How wonderful to hear my first, live Tosca in a country I have never visited, an equally unfamiliar hall, a well-known maestro with a first-rate orchestra and a stellar cast that seldom produced anything to quibble about. The only “old friend” was Giacomo Puccini whose diva-inspired libretto (the original stage play by Victorien Sardou featured the considerable talents of acting sensation, Sarah Berhnardt—a performance of which lit the fire for Puccini; after a wee bit of intrigue, brought to a conclusion by publisher Giulio Ricordi, favourite librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa were engaged) coupled with the composer’s imaginative sense of proportion and vocal declamation, yet again proved his complete mastery of taut, lean drama and music that continuously (through composed) ebbs and flows before occasionally dropping anchor to give his leads a chance to mesmerize audiences with their vocal prowess and dramatic smarts.
In this performance there was a near perfect storm of musical excellence and inventive stagecraft—especially remarkable given that the National Symphony Orchestra shared the stage with their vocal colleagues and a minimalist set which, nonetheless, had everyone imagining the famous portrait with blue eyes along with doors that opened, closed and locked with nary a hinge or keyhole in sight.
Observing director Lin Hwai-Min’s work immediately sent me back to the ‘80s when—as a conducting major at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University—I was the conductor of La Bohème. Our director was Leonard Treach who brought the four-act wonder to life for the 50th staging. While teaching me more about nuance, subtlety and especially gesture (particularly the hands—a trait I have frequently marvelled at in Franco Zeffirelli’s opera films/stagings: cross-references below), the veteran director was quite open and happy to adopt some of my musical suggestions. I so wish that many more opera productions have this sort of cooperative artistic leadership as their standard rather than the exception. And so Tosca’s Act II long, slinky wrap became much more than costuming; Scarpia’s hands had as much to say about unbridled lust and dashed hopes as his vocal lines; Mario Cavaradossi’s entire body deftly foreshadowed his death in a manner that left no doubt of his fate. The only slight cautions came when the dashing painter asked the Sacristan (Fang-Hao Chao, a master of servitude and opportunity, God willing) for a palette while holding one, and the firing squad sporting pistols rather than rifles.
Conductor Shao-Chia Lü—obviously much beloved given the rapture demonstrated by the near-capacity crowd and rapt attention to his gestures by his talented charges—kept the music flowing and ensemble astonishingly tight, given that being behind rather than in front of the singers (which is why God invented the orchestra pit)—their only direct contact coming from stage-facing, discreetly placed video monitors. [The other screened part of the production being the dual surtitle projections where the English version could have used one more trip to the editor: “sit my me”; “false hood”: “quite Rome”—should be “quit”.]
As the loyal-to-the-death painter/republican, Cavaradossi, Ho-Yoon Chung, literally soared to the rafters at will or blended effortlessly with his colleagues. His approach to the most dramatic aria of the lot, E lucevan le stele, was a marvel of passion, resignation and clarity that went to the next level of quality by employing moments of understatement where so many others never relinquish their power. The introduction by the principal clarinet was some of the finest playing I have heard in many, many years.
None better than Lucio Gallo to play the role of ruthless conniver, Scarpia. The Italian baritone brought a dark and smouldering interpretation to the part that, sadly, fits far too readily into the theme of bullies and despots demanding to get their way—at any cost—still running rampant throughout the world today.
In the title role, Hanying Tso-Petanaj readily continued Bernhardt’s tradition of making this part her own—both musically and dramatically. Little wonder her character is the only principal female in the cast. Any others must, necessarily, pale in comparison. Vissi d’arte was unforgettable. Here’s to a long career ahead.
Taiwan is most certainly blessed to have such talented artists on stage and behind the scenes, an artistic trust that molds all of the parts into an exemplary whole and a venue that readily lets one and all hear, see and savour our most universal art. JWR