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By the time it hit the stage, I could have been expected to know every measure and movement of State Ferry’s “Tosca,” but still there were surprises. For one thing, the little bit of extra revenue plugged into production values had paid off in spades. The costumes were glorious. Gabriella made her first entrance in a flowing sun-yellow dress with white piping, a high fan collar and a veritable dandelion field of gold embroidered fleurs-de-lis, then followed in Act Two with an elegant gown of emerald satin. As for Baron Scarpia, Joe jockeyed his ferocious and fateful two acts in a blood-red quilted waistcoat over black silk pants and a black shirt with traces of silver along the ruffles. In this, he was more sinister than ever.
As for the sets, our visiting professor had gone crazy with the trompe l’oeil, concocting a first-act church of Sant’Andrea della Valle whose gothic archways appeared to ascend some three times the actual height of the stage. The final-act cityscape behind the Castel Sant’Angelo could have been lifted from a Roman postcard – only this was a postcard you could walk straight into (or, if you chose, leap off of). This super-real vision was aided by the barely discernible onset of morning, brought to birth by the loving fingers of our lighting guy, Marcus. The final signature was the looming presence of a winged angel, a monstrously proportioned statue keeping an eye on the proceedings from stage right.
As for the singers, there were no real revelations – only an added level of intensity. Joe’s major battle was against a couple of small phlegm attacks; he is still a bit young to be singing such a heavy role, and tends to depend too much on his throat to deliver that asphalt Scarpian growl. (Still, considering the Baron’s basic personality, a little bit of phlegm is not entirely out of character.)
Rodrigo was in as fine a voice as ever, and sufficiently inspired by his third-act surroundings to deliver a rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” for the ages. It didn’t hurt, either, that he delivered much of it from a sitting position. In the scene, Cavaradossi is writing a farewell letter to Tosca, fearing that he may not see her before his execution; the posture served to calm Rodrigo’s adrenaline tempo rushes, and, further, to hide from view the tapping of his renegade feet. This left nothing for the audience but his leonine voice and Puccini’s gorgeous, ingenious aria, the clarinet whispering the gently arching theme in Cavaradossi’s ear as he fills the spaces between with pictures from his meetings with Tosca (“And the stars would be shining, and the earth smelling sweet, the garden gate would creak, and a footstep skim the sand”), then adopts the theme for his own as his memories build to the unscalable mountain of his loss (“...e muoio disperato, e non ho amato mai tanto la vita!” “...and I die in despair, and I have never loved life so much!”), at three and a half minutes a shockingly brief, wrenchingly passionate summation of a life loved, an end regretted. (I go on about this, I know, but “E lucevan” used to be my favorite.)
And then there was Gabriella. The size of her singing was no surprise to me – I knew long before she did that she could contain this immense role, this grand lady – but what did surprise me was the lengths to which she could drop the size down. These were delicate, softly intoned moments at places where I had never heard them before, sudden pianos and pianissimos you could balance on a fingertip, quietly unfolding Tosca’s psyche like the white leather petals of a magnolia blossom, releasing the gorgeous tropical perfume inside.
Tosca had always been a huge persona, but mostly a public one, starting from the outside and growing toward the audience. Here, in the hands of Gabriella’s soul-exposing quietnesses (fashioned, I am sure, by Maestro’s instinctual understanding of his teacher’s work), the character grew from the inside in, a woman of glass, and by the time she arrived at the Job-like cries of “Vissi d’arte” (“I gave my life to art, I gave my life to love... why, my Lord, why do you repay me like this?”), she had set up each of us to have our little opera-loving hearts torn to pieces the size of quarter notes. (Of course, given my family history, I made an especially easy mark.)
I spent the weekend in Tosca’s arms, following the State Ferry troupe as they accomplished a yeoman’s triptych of performances – Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. (Thankfully, the remaining weekends would be Thursday-Saturday-Sunday, allowing at least a modicum of recovery time.) Maestro then gave them Monday and Tuesday off, instructing them to talk and sing as little as possible.
This was a tough assignment for Gabriella, whose verbal motor these days was idling as high as ever, and who was almost as fond of talking as she was of singing. She broke both rules when she appeared in the window of my front door early Tuesday morning, waking me from a half-slumber with “Se il mio nome,” Count Almaviva’s first-act serenade from “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.” I answered the door in bathrobe, bare feet and Beethoven hair, squinting at the eastern light jabbing across the porch, and gave my greeting in my best morning baritone (imagine if James Earl Jones and Samuel Ramey had a child). “Buongiorno, Gabriella. Come stai?”
“Bene, Guglielmo. Molto bene!” She burst into a Mardis Gras grin, let out a very un-Tosca-like squeal and jumped into my arms. The force of her greeting almost knocked me to the floor; I had to dance backwards and brace my feet like an offensive lineman to withstand the blow. A handful of folded-up newspapers fell to the floor between us. She jumped to the ground and gathered them like fallen infants, handing them up for my perusal.
