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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Light Rain
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Madison Opera pulls off that demanding crowd-pleaser Tosca

Tosca has got to be fast and melodramatic.
Credit:James Gill
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The Madison Opera opened its season on Friday at Overture Hall with a guaranteed crowd-pleaser: Puccini's Tosca, the tale of a Roman singer who loves a painter, both of whom fall into the clutches of a violent chief of police. But if Tosca is guaranteed for the audience, it is more tricky for the three lead singers, who must be superlative vocalists and actors both. And the pacing of what Ernest Newman once called "that cheap little shocker" has got to be fast and melodramatic in both music and theater, within believable evocations of the three actual places in Rome in which the three acts are set.

The Madison Opera production comes through as fulfilling almost all of those requirements, and only very slightly deficient. (If you want to see how the elements are badly managed, check out the Metropolitan Opera's current mess of a staging.) Let's work our way up.

Visually, things are admirable. The three sets and the costumes, all from the Seattle Opera, are splendid, beautifully evoking the opera's time and setting. Also to be praised is John Frautschy's lighting, particularly effective in Act III.

The orchestral sound is solid, and the overall musical shaping is propelled by John DeMain's knowing leadership. The stage direction, by A. Scott Parry, is consistently appropriate, and full of wonderful and subtle details of action. I loved the clever little differentiation given to Scarpia’s two henchmen, Spoleta with an eye-patch and Sciarrone with a limp. Vocally, the various lesser roles are all handled expertly. (It is great to see Greg Walters back on our stages.)

Which brings us to the top of the heap, the three leading singers. I’d give them, respectively, A+, B, and C-.

At the apex of the pyramid is the title role. Melody Moore, already familiar from Opera in the Park -- and to appear in this December's Christmas show with the Madison Symphony Orchestra -- has all the right qualifications: strong, beautiful voice, with spot-on technical precision, along with expert dramatic perceptiveness. She gave me for the first time, among many Toscas I have seen, the sense of a believable human being -- not a haughty diva, but a very young, naïve and impulsive woman. Such characteristics, established quite believably in Act I, helped to explain her desperately spontaneous violence in Act II and her misplaced trust in Act III. And her "Visse d'arte" aria in Act II was very moving. This is a truly superb, thoughtful singing actress.

Tosca's lover, the artist Cavaradossi, should be striking both for his idealistic fervor and his amorous passion. Scott Piper, who has appeared several times with Madison Opera, has a voice of solid meat but not much sauce. In his lower range he is solid and strong, but in the upper range he has to push. He lacks the ringing heroism of a first-rate Cavaradossi. In his lyrical effusion in Act III, though, he somewhat compensates for other shortcomings.

The most problems of all attach to our Scarpia. This is one of the few truly evil characters in all opera. The normal portrayal of him is as a brute, but I wish singers and directors would explore a different take on him: as a sophisticated sensualist who cows everyone with cynical condescension and reveals the vileness of his personality only in his relentless lust for Tosca in Act II. Scarpia's evil is not to be understood if it is just superficially portrayed. But our Scarpia has no concept of the second approach and only a superficial mastery of the first.

Nmon Ford, another recent veteran of Opera in the Park, is more of a tenorish baritone than a bass-baritone. His voice lacks the depth and power to suggest real menace, nor is his acting coherent. In Act I he simply stands about and scowls, while in Act II he reduces himself to the shouting unworthy of a feared police chief. He really needs to think this role through more carefully and consistently.

So, then, a not-quite-perfect Tosca -- as if there ever could be a truly perfect one. But, overall, an absorbing and enjoyable presentation of a demanding crowd-pleaser, and a fine way to start off a new season.

The final performance is on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2:30 p.m., at Overture Hall.

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