Madison Opera brings the fiery ‘Tosca’ to Overture Center

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Murder, mayhem and a few leitmotifs come together in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which opens Madison Opera’s 2013–14 season at the city’s Overture Center for the Arts. 

The opera that musicologist Joseph Kerman once famously called “a shabby little shocker” is one of Puccini’s best-known works. 

“Puccini always has a certain formula of music and high drama in his operas, and this is where he went full-tilt,” says A. Scott Parry, who is directing the production. Parry is a freelance director who also teaches opera at Ohio State University.

“It is the most shocking and most violent of his operas, and the zenith of his emotional works,” Perry adds.

The opera is based on the French play La Tosca, which author Victorien Sardou wrote specifically for actor Sarah Bernhardt. The melodrama, a huge hit for Sardou at the end of the 19th century, unfolds as Napoleon prepares to invade the Kingdom of Naples. Torture, murder, suicide and one of Puccini’s best-known arias fill out the lengthy narrative.

“In all of Puccini’s operas the heroine dies by dramatic means,” Parry says. “In this situation the heroine and multiple people die.”

Parry calls Tosca a “through-composed” opera, meaning the music runs continuously, without obvious stops. Tosca, he says, reflects characteristics often associated with Puccini’s German contemporary Richard Wagner, who composed the Ring cycle. Tosca reflects Wagner’s lofty brand of drama and symphonic musical quality, as well as the use of leitmotifs – short recurring melodies associated with specific characters.

“There’s a fluid musical texture to Tosca, and this is where Puccini is veering into (Wagner’s) musical realm,” Parry says.

Nonetheless, there were distinct differences between the Italian and German cultures during the Romantic period.

“Italians are fiery by nature, with a sense of emotional expression in speech and the way they communicate,” Parry says. “Germans tend to be more intellectual, more about the thought and the philosophy. It’s the difference between the heart and the head.”

Soprano Melody Moore appears as the fiery Tosca, a role she also played with the San Francisco Opera in 2012. Moore began as the understudy in that production, but she stood in for Angela Gheorghiu after she was stricken by intestinal flu at the end of Act 1. Moore used the opportunity to make the role her own, drawing praise from San Francisco critics for her vocal power, dramatic fervor and “superb” performance of “Vissi d’arte,” Tosca’s famous Act 2 aria.

Tenor Scott Piper, a Madison Opera favorite, returns as Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover. He’s also played his role before — and he’ll reprise it early in 2014 with the Austin Lyric Opera.

Grammy Award-winning baritone Nmon Ford plays the evil Baron Scarpia, the third of a trinity of roles that Parry says distinguish Tosca from the composer’s other works.

“Each of the three key characters has an interesting shading and can be looked at with a more well-rounded point of view,” he says. “I have three well-rounded performers who have an interest in finding the motivating characteristics that bring the characters to three-dimensional life.”

The performances will make Tosca an outstanding production for an audience that Parry says truly appreciates fine operatic art.

“I have worked all over the country and remember thinking that it’s amazing that Madison has this regional company with 50 years of experience,” Parry says. “Madison Opera really shows itself as a company of substance, with an audience open to enjoying not only the great old war horses like Tosca but also more contemporary works. That’s unique.”

On stage

Madison Opera performs “Tosca” at 8 p.m. on Nov. 1 and at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 3 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Phone 608-238-8085 or go to madisonopera.org.