They did a good job; the music was never overwhelming, but it was appropriate. I suppose I had expected something a little more bombastic, to tell the truth, and felt a little underwhelmed by the actual orchestration when compared to the strength of the performers’ voices. But that’s not the Nashville Symphony’s problem, I don’t think. I would assume that it has to do with the original score more than anything. So you hear that, Puccini? More bombastic orchestration in the future!
And, given that Tosca is a period opera, the costumes were spot on. Whether they were Catholic clergymen or French Imperialist soldiers, the audience never wondered who they were watching. I think the only awkward moment in the entire production was when Cavaradossi first came on stage and was introduced as a painter. Now, I don’t know a lot about 18th/19th century European fashion—okay, I don’t know anything at all about it—but I was shocked to see a man working as an artist to be dressed so well. Maybe today’s pseudo-bohemian artist subculture has clouded my perceptions, but I cannot imagine painting for hours in a double-breasted suit, complete with tie, slacks, and jacket. It just seems nutty. Though, he did slip a color-splotched painter’s robe over his suit, so maybe I’m just overthinking Cavaradossi’s choice of work clothes.
Overall, I can’t think of any way to put it other than that Puccini’s Tosca is a success. It is kind of a shame that it will only run two performances. The Nashville Opera obviously put a lot of work into making it a production they can be proud of, and I am quite pleased that it was my introduction to live, foreign language opera. Going into Tosca, I had no idea what to expect. By the end of the evening, I was shown that for a town known for cowboy stereotypes and country music, Nashville has a surprisingly bold, diverse, and talented opera company.