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Chaz'men Williams-Ali and Cassandra Black star in Skylight's "Tosca." (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Skylight's "Tosca" provides a brilliant evening of operatic storytelling

A poor painter in love with a beautiful and tempestuous woman. An evil cop and his equally evil henchmen. Jealousy. Betrayal. Invading armies. Escaped prisoners. Death and destruction. Heart pounding music.

If it sounds like the latest and hottest movie or video game or perhaps an afternoon soap opera, prepare to be surprised.

It's "Tosca," the famed Puccini opera that opened the 2015-16 season for Skylight Music Theatre Friday night.

And please, don't let the word "opera" scare you off.

This production, stage directed by Jill Anna Ponasik and with artistic director Viswa Subbaraman at the musical helm, is the kind of people's theater that Skylight is becoming known for. If there is anything that can be said of Subbaraman and Ponasik, it is that this production is very reachable by an audience.

"Tosca" is the story of Mario Cavaradossi, a painter working in a chapel; Floria Tosca, an opera diva and the woman he loves; and Baron Scarpia, the evil chief of police. Napoleon Bonaparte also makes an off-stage appearance, leading his troops in the destruction of Rome.

Cavaradossi is working on a painting of a beautiful woman, and when Tosca visits, she becomes jealous of the work. He assures her of his fidelity to her. While working, he has helped a refugee from Scarpia to escape.

Scarpia, who has several hidden agendas, accuses Cavaradossi of helping the escapee and eventually arrests him. Tosca pleads for him, and Scarpia offers to let him be freed if she will just give herself to him. She agrees, but when he moves to put his arms around her, she stabs him to death.

Channeling her inner Lady Macbeth, she tries to scrub the blood from her hands. She believes Scarpia has ordered his soldiers to use blanks in the execution of Cavaradossi and prepares him to fake his death so that they may leave and live happily ever after.

However, even in death, Scarpia has proven his betrayal, and Cavaradossi is actually killed by a volley of gunfire. In anguish, Tosca throws herself off the balcony, falling to her death.

The end of the story, and the beginning of warm and enthusiastic applause.

Cassandra Aaron Black sings the role of Tosca with a stunning voice and a depth of portrayal that is powerful. In the first act, she is the coquette, the ultimate diva, a dedicated flirt whose pangs of jealousy fill the Cabot Theatre with just the right touch of flutter in her voice.

In the second act, she turns into a courageous and determined women who finds strengths we never saw, strengths that may even be a surprise to her. The depth of Black's soprano in the second act matched the transition beautifully.

Under the imaginative and detailed direction of Ponasik, Black delivered a fully formed and yet nuanced character, avoiding the single dimension that sometimes creeps into Tosca.

Chaz'men Williams-Ali is the tenor who sang Cavaradossi. He is an impressive figure, stout with the kind of chest that reminds you of Pavarotti. His tone is full of expression and rapture. One of the great arias in all of opera is "Recondita armonia," in which he compares the blue-eyed beauty of his painting with the dark haired ravishing diva he loves so deeply. Williams-Ali wrung every single note and emotion out of the aria, and when he and Black sang together, it was a magical evening.

David Kravitz played the sleazy Scarpia with just the kind of overwhelming sneakiness Puccini wanted out of his evil foil. Kravitz has an exceedingly expressive baritone that capture each and every treachery Scarpia pulled off.

The 20-musician orchestra was the largest at Skylight in 15 years, and the sound was absolutely magnificent. It is the music of Puccini that is the overwhelming part of this opera, and under Subbaraman's baton, this orchestra was up to the challenge. They provided a magnificent carriage upon which the singers could ride.

This production was noteworthy both for the set designed by Lisa Schlenker, the costumes created by Kristy Leigh Hall and the lighting, designed by Jason Fassl. Schnelker created a stark set that featured large painted panels in back. Hall's designs were stark for the ensemble while colorful and evocative for the three leads.

Fassl continues to amaze with his lighting sense. It was with the lights that we moved from one scene to another, and he created lighting that projected large shadows of all of the actors on stage on large panels. It had the effect of enhancing what we saw on stage. His lighting of the interrogation of Cavaradossi, which was conducted in silhouette, out of sight behind those panels, was one of the major achievements of the evening.

Ponasik and Subbaraman decided to sing much of this opera in English, with the Italian reserved for several of the best known arias.

I have said in the past, and continue to say, that translating an opera as beautiful as this one into English isn't something anyone needs to do. The English sounds odd and doesn't have the melodic wings that this music has in Italian.

I don't think a Milwaukee audience demands some English translation, and this opera is a perfect example. The story would be abundantly clear in Italian, and the music would be even more powerful and enjoyable if they stuck to the way Puccini wrote it.

"Tosca" runs through Oct. 11 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.


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