Unexpected Tosca

Just when you think you know how a story will turn out –because it’s such a well-known opera—they throw you a curve.  There’s no drama quite like experiencing a work you think you know, where they’ve changed the usual ending.

Before the Canadian Opera Company performance of Tosca tonight the dreaded announcement came: that Adrienne Pieczonka was unwell.  But this wasn’t the usual kind of announcement, of vocal indisposition and the need to replace the star.  No, Pieczonka would sing, but she had injured her knee, and so the announcement begged our indulgence because she would not be able to give us the usual staging.

Hm… okay.  I know I wasn’t the only one wondering what this might mean.

To be honest, I watched her come striding in after singing “Mario, Mario, Mario” (and his reply of “son qui”), and wondered if perhaps the announcement was unnecessary.  She seemed fine.

I forgot all about it except for two rather key moments in the opera.

Key moment number ONE was during the aria “vissi d’arte”, sung sitting in an upright position.  Perhaps this was the usual staging but the point is I found myself wondering about the sore knee, and whether this was being done differently.  As for the aria?  Begun very softly, Pieczonka raised her game at this point, giving us a diminuendo at the end of the aria, delicacy, and an unmistakeable sense of drama.  I know I wasn’t the only one paying special attention to her health, and feeling gratitude for her singing.

Key moment TWO? As I look back upon it, this was the obvious place where you’d expect a Tosca with a sore knee to have a problem, namely the end.  Tosca is supposed to jump off a high parapet to her death at the conclusion of the opera.  Normally this means she goes to the edge and jumps down a wee bit, into something padded.  But with a sore knee, could she even do that?  But I wasn’t thinking about this as the last moment of the opera unfolded.

The way they staged it was so clever I didn’t realize at first just what they were doing.  The pursuing police (Spoletta and members of the chorus) were confronted by a locked door, so that as we come to the key phrase where Tosca would jump, they are delayed.  They finally get that door open at the very end, pursue partway, while Tosca goes to the brink of the parapet from which a healthy Tosca would seem to jump.  Pieczonka moved a bit and then froze: a solution of elegant simplicity.  The applause in the house was marked by an audible sound of recognition as we understood, yes, she couldn’t jump, and had still managed to do something wonderful with those final moments.  While I am sorry for Pieczonka’s injury, the little drama of the ending was quite marvellous to witness and a very different experience from what i had expected.

This is my second look at this production, employing a cast that’s a complete contrast to the one I saw before.  If one were to put labels on the casts, I believe these singers –Pieczonka and tenor Carlo Ventre—who were given opening night and more performances than the other cast, would be understood as the “A” cast (Ventre with ten of fourteen performances, Pieczonka with eight of the fourteen), while the other two –Julie Makerov and Brandon Jovanovich—whom I’d seen earlier were the “B” cast.

Let’s keep this positive shall we?

The “A” cast has the two singers who probably command the higher fees and are better known.  Pieczonka can be an amazing actor, and did manage wonderfully in Act II, when she was opposite Scarpia Mark Delavan (who sang all performances).

Ventre sang with power, but unfortunately I saw little chemistry between him and Pieczonka.  I don’t think that can be explained by the knee injury, given how wonderful Pieczonka played her scenes opposite Delavan.

I prefer the experience I had watching the other cast.  The moment that sums it up for me is that passage in Act II, just after Cavaradossi has cursed Tosca for having betrayed him.

When it was Jovanovich hearing the news that in fact Bonaparte had won the battle of Marengo, he struggles to his feet, shaking with something resembling hysterical energy or shock, in the aftermath of torture.  Yes he managed the high note, singing “vittoria” fairly well, although nowhere near as loud nor strong nor nearly as long as Ventre’s high note.

Jovanovich did not climb to his feet merely to prepare his body for the best position to hit a high note.  Oh no.  I was totally lost in Jovanovich’s passion, an explosion of energy.  Scarpia’s thugs struggled to subdue him, as he was for the moment superhuman in his singing and physical strength.  Roberti finally has to inject him from behind as if he were a wild dog.  Makerov’s expressions of despair as his limp body is dragged off were the perfect match for this horrific display, the first time I have ever felt the action and singing express the music perfectly.

Ventre in contrast stands up to sing a high note, then clings to the back of the couch while the unfortunate thugs pretend to be unable to dislodge him from his prime singing location.  He is finally injected and dragged off.    If this was 1950 I believe that would mean Ventre’s approach would be preferable.  But in 2012 we expect a little more.

In fairness it’s a very difficult moment to bring off, musically difficult & a busy moment onstage as well.  Have a look at one version on video, to see just how hard it is to make it work even when sung well.

Mark Delavan was wonderful in both performances I saw, but I believe there was more subtlety opposite Makerov & Jovanovich.  Ventre & Pieczonka, standing and singing splendidly without much real interaction left him with the usual melodramatic options of a typical Scarpia.

Tosca is an incredible opera, marvellous to watch whether given the subtle ensemble treatment (which I prefer) or the star turns we saw tonight.  The COC production continues until February 25th at the Four Seasons Centre.

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