“Read them, Billy. Read! It’s glorious! It’s incredible!”
I sat back on my bed and tried to focus my still-sleepy pupils, but wasn’t able to get very far into each article before Gabriella forced the next one into my hands. The chain of conglomerated half-leads was, however, beginning to form a pattern.
Bainbridge Island’s modest State Ferry Opera Company is modest no more...
It used to be the only professional-level opera to be found hereabouts was in Seattle, but a new contender...
...has reached new levels of artistry with a visually stunning...
...accompanied by expansive trompe l’oeil sets, immacculate work from a reduced orchestra, and a brand of beautifully crafted, nuanced singing that you will not always find in the larger houses.”
At this last, Gabriella took my hand and wordlessly, excitedly moved my index finger toward a highlighted paragraph twenty lines down. I read it aloud.
“The real find, however, is soprano Gabriella Compton, who paints the oft-oversung title role with a thousand gradations of color and tone, lending the grand diva of Rome a barely hidden vulnerability and giving new power to her famed aria, ‘Vissi d’arte.’ What a talent like this is doing in a tiny island opera house is a puzzlement, but I for one was delighted to have found her there.”
“Jesus, Gabi! Not only is this incredible, it’s... it’s actually intelligent! Who the hell wrote this?” I searched for the byline, but Gabi already had the answer locked and loaded.
“Elmann Washington, kinda tall, barrel-chested guy. Thirtyish alternative type. Goatee, coupla blond streaks in his hair, silver stud earring, wore a kind of South American gaucho jacket with black jeans and a mother-of-pearl bolo tie...”
Her description was interrupted by my laughter.
“What?” she said, sheepishly.
“Yes,” I said. “This from the girl who claims she never pays attention to the critics.”
Gabriella returned the traditional sideways squint. “The girl who said that is long gone, mi amico. I aimed every note right at the son-of-a-bitch. Fifth row, on the aisle, audience right. And... he’s from the Weekly.”
“The Seattle Weekly?” I flipped quickly to the cover. “Egad, girlfriend, you is da shit!”
Before I could grab her for a congratulatory kiss, a surge of adrenaline energy launched Gabriella to her feet and sent her into a round of frenetic, improvised tapdancing across my hardwood floor. She waved her arms back and forth like someone trying to keep warm on a cold day, and when she turned around her eyes were wide cartoon circles, her lips pressed together as if she were about to explode. She did.
“That’s not it. Billy! I mean – there’s more!” Her voice climbed higher and higher, threatening birdsong. “The best thing, the best thing... Ohmigod, I can’t believe it, Billy! You just can’t… I mean, you won’t believe it! It’s... Billy, it’s just incredible. It’s... aaugh!”
I stood up and took her by the shoulders, tossing out mock baritone anger.
“Tell me, Tosca! Confess! Where has your boyfriend hidden that scoundrel Angelotti?”
Gabriella leveled her walnut eyes at me and answered in a breathless, serious whisper. “Licia Albanese is coming to the show next Saturday, and... and, if she likes me, she’s going to put me in her showcase this autumn... in New York!”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “Gabi! That’s marvelous! How did it happen?”
“Well, it’s like I told you, Maestro and Licia are friends from way back, and when he found out Licia was doing a master class for the Seattle Opera next week, he invited her to come see ‘Tosca.’ She’s always liked my bel canto approach; she said that Maestro’s touch was on my voice. She said, ‘You sing just the way that I used to sing. Nobody sings like this anymore.’ Can you imagine? In any case, when Maestro told Licia how much my voice has grown in the last few years, she said she would consider me for the showcase! What are you doing right now, Billy?”
“Oh, uh, well nothing. I’m in my bathrobe – what would I be doing?”
“Well, get dressed, pardner, and let’s drive up to the Bloedel Reserve. I want to be somewhere beautiful today. I’m certainly much too wired to hang around here. And maybe when we get there, since I’m not supposed to sing today, you can yodel for me. Because you know,” she gripped the lapels of my bathrobe with Sicilian conviction, “I’m Tosca now. I’ve earned it.”
“Yes, ma’am. But first get the hell out of here so I can get dressed.”
“Ten minutes,” she commanded with index finger pointed at me as she backed out of the doorway, leaving a trail of footsteps on the dewy grass. “And then you’re gonna sing for me, baby. Capish?”
I rushed to the bathroom and warmed up the shower water, trying to figure out something my old baritone could wrap its feeble fingers around. I could not yodel for Gabriella, because after all, I had already yodeled for somebody else, so instead I tried to recall the Italian intro to “An Evening in Roma,” which seemed a nice match for Tosca’s geography. And Gabriella was right, of course. She had earned it.
Photo by MJV