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Puccini Festival
Torre del Lago
July 24 and July 30


First day back. But not even the brutal 5:30 a.m. wake-up and 42-mile interstate commute to work could extinguish the glow that lingered from the Tuscan hospitality and beauty and the magic we had experienced at Torre del lago. I think of the tenore who brought us there, who has gifted us with opera, with cherished friendships, with the serene beauty of a country that now feels like a second home, with the challenge of a new language to master, with momentary respite from a chaotic world, with the refuge of music so beautiful it can make us cry. A small, internal mental video is set on continuous replay. There is an urgency to find the words to keep and to share what this newest experience has meant

In Viareggio, before the first performance, we had read that Tosca was sold out. The local paper noted that the 50th Puccini Festival had broken sales records. Bocelli, of course, was a prime driving force. Standing in the line to enter the theater the night of the prima, I heard the signora beside me transmitting a lively color commentary in Italian on her telefonino, noting that the crowd certainly was there for Bocelli. Indeed, the atmosphere was electric—the lively multinational chatter, paparazzi snapping pictures of VIPs in the front row, dusk descending on the outdoor setting enchanted further by the thought that Puccini himself had witnessed many such twilight transformations here. Once seated, I saw, two rows down from us, the distinctive shaved head of the famous and beloved soccer referee Pier Luigi Collina…Andrea draws fans from surprising corners!

Finally Steven Mercurio took the podium to the accompaniment of the footstomping delight of his own loyal fans. Throughout the evening, his little comic facial acrobatics would telegraph maestro messages to the young musicians in his charge. Clearly he had established an easy rapport with them. His dedicated energy never waned. What an ally Andrea has in him.

Shortly into Act I, Andrea opened a side gate and took the stage with confidence, Amos and Matteo, the little "altar boys," at ease by his side—surely a shared moment of pure pride for them, father to sons and back again. It was a delightful surprise to see them there. The boys—very natural—scampered down the altar steps to play with the artist’s brushes and paints. Cavaradossi, the cavalier, was tanned, trim, and impeccably dressed…complete with richly burnished high leather boots for manly striding about. And this he did quite satisfactorily. Andrea’s first aria "Recondita armonia" was strong and resonant - irresistible when he reached the full-voiced climax "Tosca, sei tu." We turned to beam at one another. He was on.

Andrea may think he is Manrico, but the tender-hearted artist-cavalier Cavaradossi, who holds in his hand the heart of a headstrong and passionate woman, who scorns pain in the name of a just cause, places his life on the line for friend and country, and resists with grace and bravado the most feared reprobate in all of Rome…this is a man Andrea has no trouble animating with his own spirit and soul.

Up to now, Tosca is the only opera recorded by Andrea and then performed live. So for the first time, we are hearing an opera live that we have already committed to memory. Every familiar nuance of the voice has been engraved in our minds and hearts, having played the CD over and over. How was it possible then to be unprepared for the fullness, intensity, command, and outright beauty of that first musical phrase "Son qui" sung in response to Tosca’s triple call of "Mario…" It simply snatched your breath away.

Puccini’s music for Tosca is flat-out glorious. The intensity of the emotion of that first act duet is exhausting. Barely six months after the Bologna Werther, where he occasionally seemed hesitant about where his hands and body should be in the love scenes, here is an Andrea who has mastered the moves, the natural responses, and intimate tender gestures of a devoted lover. His Tosca, Francesca Patané is a fiery redhead - slim, proud, elegant, and defiantly strong. With Andrea she was totally at ease, bestowing and sharing the intimate gestures of lovers. One playful exchange came at the familiar moment in the first act duet when Tosca states emphatically that the offensive blue eyes of her rival portrayed in the face of the Maddalena simply have to go—"ma falle gli occhi neri" - and she takes Andrea’s head in her hands and firmly turns him toward the incriminating painting to underscore the seriousness of her "request"!

