Bilingual Puccini

The Skylight finds an innovative way to stage Puccini’s “Tosca.”

So here’s the thing about opera. It’s some of the most beautiful vocal music ever written, a perfect synthesis of word and melody. But most of it is written in a language other than English. To feel its full impact, most of us (those who aren’t penta-lingual) must compromise. Either we contend with supertitles, forcing us to constantly glance up or down at English translations that scroll across a screen (usually forcing a visit to the chiropractor in the following week). Or we trust the original libretto to a translator, who does his or her best to squeeze the ideas and poetry of the original into the words and syntax of our native tongue.

For its production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, the Skylight Music Theater has come up with an ingenious way to split the difference. Since it’s inception, the Skylight has been dedicated to presenting operas in English, whether they were written in that language or not. But Music Director Viswa Subaramann and Stage

Director Jill Anna Ponasik understood that it was very hard to separate Puccini’s melodic lines—at least his most famous–from his native Italian language (as is the case with many works in Italian). So while much of the dialogue in the Skylight’s inventive new production is in English, the most soaring, memorable arias are sung in Italian. And instead of a generic LED sign that might just as well be advertising Supper Club dinner specials, the meaning of the lyrics is artfully, poetically projected somewhere on the stage.

Cassandra Black. Photo by Mark Frohna.
Cassandra Black.
Photo by Mark Frohna.

So when Tosca sings her beautiful Act II lament, “Vissa d’arte,” we hear the original Italian, but the central ideas of her words float into the scene in English: “Art…Love.” It’s a smart and elegant way to honor both the form and meaning of the music. And it allows us to focus primarily on the stunning performance of Cassandra Black, who digs deep into the soul of the moment, and renders Puccini’s aching lines with clarity and emotional resonance.

Playing her lover, Cavaradossi, Chaz’men Williams-Ali shines as well, delivering rich and insightful readings of some of Puccini’s best music. Ponasik’s staging of “E lucevan le stelle” gives Williams-Ali a gorgeous setting for the evening’s show-stopper, and his performance lives up to the mise en scene. David Kravitz gives the requisite keen, evil edge to Scarpia, the police chief bent on power and control. And a strong collection of singers fill out the minor roles, and deliver an appropriately high-voltage climax to Act One.

The challenge for a “Skylight” Tosca is rendering “grand” opera on a chamber opera scale. And Subaramann and Ponasik achieve this with imaginative smarts. The singers’ voices are perfectly scaled to the intimate Cabot Theatre. And Subaramann’s orchestra—playing better than ever—is always in balance with the voices. Ponasik uses the relatively small Cabot stage inventively—particularly in the way she and lighting designer Jason Fassl dramatically “expand” the space of the stage with evocative shadows and silhouettes. It’s a beautiful production of one of the centerpieces of the repertory. Don’t miss it.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.