Passionate Beginning

Lust. Seduction. Jealousy. Murder. It must be time for the New Orleans Opera Association's new season, which opens with a bang this year with a production of Puccini's melodramatic masterpiece, 'Tosca.'

By Keith Marshall
Classical music writer, 10/09/02.

Baron Scarpia, dressed in rehearsal blue jeans and stage-blood-stained white T-shirt, lies dead on the floor as Floria Tosca, in slacks, white blouse and dark cape, inches her way to the heavy double doors of Scarpia's chambers. It's the end of Act II, and she's just stabbed the man who attempted to seduce her.

"Hold it, there!"

The voice of director Christopher Mattaliano echoes through the auditorium of the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts, and action on the stage comes to a halt.

"You see, it's clear in the music that the entire second act is moving toward resolution in that final chord," Mattaliano explains to Michele Capalbo, the Tosca. "That's why I have to make sure no one is moving."

Mattaliano describes Giacomo Puccini's melodramatic "Tosca" as a "director-proof" opera -- it's so well-constructed and tightly defined that the performers need only to be sure to work in a detailed manner, following Puccini's guidelines. The director and his cast and crew are working down to the wire trying to get the details right for the season-opening New Orleans Opera Association's production, which has performances Thursday and Saturday evenings.

The action of the opera revolves around three main characters: Floria Tosca, a singer (soprano Michele Capalbo); Mario Cavaradossi, a painter (lyric tenor Jerry Hadley); and Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police of Rome (baritone Kimm Julian).

A large part of the opera's fascination lies in its melodramatic blend of lust, jealousy, torture and murder -- spread among an egotistical singer, a painter with revolutionary sentiments, and a powerful, lecherous villain. To make things more interesting, the action is set against the historic battles for control of Rome, repercussions of which ultimately ensnare the main characters.

Conductor Robert Lyall shares Mattaliano's view of the details of the opera.

"It's probably the most verismo (realistic) opera ever written because it is so specific," Lyall said. "The fun in producing 'Tosca' is to be accurate in underscoring every detail of the drama, while at the same time allowing individual interpretations on stage.

"Most operas do not move in real time, but in musical time. 'Tosca' is different. In 'Tosca,' when statements are expressed -- it can be in a duet or large ensemble -- they are based on events in real time that are articulated in the musical line.

"The orchestra is the tapestry against which the action is played out. It offers constant commentary on the opera, fills in all the gaps, so that the unspoken action is carried forward by the orchestra. In that sense, it is one of the most subtle and sophisticated scores -- it seldom lapses into generalized emotional states.

"All this diversity is graphically portrayed in the music. It's a very complicated mosaic, yet it must flow as music. You must convey emotions and colors and moods within the sense of that. It's almost like a kaleidoscope. And there are disjunctions, stark contrasts; for example, a beautiful lyric line while torture is going on in the next room. The texture of the piece -- cannons, chamber music, specific bells -- it's an attempt to be as realistic as possible."

In most operas, the key relationship would be between Tosca and Cavaradossi. But in "Tosca," things are different.

"If you look at the story," Capalbo said, "the real source of conflict is between Tosca and Scarpia. Cavaradossi more or less provides the fulcrum around which the conflict rages."

Julian agrees about the dramatic power of his character, Scarpia.

"Really the opera is the struggle between Tosca and Scarpia," he said. "The basis of the opera is their relationship; it's why everything happens. Even in the third act, he's reaching her from death.

"One of the elements I really like to play on is that one of the reasons she kills him is because she is attracted to him. This makes the struggle between them more intense. I do everything to seduce her."

How would Capalbo define her interpretation of Tosca?

"She's pretty classically diva, but it's easy to see she loves Cavaradossi, but there's also no doubt that she loves Scarpia in some fashion," she said. "I think there's a certain magnetism there."

Critics have described Capalbo's Tosca as "noble and dignified."

"I cannot play a crass Tosca; that doesn't work for me," Capablo said. "She's a lady, and sure she's jealous; but she doesn't have to be crude. I don't care to see a vulgar Tosca; I don't care to play a vulgar Tosca.

"When I hear the word 'Tosca,' I think immediately of the dichotomy of her character. Who is she? Is she just a jealous woman, or is she a noble character? The whole feel of the opera is a matter of who she is. And each singer will bring a part of herself to the role, and who Tosca is changes. In that way she becomes sort of eternal, and you can't pin her down; you can never pin her down, and that to me is the fascination of Tosca."

Metropolitan Opera tenor and three-time Grammy award-winner Hadley praises the opera as "one of the two or three most perfectly crafted pieces of music I've ever encountered. I don't think there's a wasted moment in it either musically or dramatically."

Even the aria "Vissi d'arte," which Hadley concedes is "a bit self-indulgent," is an important audience pleaser.

"Whatever the intellectual aspect of a piece," Hadley says, "great men of the theater know what will work."

Hadley is certainly qualified to judge; he has had a long and varied career that encompasses the worlds of opera and popular music.

"I started singing when I was very young, on the early side of 25," Hadley said. "I've done a lot of things outside the operatic realm" -- including recording a number of Broadway shows.

"That diversity and versatility is both a blessing and a curse," he has found. "It's a blessing in that it's kept things alive and interesting for me, and a curse in that I've been hard to peg."

Hadley's performances in "Tosca" mark both his New Orleans debut and his first Cavaradossi.

"I found that life really began again for me at 40 so that I'm really experiencing again the same sort of excitement and energy I had at the beginning of my career," he said. "I've done a lot of premieres, especially of American operas. If my career were to end today, I would still be a very happy camper."

Hadley will bring to "Tosca" a range of operatic influences.

"I think that all great singing has to start with emulating excellence, and then you find your own way," he said. "You have to allow your own personality, your own belief system, your own soul to manifest itself in your work. But I was watching all these guys trying to be the next Pavarotti and it always struck me as odd, like trying to be the next John Wayne. You know you're going to fail by comparison. . . . What you take should be unconscious.

"For singers like (Capalbo) and me, I think we're like sponges. We pick up influences from around us."

Responds Capalbo: "I think I'm a selective sponge, Jerry."

"I've always erred on the side of caution," Hadley replies.

"We have this idea that lives are linear. But what I've observed with most great singers is that their lives are great concentric circles, with a core repertoire, which even at the end of their careers informs their work. Throughout their careers, they add repertoire in concentric rings, always referring back toward that thing that determines their center of gravity.

"I've learned more about myself by singing the music I've been able to sing than by reading a thousand self-help books or going to a psychiatrist every day. I always think about how hard my dad had to work and I'm doing something that's fun. Even when you're in a lousy production with difficult people, it's still a better job than most people get, and I've always tried to be grateful for that."

Classical music writer Keith Marshall can be reached at kmarshall@timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3466.

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