Encores: The gorgeous mayhem of Puccini
“No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”
— W.H. Auden
When I was still an under-graduate at Queens College, my girlfriend Amy was horrified to learn that, as intimate as I was with the great orchestral and chamber repertoire, I had never — beyond Gershwin’s peerless “Porgy and Bess” — been to opera.
She: (An audible gasp here.) Never?
He: (uncertain, fearing the consequences) ... Never ...
One might as well have thought she had found me living in a cave. She seized my hapless hand and dragged me to the nearest subway, from which we emerged 45 minutes later, a brief stroll from Lincoln Center, the new home of the Metropolitan Opera; biding some time at a local luncheonette over the worst milkshake I’ve ever had in my life (she registered a formal complaint to the management) and she then escorted me across the perilous traffic of Columbus Avenue to Lincoln Center Plaza and treated me to a mid-house seat for my maiden performance of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca.”
The atmosphere in the brand-new theatrical palace was all very sumptuous and grand, the air fairly rippling with aesthetic excitement and then the house lights went dim and the curtains parted, and we were plunged into ominous darkness.
It was all downhill from there.
Puccini’s music wasted no time in getting to the point — almost making one feel as if one had somehow mistakenly entered in the middle of the performance — but that was just his way of moving the dramatic football forward. None of this Wagnerian beating around the bush for him! By the time Wagner would have made his way to where Puccini had already been in the narrative, Puccini would have been knee-deep into a new opera.
Two hours and a world of sin, suffering, love and death later, I emerged into the New York afternoon sunlight, eyes dilated by darkness, doom, gloom and disaster, my operatic virginity a thing of the past ... In fact, it’s a miracle I survived the trauma at all. Amy, however, seemed just fine: she was clearly “the lass with the steel spine.”
Well, it’s a pity Windham Orchestra conductor Hugh Keelan wasn’t born Italian; he has all the necessary qualifications — he’s passionate and over the top and lives his life in eccentrically dramatic brushstrokes. Yes, a pity not only for all these reasons, but also for he fact that he simply can’t seem to keep his hands — or rather his baton — off Italian opera, particularly operas by Puccini, and will virtually do whatever it takes in order to re-create them right here in western New England for those of us who have, incomprehensibly, lapsed on keeping up our annual Metropolitan Opera season subscriptions.
But, alas, Italian he is not as he sports a pretty nippy British accent.
No matter — he’s earned his membership in the honorary Friends of Italian Opera Club, and with a few decades of exhaustive brain-reformatting and a few radical cultural face-lifts, he’ll be singing “Pagliacci” at La Scala by the turn of the century.
All levity aside, based upon his lovely production of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” of a number of years ago — a luminous and heart-rending production for which he virtually de-constructed and re-constructed the original orchestration to suit his aesthetic parameters — a massive labor by any standards — we are in for a great treat when his upcoming presentation of Puccini’s “Tosca” hits the boards, Friday, May 30, and Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. respectively, at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro. A final performance takes place Thursday, June 5, 7:30 p.m., at The Academy of Music in Northampton — and, for my money, might well be most ideal venue for this dark jewel of a music drama.
It seems the orchestra has collaborated with Keelan’s ad hoc new venue, PanOpera, in hopes of bringing — not mere Met broadcasts — but living, breathing, look-out-anything-can-happen-on-stage opera to the region.
Keelan is nothing if not gritty in his feelings about Puccini’s much-beloved, oft-reviled masterpiece — and, for that matter, about his take on human nature: “‘Tosca” tells the brutal truth about what drives us: our passions and desires. It’s essential Puccini — lurid, ravishing, hugely enjoyable and not to be missed. There are no gods or heroes; this is raw humanity on display ... ”
A rabid proponent for “Great Music for the Common Man/Woman/Child,” Keelan summarily pardons us from the proviso for special qualificationsbefore risking a Close Encounter of the Operatic Kind, counseling:
“No one needs to understand Italian or ‘know about opera’ to relate immediately and instinctively to the emotional states of the characters and the horrifying situations they are in,” explains Keelan. “Who has not experienced desperation in love, particularly when a loved one is in pain? Who does not know the struggle between the higher and lower self? Who has not been helpless, overwhelmed in adversity, and tried to pretend they have it all handled? ... Opera is about us, ... Puccini knew it, and his music is hair-raising, scandalous, ravishing, heart-achingly tender, as the moment requires.”
On the technical side, he shares, “For Tosca to be performed, a soprano, tenor and baritone of great vocal power and dramatic surety are required.” But find them he did, throughout the Connecticut River Valley, from Vermont to Northampton.
Jenna Rae, a co-founder of PanOpera, will be making her soprano debut as Tosca and tenor Alan Schneider will perform the role of Mario Cavaradossi, the lover of Tosca.
Baritone Stan Norsworthy will perform the role of Baron Scarpia, the Roman chief of police who plots to possess Tosca and execute Cavaradossi.
Dr. Luci Fortunato, an Italian history scholar with a personal interest in things Puccini, who has been giving a series of “Tosca” prep talks at Chester, Vt.’s local Misty Valley Books bookshop; shares: “A lot of the personal items I see Puccini potentially as having brought to ‘Tosca’ that wouldn’t be evident if you hadn’t lived in the city (Puccini’s home city of Lucca) are the bells, the drums, the tambouri. There are traditions in Lucca, such as the annual festive Saint’s days, that he would have heard and been involved in ... The city as a whole has adopted his identity. In the center of the square is a statue in bronze of Puccini which is very unusual; he’s sitting in a chair smoking a cigarette — unlike most statues, which are much more formal and posed. Many of the surrounding establishments are named after his various operas, such as ‘The Turandot.’ The passion for his music genuine — right to the soul. They’ve instituted a series of Puccini concerts two or three days a week a church called San Giovanni. You hear his music everywhere in Lucca.”
It is a testament to the power of Puccini’s art that this elegant, yet surprisingly modest, soul would be able, toward the end of his life, to sit in his easy chair on virtually any given evening by the crackling voice of his wireless receiver and to tune in, emanating from the great capitols of Europe, the strains of one or another of his death-filled yet deathless operas, resonating back to him through the airwaves.
Now, he is ours to hear, firsthand.
Be sure to bring smelling salts ...
For Brattleboro tickets: General admission pick your own price $10 to $40, Premium Seating (three to four rows in center front section) $75, purchase online at BrattleboroTix.com or call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523.
For Northampton tickets: General admission $20 all seats, purchase online at academyofmusictheatre.tix.com or call Academy of Music at 413-584-9032, ext 105.
For additional information, visit www.bmcvt.org or call the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.