Tosca production inspired by sights and sounds of Rome, Italy

Oct 19, 2012

Syracuse Opera opens its season Friday, October 19 with Puccini's passionate and politically charged Tosca.

WRVO arts reporter David Lowenstein sat down with musical director Douglas Kinney Frost at the Civic Center. Frost discussed how he gained a the deeper understanding of this great work.

Lowenstein: Can you just begin by giving us a brief plot summary of Tosca?

Frost: Sure. Actually, the plot is fairly simple. It's sort of a classic love triangle. There are a pair of lovers. One is a painter, and his name is Cavaradossi, and he is in love with Tosca who happens to be a famous opera singer in Rome. She is so alluring that she has captured the heart of the police chief in town named Scarpia, who is truly one of the great villains of opera, and he obsessed over her -- it's a very unhealthy relationship -- and does everything possible to break them up.

Lowenstein: Great. Now talk about the setting, the actual locations of the three acts.

Frost: I had the opportunity to be in Rome this year doing another piece, actually in the theater where this piece premiered, which was awfully exciting. But that enabled me to go to all three of the settings. There are three acts in the piece, and each act in in a very specific, very historic building or landmark even, in Rome. The first one is a church, Sant'Andrea della Valle - incredibly beautiful church -- beautiful cream marble, the ceiling is completely blue and pink. the entire church glows. It's so different than the other churches in Rome. Act Two takes place at a very famous building called Palazzo Farnese from the Farnese family, and right now it is the French Embassy, and incredibly beautiful insides, but really rather austere and square outside. It's an unnerving building to be in.

Lowenstein: And this is where the second act takes place, and where Scarpia's office is. And then we get to Act Three. Where does that take place?

Frost: Act Three is an incredible building. It's the only truly round building - every part of it is round, it is separated from a huge moat -- it's called the Castel Sant'Angelo. If you could imagine the staircases being as circular as the building, they go up and down, and hither and yon, archways. It's two thousand years old so it's been reconstructed hundreds of times literally, and it seems like that. You don't really know where you are at any given time.

Lowenstein: Now without giving away too much of the surprise ending, if you will, were you standing at the top of the fortress? Were you standing by the parapet?

Frost: (Laughs) Indeed. And what's amazing about this is that you really get practically a three hundred and sixty degree view of Rome.

Lowenstein: So you're there this summer, you take the tour of the actual places that are in the three acts. How does that translate into how your baton works in front of the orchestra?

Frost: In fact, I'm talking to you just having stepped out of rehearsing Act Three with the orchestra, and I can tell you that the minute that those chimes start I am taken immediately back to Rome. There's something magical about a Sunday morning in Rome. It happens in a lot of Italian cities, but just because there are so many churches in Rome you just have this cacophony of bells at different pitches and there are three or four times on Sunday mornings where they all ring, and it's incredible.

Lowenstein: I read that Puccini actually went to the fortress in the morning to hear the bells and, in the original production, had four different foundries cast bells to recreate that specific sound.

Frost: Yeah, he absolutely made sure that the very specific pitches from the bells were translated into the orchestra and there were some choices that he made to create the rest of the orchestration, all of the music, around those bells. It was a lot of drama for the first production and it retains some drama because one of the bells is no longer created. We play them on chimes now and those chimes are no longer being manufactured. Now it happens to be that Michael Bull, our fantastic percussionist here, has a set of chimes that includes the lowest note. So it will be all live for us, all acoustic instruments.

Lowenstein: I'm sure Puccini would be smiling.

Frost: Well, I know I am (laughs). I hope he would be too.