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February 16, 2009

Promising soprano lifts Virginia Opera's 'Tosca'

Virginia Opera ToscaYou just never know where or when you're going to have an ear-opening experience. I got a welcome jolt Friday night the moment Mary Elizabeth Williams strode onstage in the Virginia Opera production of Puccini's Tosca at George Mason University's Center for the Arts.

There was something in the vibrancy and warmth of the sound, something in the vitality of the phrasing, that immediately hit home. The company is hailing Williams as "a major discovery," and you won't get an argument from me. Sure, one performance is not enough to build an air-tight case for any singer's worth or potential, but I'd be surprised if we don't start hearing more about this unusually promising soprano.

Tosca is no easy role, not with the weight of historic, idolized interpreters breathing down any would-be diva's neck. With few exceptions, Williams seemed already at home -- vocally, physically, temperamentally -- in the assignment. When she reached Vissi d'arte, the moment every Tosca and every audience is waiting anxiously for, she got to the heart of the aria in remarkably vivid style. She even had a very individualistic interpretive touch in store, greatly prolonging a silence between the last two phrases, to electric effect.

The singer's middle and low registers emerged with particular lushness and power on Friday; the timbre sometimes reminded me of a young Leontyne Price. Some high notes turned brittle or lost their center, but there still was a lot of finely formed tone at the upper end, enough to suggest that Williams will continue to develop richly.

She was not surrounded by the healthiest of colleagues. The tenor, Michael Hayes, got through Cavardossi's first aria in reasonably solid, if blustery, form, then quickly deteriorated in the love duet. Pleading a cold, he mimed Act 2 and 3, while Kevin Perry (who had started in Act 1 as Spoletta) gamely sang the role from the orchestra pit. Meanwhile, the baritone, Stephen Kechulius, sounded as if he were going to bow out any moment, too. The initial force and flair of his singing gave way to a much more uneven sound, often scratchy and weak. His portrayal of the loathsome Scarpia had a good old-fashioned flourish, however, and that saw him through.

Virginia Opera ToscaJason Budd hammed things up mightily as the Sacristan and sang with a lot of color. The rest of the cast did more or less proficient work, as did the orchestra and chorus. Company artistic director Peter Mark conducted the score with considerable sensitivity, allowing the most tender passages plenty of room to breathe. Director Marc Astafan kept the action flowing smoothly, for the most part, within a nicely traditional setting.

In the end, the night belonged to Mary Elizabeth Williams. Despite leaping off a parapet to her doom as Tosca in the last minutes of the opera, this soprano seems much more likely to heading in an upward direction.

Incidentally, the trek to George Mason University from Baltimore is not fun (I've approached from both sides of the Beltway now, and still, somehow, it's the endless ride from whatever exit to Fairfax that I recall). But I've seen/heard Virginia Opera do some very respectable work over the past several years, and, especially with Baltimore Opera out of commission, it offers an alternative for those in our area needing more frequent operatic fixes. The final production this season is The Barber of Seville, presented April 3 and 5 at GMU. Next season: La Boheme, Daughter of the Regiment, Don Giovanni, Porgy and Bess.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF VIRGINIA OPERA (Anne M. Peterson, photographer)   

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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