Madison Opera prepares for a vengeful, dramatic ‘Tosca’ | Entertainment


There’s a pivotal moment in Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” where principal soprano Michelle Johnson has to find the balance between losing herself and staying safe onstage.  

“It is going to be extremely, extremely powerful,” Johnson said. “And realistic. You lose yourself in the fear and the pent-up anger. Scarpia’s cat and mouse game is so long … the tension is so thick.”

(Below are mild spoilers for a 123-year-old opera. Those who want to be surprised at Madison Opera’s performances this weekend in Overture Hall should skip a bit.)

At the end of Act II, Tosca, a Roman diva, finds herself with few good options. Her lover, a painter named Cavaradossi, has been taken captive by the villainous baritone, Scarpia.

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Michelle Johnson, shown in rehearsal at the Madison Opera Center, plays the title character in “Tosca” with Madison Opera. 

In exchange for her lover’s freedom, Scarpia wants a night of passion with Tosca. One translation a section of his aria is, “For myself the violent conquest/ has stronger relish than the soft surrender.”

“He likes the taste of forced love. He enjoys causing pain,” said Craig Irvin, who sings Scarpia in Madison. “He revels in it … he enjoys calming sitting there, as he drinks some brandy, watching (his enemies) get tortured.

“He is a bad guy, and that is so much fun to play.”

Tosca’s fate seems sealed when she grabs a knife from the dinner table and turns it on her captor. “This is Tosca’s kiss!” she cries in Italian. Scarpia doesn’t get a third act.

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John DeMain conducts a rehearsal of “Tosca” at the Madison Opera Center. 

“The music Puccini writes there is powerful and difficult,” Irvin said. “If you lose control, then you start to make bad choices. It’s like if a boxer starts throwing wild punches, he’s going to take a lot more punches to the face than he intended, and he’ll be done.

“You always have to be in control, while letting yourself be out of control.”

Tenor Limmie Pulliam, playing Cavaradossi in this production, also finds power in control. Some of the tenor arias in this piece are fairly well known. “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were shining”) has been recorded by Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo.

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Limmie Pulliam, playing Cavaradossi, and Craig Irvin, playing Scarpia, rehearse a scene of the upcoming production of “Tosca” at the Madison Opera Center. 

“I’ll do certain things vocally that a lot of people who sing the rep I sing can’t do,” Pulliam said. “The reaction is usually the same with conductors. ‘Oh, are you going to sing it that softly? I want it to be audible in the house.’

“And I’m like, ‘It’ll be audible. Don’t worry.’ Even the softest of sounds when sung correctly, with proper technique and proper support, are just as audible as the loudest sounds in the back of the house.”

Pulliam and Irvin will step into “Tosca’s” world of political upheaval in 1800 Rome for the first time, while Johnson has played the title role several times, including last season. After three takes on Tosca, she’s still making discoveries.

“I find her to never be settled, as a character,” Johnson said. “Puccini’s music, it feels like a living, breathing thing. I’m always exploring.”

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Sheet music for “Tosca” sits upon a music stand during a rehearsal.

“Tosca” is highly dramatic — some would say melodramatic — with the murder in the middle and that central triangle of diva, painter and corrupt police chief.

Yet “there’s a lot of humanity in it, and layers,” Johnson said. “It’s written in the libretto. It’s written in the music, even in the silences. The orchestration is magnificent.”

“Tosca,” like “Carmen” and the various “Figaros,” is a perennial favorite for opera companies, and Madison is no exception. This weekend will mark Madison Opera’s sixth production, directed by Frances Rabalais and conducted by maestro John DeMain.

“We’re still kind of coming out of that COVID era,” Pulliam said. “And to get audiences back, I think it’s necessary to do productions that are going to attract them out. It doesn’t matter how many times you see ‘Tosca’ or ‘La Boheme’ … the music is always going to draw people back. The opportunity to hear a cast of this caliber is fairly rare.

“Madison Opera got it right this time,” he added. “I think the audience will be in for a very special treat with this production.”

Lindsay Christians is the food editor and arts writer for the Cap Times. She has a master’s degree in theatre research from UW-Madison and is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. 

To support Lindsay’s journalism, click here to become a Cap Times member. To respond to this story, click here to submit a letter to the editor. 

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