When I go to the opera, I always feel like the Grandson at the end of The Princess Bride.
Grandpa, maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow?
The action in Tosca takes place over about 18 hours. For the same amount of time, my life was completely focused on the opera last weekend when one of my dreams came true and I got to watch the Sunday matinee of Tosca after attending opening night on Saturday.
I found out that 18 hours is a long time to remain in the heightened emotional state induced by music and drama, and by the end I was mostly dead. I can only imagine how exhausting it must be for the people involved in actually producing and performing.
Beyond feeling all the feels all weekend, the most wonderful part of repeated viewing was getting to see both casts. I got to interview Pacific Northwest Ballet ballet master Otto Neubert a few years ago, and he described the detailed process he schedule different casts for the Nutcracker – balancing opening and closing nights, matinees, and weeknights to guarantee equal exposure for each cast. But people do often think of the opening night performers as the “main cast” and the others as the “second cast” as if one were just backup for the other.
I could not say that either of the two performances I saw was better, but they were certainly not the same. Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte brought depth and nuance to the character of Floria Tosca. Her coquetry in Act One seems artificial compared to her insecurity. In Act Two, her struggle against Scarpia hints at a rougher past. In the final act, we hear her doubt when she tells Cavadarossi about the mock execution (“You’ll laugh,” she sings with a quaver) and there is laughter in her voice when for a moment she believes they will escape together.
The American Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Tosca puts the voice front and center. I don’t remember what The Diva in the movie Fifth Element actually sounded like, but I know she was meant to represent the experience of hearing a voice like Mary Elizabeth Williams. Her Tosca reminded me of one of my favorite actresses, Gina Torres. She was strong and beautiful. It was easy to believe her theatrical, dramatic, low-born Floria could dominate Roman high society with her voice. When I cried at the end Sunday’s performance, it wasn’t because Tosca died for love, but because Williams’ voice had stopped.
The title character Tosca really carries a lot of the weight in this opera, so much so that the soprano seemed to set the tone for the entire production, even though the music, sets, costumes, and all other factors were unchanged. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley seemed to take Stundyte’s cue, highlighting Baron Scarpia’s cunning and hypocrisy. His physical presence on the stage was menacing as he towered over the other characters. Yet this Scarpia could be charming. It was easy to see how Tosca could be fooled by his insinuations in the church.
Philip Horst’s Scarpia was, like Williams’ Tosca, less subtle. He sang the same insinuations (and did so beautifully) but prefers bullying to plotting. When he sings of his vice, his voice traps the audience in their seats as effectively as his villainy traps Tosca in his chambers.
Of course it’s impossible to compare the two Toscas precisely. The experience was influenced by factors that are hard to control for. Gestures that seem subtle when seen from the second balcony may be broad when seen from the main floor. It will always take more effort to follow the story the first time you see an opera than the second. The second viewing will always reveal details missed the first. And of course, the first viewing is one of discovery where the second must always be one of comparison.
Never mind these limitations. Controlled scientific observation of opera is not desirable anyway. But I wholeheartedly support the scientific principal of replication. Whenever possible, one should repeat the experiment.
Photos provided courtesy of Seattle Opera