Tuesday, May 30, 2006

mario, Mario, MARIO...

By Judith

Let me cut right to the chase: the Minnesota Orchestra's concert version of Tosca (May 26, 2006) was far superior to the Minnesota Opera's fully-staged version (November 10, 2005).

Let's look at the scorecard -

Sets and costumes: advantage Minnesota Opera. Since this was a fully staged presentation borrowed from the Baltimore Opera, it would be hard not to be better than a stage that had to simultaneously support the orchestra, a chorus of adults and a boychoir, the principal singers and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary ( in Act 1) and a writing desk (in Acts 2 & 3). But even here the Orchestra's costuming was clever and subtle, leading us to image who the characters were and what role they assumed. The three principal men all wore a form of tuxedo. The escaped prisoner Angelotti wore his white shirt partially unbuttoned and disheveledly pulled out from his trousers. Cavaradossi, the painter, wore his black dinner-length coat buttoned, but had no tie, his shirt open at the collar. The nobleman wannabe, police chief Scarpia was in in full regalia, complete with tails. His henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone wore their shirts buttoned with long ties. And what an impressive, chilling sight the three of them were when they made their first act entrance from the back of the stage, the spotlight shining in a blood-red tint. Lighting also helped to set the place and mood in Act 1 as shadows of stained-glass windows were projected on the walls and a rosetta window was displayed over the block baffles at the back of the stage.The Opera's version of the Te Deum at the end of Act 1 also had the advantage of full costuming as the clergy and boychoir, in complete Catholic vestments processed onto the stage. The Orchestra had to settle for the choir in black and white, while the boys wore uniforms that looked like little sailor suits worn in a Victorian nursery.

Singing and acting: advantage Minnesota Orchestra. While the Opera's Tosca, Galina Gorchakova was described by Artistic Director Dale Johnson as "a sensation on the world stage," I found her to be only an adequate singer. Her vocal production was not always pleasing to the ear and the performance lacked emotion and connection with either the part or the audience. Acting ability: none. William Joyner as Cavaradossi was not bad, but often could not be heard over the orchestra. As is often the case in this opera, Scarpia made the best impression. Kim Josephson's voice was rich and dark and he displayed the menace and danger essential to the character.

Ah, but we're talking amateur hour here compared with the singers at the Orchestra. Deborah Voight, Carl Tanner and Greer Grimsley were head and shoulders above the Opera's cast. Miss Voight's beautiful soprano was warm and her delivery heartfelt as in her 2nd act aria "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore." At her wit's end, Tosca ponders her past and future and shows a rare vulnerability for the self-assured, proud diva. Whether she was giving us a glimpse of a softer side, toying with Cavaradossi ("make her eyes just a little darker"), or shivering in disgust at the touch of the snake Scarpia, Miss Voight delivered the goods in a totally believable way.

For all the hype surrounding the appearance of Mr. Tanner (will he show up in work boots and be carrying a gun - he was a trucker and a bounty hunter in previous careers), it turns out that he is after all a real opera singer. Cavaradossi's 3rd act aria "E lucevan le stelle" is probably one of the most famous in all of opera. Mr. Tanner easily traversed this and "Recondita armonia" in Act 1. His full-bodied tenor was able to soar above the orchestra throughout and his ability to display both defiant heroism and tenderness for his beloved made this characterization an equal to those of Tosca and Scarpia, not always an easy thing for this character.

Scarpia often can steal the show out from under the title character and if anyone could do it, Greer Grimsley could. His Scarpia was unctuous, nasty, menacing and just short of the very devil himself. Even his own long hair was pulled back into a tight braid that suggested a rat's tail and what a rat he was. But a rat with a voice. Cutting through the on-stage orchestra and choruses in the Te Deum, his strong baritone was forceful and did battle without pushing or showing strain. Mr. Grimsley was the Minnesota Opera's Scarpia in their 1998 production, and if he sang and performed then as he did this night, he probably did steal the show.

Musicians: advantage push. While the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has the advantage of experience at performing opera, the Minnesota Orchestra is one the premier orchestras in the country. There was no let down in quality in the transfer from the pit at the Ordway to the stage at Orchestra Hall. In fact, having the orchestra on stage with the singers in front, so that they and the conductor could not see each other was a distinct disadvantage (rather like Ginger Rogers doing all the same steps as Fred Astaire, but backwards and in heels). However, the only time that it was even an issue was during Cavaradossi's 3rd act aria when singer and orchestra were slightly out of sync. But opera rookie Osmo Vanska can be proud of the job that he did with these performances. He claims that he has no aspirations to conduct at the Met, but if Esa-Pekka Salonen will be there next season, can Mr. Vanska be far behind?

Totaling up the points, singing and acting must be weighed more heavily than sets and costumes. Add in the orchestra and it's a definite win for the Minnesota Orchestra.

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