Opera veterans try new roles in Puccini's 'Tosca'

OPERA COMPANY OF Middlebury veterans Suzanne Kantorski (as Floria Tosca) and James Flora (as Mario Cavaradossi) sing the final aria of Puccini’s Tosca at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury Monday night. OCM will stage three performances with a full orchestra at Town Hall Theater, then take the production on tour with piano and string quartet to Stowe, Woodstock and Cambridge, N.Y. Photo by Max Kraus

SUZANNE KANTORSKI, WHO plays the title role in Opera Company of Middlebury’s new production of Tosca, sings the second aria of Act One, “Do you not long for our little house,” at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury on Monday night. Kantorski, who has appeared in more OCM productions than any other singer over the last 16 years, is playing this role for the first time. Photo by Max Kraus

RUBIN CASAS' VOICE blends with the chorus during the dramatic Te Deum at the end of Act One. Photo by Max Kraus

RUBIN CASAS PLAYS villain Baron Scarpia. Photo by Max Kraus

MIDDLEBURY — Late in the game I got tapped to write a preview of Opera Company of Middlebury’s new production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which plays at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater this week. As a substitute critic who knows something about theater but really doesn’t know all that much about opera, I decided instead to write about what it means to “dare.”

That word came up on Monday night when “Tosca” director Douglas Anderson was weighing the pros and cons of tweaking his production a little bit.

In the performing arts such tweaks often unleash unexpected brilliance and magic. But they can also spark vehement disapproval from purists.

“How dare you?!” these purists ask, on behalf of centuries-old rules and traditions.

But when I look back over the 120 years of Tosca’s history, then try to imagine the next 120 years, I find myself asking, How can you not?

What are we asking of our artists if we don’t ask them to dare?

I can’t tell you if OCM’s “Tosca” has succeeded or failed. I can’t explain how this production compares to others.

But I can tell you about the daring:

How in an opera that is essentially a story about an attempted rape, the star, Suzanne Kantorski, uses a moment in her performance to reference current events in the opera world, and how she suspects this will be met with disapproval by opera purists. She dares because, as she says, “if art doesn’t provoke, move or shake, then what’s the point?”

How Rubin Casas worried that his role, the villain Scarpia, might be outside of his vocal wheelhouse, how he was tempted on more than one occasion to call Anderson and tell him it wasn’t going to work out, but how Casas stayed with it and stayed with it, overcoming obstacles with the help of his voice teacher, and how he now is thrilled with how it has turned out.

How James Flora has undertaken the challenge of hitting a particular note in his aria from a physical posture that presents great challenges for singers — because it’s what the moment asks of him as an actor and because he wants more than anything to move audiences.

And how all three of these amazing singers are playing their respective roles for the first time.

I can tell, too, about standing in the wings while they and their talented cast mates perform onstage, how their voices seem to create a material field of their own, which distills and clarifies and sometimes even defies the chaos that passes through it.

And yet, no matter how beautifully they’ve performed, these singers exit stage left as their own worst critics. Even as the stage crew are getting over their goose bumps, these artists are already thinking of ways to make it better the next time out.

This is what makes opera — and all the other performing arts, for that matter — sacred. The daring. Not some score or text. Not some set of traditions, no matter how long-held.

And it is because Anderson and the Opera Company of Middlebury continue to dare, year after year, that they are thriving.

“How dare you?” is the wrong question.

Any art that must depend for its survival — financial, cultural or otherwise — on the petty tyrannies of “How dare you?” is rapidly hurtling toward irrelevance.

Instead, we should be asking, “How can we help you dare?”

The Opera Company of Middlebury presents Puccini’s “Tosca” — with a full orchestra, sung in Italian with English supertitles — at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury on Oct. 9, 11 and 13.

Thanks in part to the National Endowment for the Arts, OCM is also taking “Tosca” on tour.

Accompanied by string quartet and piano, and featuring a chorus local to each respective town, the company will stage performances at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y., on Oct. 17; at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe on Oct. 19; and at the Town Hall in Woodstock on Oct. 20.

You should go.

Ticket information is available at townhalltheater.org.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

Editor’s note: Christopher Ross has a tiny non-singing role in this production.

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