A series of loud chords from the orchestra, a swift rise of the curtain, and we are immediately in Rome's Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle. An escaped political prisoner frantically searches for the clothes and key that will be his tickets to safety and freedom.
It's the opening of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca," and on Friday Virginia Opera audiences will have a chance to re-experience this classic when the company premieres its new production.
"That shabby little shocker" is the famous criticism leveled against "Tosca" by musicologist Joseph Kerman in his 1952 book "Opera as Drama." While the phrase has stuck, audiences and performers seem to have ignored it. More than a century after its premiere in Rome on Jan. 14, 1900, "Tosca" continues to pack them in.
Sopranos hanker after the title role, tenors are always grateful for two wonderful arias, and baritones relish playing the evil Baron Scarpia, chief of Rome's secret police. This year alone, there are productions in cities all over the world, including New York, Vienna, Paris and London.
Conductor Peter Mark, who will lead the Virginia performances, calls it "the perfect beginner's opera." He cites the startling dramatic and musical realism of Puccini's score, and the manner in which the composer is able to create realistic characters onstage in a matter of seconds. Those famous chords at the beginning introduce Baron Scarpia long before he comes on stage; when he finally arrives, the audience already knows him through that music.
Mark's association with "Tosca" goes back to his days as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus in New York. The Met was staging a new production in 1955, and Maestro Dimitri Mitropoulos decided that he wanted to use a boy soprano rather than the usual female singer for the last-act Shepherd solo. He chose Mark.
Mark enjoyed standing backstage behind the Act I portrait so he could hear soprano Renata Tebaldi hurl her jealous outbursts at the painting. Tebaldi, Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren, operatic giants of the day, were the stars of that production, and Mark credits them with inspiring him to devote his life to music.
Connections abound in this "Tosca." Mark's newest soprano is Fabiana Bravo, who hails from Argentina and whose career began after she won the Pavarotti Vocal Competition in 1996. It seems the great tenor heard Bravo in Argentina and encouraged her to enter the contest. She knew only one opera aria - "Vissi d'arte" from "Tosca" - and she won.
The prize was performing with Pavarotti in "Lucia di Lammermoor," which she learned by listening to tapes. Catholic University offered her a full scholarship; a wealthy Argentinian patron provided her living expenses; and Bravo was launched.
This will be Bravo's third opera in Virginia. She first appeared as a last-minute replacement in 1999 as the Countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," after the original artist became ill. She came back as Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni" last year, and this year stars in "Tosca" and Verdi's "A Masked Ball."
She is excited to be singing Tosca. She says the role fits her well vocally, and she enjoys the opportunity to portray a famous opera singer who is also a woman in love. She sees a girlish quality in the character in her scenes with her lover Mario Cavaradossi, sung by tenor Frank Porretta, but she also has to show strength in warding off the advances of Scarpia, sung by baritone Guido LeBron.
Bravo says one of the biggest challenges in singing Tosca is maintaining control, both emotional and musical. If she allows herself to let the dramatics get out of hand, she risks losing the vocal qualities she is trying to project. She feels very secure, though, because she has Mark in the pit, and she has been coached by another great singer and Tosca of the past, Italian soprano Renata Scotto.
Mark attended some of those coaching sessions and says local audiences will see a side of this singer that her previous outings in Mozart have only hinted at.
Another key player in this staging is director Dorothy Danner, who has previously staged "The Merry Widow" and "Porgy and Bess" for the company. Mark praises her capacity for filling the stage with real people. Danner's work will take place in sets by acclaimed designer Michael Yeargan; this new "Tosca" is a co-production shared with L'Opera de Montreal.
Just as happened with him back in 1955, Mark is certain that audiences here will fall for Puccini's magic, a potent combination of dramatic tension and lush music.
And as he looks ahead to his latest "Tosca," he'll enjoy one more connection Alan Fischer, who sings the role of Scarpia's chief agent Spoletta, also sang the Shepherd in that same Met production a few seasons after Mark.
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