There’s a pivotal moment in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca where lead soprano Michelle Johnson must find the balance between getting lost and staying safe on stage.
“It’s going to be extremely, extremely powerful,” Johnson said. “And realistic. You lose yourself in fear and pent-up anger. Scarpia’s cat-and-mouse game is so long… the tension is so high.”
(The following contains mild spoilers for the 123-year-old opera. Those looking to be surprised by Madison Opera’s performances this weekend at Overture Hall should skip a bit.)
At the end of Act II, Tosca, a Roman diva, finds herself with few good options. Her lover, an artist named Cavaradossi, is captured by the villainous baritone Scarpia.
In exchange for his beloved’s freedom, Scarpia asks for a night of passion with Tosca. One translation of part of his aria is: “To me violent conquest/ Has more pleasure than soft surrender.”
“He likes the taste of forced love. He enjoys causing pain,” said Craig Irwin, who sings Scarpia in Madison. “He enjoys it … he likes to take it easy as he sits there drinking some brandy watching (his enemies) get tortured.
“He’s a bad guy and he’s so much fun to play.”
Tosca’s fate seems sealed when she grabs a knife from the dinner table and points it at her captor. “It’s Tosca’s kiss!” she cries in Italian. Scarpia doesn’t get a third act.
“The music that Puccini wrote there is strong and difficult,” Irwin said. “If you lose control, you start making bad choices. It’s like if a boxer starts throwing wild punches, he’ll get hit in the face way more than he intended and be done for.
“You should always be in control while letting yourself be out of control.”
Tenor Limmy Pulliam, playing Cavaradossi in this production, also finds power in control. Some of the tenor arias in this work are quite well known. “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars shone”) was recorded by Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo.
“I’ll do certain things vocally that a lot of people who sing the reprise that I sing can’t do,” Pulliam said. “The reaction is usually the same with conductors. “Oh, will you sing it so softly? I want it to be heard in the house.
“And I’m like, ‘It will be heard. Do not worry. Even the quietest sounds, when sung correctly, with proper technique and proper support, can be heard just as much as the loudest sounds in the back of the house.
Pulliam and Irwin will enter Tosca’s world of political upheaval in 1800s Rome for the first time, while Johnson has played the title role several times, including last season. After Tosca’s three times, she’s still making discoveries.
“I feel like she’s never been settled as a character,” Johnson said. “Puccini’s music feels like a living, breathing thing. I’m always researching.”
“Tosca” is highly dramatic – some would say melodramatic – with the murder in the middle and the central triangle of a diva, an artist and a corrupt police chief.
Still, “there’s a lot of humanity to it and layers,” Johnson said. “It’s written in the libretto. It is written in the music, even in the silence. The orchestration is magnificent.”
Tosca, like Carmen and the various Figaros, is a perennial favorite with opera companies, and Madison is no exception. This weekend will mark Madison Opera House’s sixth production, directed by Francis Raballe and conducted by Maestro John DeMaine.
“We’re still kind of coming out of that era of COVID,” Pulliam said. “And to get the audience back, I think it’s necessary to make productions that will attract them. It doesn’t matter how many times you watch ‘Tosca’ or ‘La Boheme’… the music will always bring people back. The opportunity to hear voices of this caliber is quite rare.
“This time Madison Opera got it right,” he added. “I think audiences will get a very special treat from this production.”
Lindsey Christians is the food editor and arts writer for the Cap Times. She holds an MA in Theater Studies from UW-Madison and is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.
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