The second act is physically challenging for all the principals. Andrea rose to the occasion as he portrayed dignified defiance in the face of the menacing questioning of Scarpia and struggled convincingly in the arms of his guards as he was dragged away to torture. We are so invested in the man that Andrea has his work cut out for him to coax us to suspend our disbelief and to see and to feel anything with our minds and hearts except Andrea himself! But by the third act, I truly felt I was watching Mario Cavaradossi, a man bereft of everything…"svani per sempre il sogno mio d’amore." "E lucevan le stelle" for me was the most powerful performance I have ever seen from Andrea. As he let fall from his hand the note that was his final communication to his love and went down on one knee in a perfectly timed gesture of despair, your heart sank with him - locked in this moment of utter loss woven together by the achingly beautiful voice and impossibly long-held notes charged with intense emotion. It was stunning. The audience responded accordingly with wild enthusiasm. This triumph was closely followed by the heartmelting "O dolci mani." The particularly poignant interchange between the two in this duet reflects Mario’s profound and touching gratitude and deep sadness over the sacrifice his love has been forced to make for him. Francesca gently cradles the kneeling Andrea’s head in her hands, and Andrea’s hands, in turn, enfold hers almost reverently. The two were tenderness personified. But there was little time to linger on this tableau. When the inevitable time came for the execution, it was simply astonishing to me that in the final moment Andrea could drop to the (very hard) stage floor so convincingly, without the slightest temptation to yield to the natural instinct to cushion his fall with his hands. He dropped like a shot and was instantly "dead." It was startlingly real. This tenore is sure getting the hang of dying!

I must not leave out comments for the wonderful baritone. Scarpia was a joy to watch. Evil to the core (complete with Darth Vader-like cape!), yet subtle. He reached into the words of his arias and pulled out the nuanced meaning through gestures and vocal emphasis. Giorgio Surian, a resident of Venice, stayed at our hotel. I can assure you that he is an excellent actor, because the man is the polar opposite of the character he created for us—modest, gentle, an unassuming family man. He expressed gratitude for the enthusiasm of "a beautiful public" and in response to our generous praise for his performance stated softly that he had tried hard to think about this character and how to bring him to life. He was, he said quietly, very happy if he had succeeded in doing so for us.

We also had the opportunity to speak with Francesca Patané and were not surprised to learn that one of her previous key roles had been Salome. She really is a spitfire—a vivacious and strong personality, but also very warm, suppressing a hint of vulnerability just below the surface. Her voice reflected these same qualities. I was particularly impressed with her acting in the pivotal second act scene with Scarpia when she courageously defies this deadly man of power, physically standing her ground before his tall, looming frame, which seemed to overwhelm her slight figure. Several of the critics compared her with Callas. From my limited experience with Callas’s voice, I would add that Francesca’s seemed more warm and musical.

Mental images that linger: the dramatic climax of Act I with the incense, pomp, and pageantry of the religious procession; the joyful swirl of the exuberant altar boys running circles around the old sacristan to celebrate the battle victory; the excellent full-voiced chorus singing the booming "Te deum"; the convincing murder, and excellent "dying," of Scarpia; the somber slow-motion slaughter of the prisoners of war, with Andrea surveying the aftermath and instantly registering the full realization of his fate; the impressively realistic dome of St. Peter’s as the backdrop for the tragic finale (made even more dramatic by the very real lightning the night of the prima)….finally, seared into memory is the slow, sad, steady stride of Andrea climbing—unerringly straight—up the steeply canted stage to the sharp drop-off at the very top. There, alone and silhouetted, awaiting his fate, the symbolic statement of the image was undeniable: this is a man of courage.

Tosca,Torre del Lago, 30.7.2004, thanks to Jack
So, now we are home again. I gaze at the curtain-call picture Jack was lucky enough to capture - Andrea onstage for his final bow. He stands apart hearing, sensing, absorbing the enthusiastic accolades of the audience. The familiar mega-watt smile illuminates his face. No trace here of ego, of self-absorbed glory, of vain presumption. The face, the body seem to state simply, "I gave you all I had to give. Thank you for this moment to speak to your hearts with my voice."

We hear you Andrea. Beati noi!

Cami McNamee