Virginia Opera Performs "Tosca" at George Mason University's Center for the Arts

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009

The Connecticut Opera went out of business last week, after 67 years. The Baltimore Opera Company appears to be no more. But the Virginia Opera took the stage at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Friday night with "Tosca," a standard-bearer for the idea that we must love our small opera companies while we can -- warts and all.

Nobody said love was easy; and on this occasion it was definitely a challenge. Unfortunately, the operas that sell the most tickets are often the ones that small companies can do least well. "Tosca" is relatively simple but calls for three big, powerful voices and a lot of singing, and it's hard to find the requisite vocal wattage at this level. This past weekend's two performances in Fairfax also came after a grueling week of five performances in Norfolk, and one wondered if the singers, even though they had a few days' rest, had tired themselves out. They certainly sounded tired.

The three lead singers represented a cross section of abilities from very good to, literally, voiceless. Michael Hayes, as Tosca's lover Cavaradossi, lost his voice midway through the first act and was replaced, starting in Act 2, by the young tenor scheduled to sing the small role of Spoletta, Kevin Perry. He sang valiantly in a role that was too big for him, doing so from the orchestra pit while using the score, as Hayes mimed the words and actions onstage. You might think this was an amateur solution, but in fact illness has forced it upon far bigger houses: The last time I saw it happen was at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, when the diminutive stage director mimed the title role in "La Gioconda" while Violeta Urmana sang it from the wings. Whenever it happens, it is at best a stopgap measure that does nothing to further the drama of the work at hand, though it does allow the show to go on. (Johnny Lee Green, another tenor, was pressed into service as Spoletta.)

The midpoint of the trio, Stephen Kechulius, got through the role of the evil Baron Scarpia adequately and hoarsely, with some vocal paleness, some familiar gestural cliches, and no particular distinction.

Tosca, by contrast, was the highlight of the evening. True, Mary Elizabeth Williams was slow coming out of the gate, her warm soprano a little thin and patchy on top. In her favor, though, was a fantastic connection to the text: She actually knew exactly what she was singing. When Scarpia successfully incites Tosca's jealousy of an imagined rival, she snapped out a piercing "l'Attavanti!" (the other woman's name), followed by a line to the effect of "I should have known," which she delivered in a rich chest voice; few singers manage this jump so effectively, and it got my attention.

The other thing Williams had going for her, beyond the patchiness, was a strong voice with enough heft to carry off a role that's a tough assignment even for seasoned sopranos. Young singers tend to spend hours practicing the big arias from operas, only learning the full roles later on in their careers, and it certainly sounded as if Williams had done this with Tosca's famous "Vissi d'arte" ("I lived for art, I lived for love"). Where the aria can seem hackneyed coming from some singers, it was utterly moving here: full-voiced, nuanced and culminating in a dusky, held high note followed by a long break as the character struggled with her tears before choking out (in fine voice, of course), "Why, Lord, do you repay me like this?" It brought Williams's performance up to a new level, and she sailed through the rest of the evening with authority, establishing herself as someone worth keeping an eye, or ear, on in the future.

Another flash of quality was represented by Jason Budd in the character role of the Sacristan: He served as a reminder of what a difference it makes to have solid professionals even in smaller parts. Marc Astafan offered a reasonable staging, traditional without being too rigidly tied to convention: Scarpia's red-lined study, for instance, evoked a bordello without actually straying from period style. Still, offering such a big work on a small stage cannot help but smack of community theater. Conductor Peter Mark did his best to inject some life into the orchestra, but the evening overall was more a place holder than an actually satisfying entertainment.

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