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MUSIC : No-Risk Opera? Not Even Close : Maria Ewing, one of the most celebrated sopranos in opera, leaps again into the role of Tosca, keeping alive her streak of acclaimed performances while remaining true to herself

November 08, 1992|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

It was the first rehearsal onstage of Puccini's "Tosca." Stagehands had set up the mattress that would cushion Tosca's suicidal leap in the opera's third act, and director Ian Judge worried that it should be closer to the set.

Judge asked his Tosca, Maria Ewing, if the mattress was indeed too far away. "No," the diva replied. "It's frightening. Keep it there."

Ewing is, after all, the same international star who risked removing every one of Salome's seven veils on the same Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, ending her frantic dance totally nude. The one who played geisha Cio-Cio-San in "Madama Butterfly" not as sweet victim but a woman obsessed.

"I do what I believe is right," Ewing explains. "If this appears to be risk taking or daring--so be it. The theater is meant to be a place where emotions are unleashed and where one reveals oneself."

It certainly has been for Ewing, who reprises her Tosca for Los Angeles Music Center Opera for five performances starting tonight. She has taken on one difficult role here after another, and not all have been successful. But one thing remains consistent--as fiery opera singer Tosca, child bride Cio-Cio San or crazed young princess Salome, Ewing doesn't forget Ewing.

Ewing does not just sing the role of Floria Tosca--she inhabits it. Her Tosca's passion, rage and despair do not spring entirely from the opera's libretto, as she'd be the first to tell you.

"Actors always talk about what their 'characters' feel," Ewing says. "I get tired of hearing that. It's yourself you're talking about-- your idea and your understanding of the 'character.' Ultimately, its you who comes across."

Reviewers are sometimes critical about her voice, particularly in strenuous soprano roles. But even when they disagree with her interpretations, they nearly always acknowledge her enterprise. And nobody quibbles with her ability to command an audience.

"Tosca," which also stars popular tenor Placido Domingo, has been sold out for months--scalper tickets are going for $250 apiece in the balcony-- and Ewing's calendar is loaded with operas and recitals here and abroad well into mid-decade. She recently ended recitals in Vienna, Paris and elsewhere to find as many as 200 people waiting for her at the stage door.

"She can never be uninteresting on the stage," says Los Angeles Opera general director Peter Hemmings. "You can't take your eyes off her."

Her exotic appearance belies her Detroit upbringing, her outward fragility and vulnerability make her seem far younger than her 42 years, and her tall, lithe body would confound central casting. Not many Salomes could perform the veil dance so convincingly, and few could look so good when the last veil dropped.

"It reminds me of what Orson Welles said about Eartha Kitt--she was like a magnet setting iron filings dancing," says Opera magazine editor Rodney Milnes in London. "I suppose some voice critics find her voice a not technically perfect instrument, but it's a human voice. I think if she gives performances of the sort she gives, who cares. Anyone can sing."

Ewing is rehearsing Scarpia's murder in the second act of "Tosca." Tosca has finally agreed to give herself to the evil police chief to save her lover's life when she spots a fruit knife on the villain's table. Again and again, Ewing and James Morris, who plays Scarpia, go over the scene.

For half an hour, Ewing knifes her Scarpia. And that, says conductor Randall Behr, is why he loves working with the woman. "It's that attention to detail," says Behr, who also served as pianist for Ewing on her recital tours. "We spent a half hour on the stab, which is a non-vocal moment that many other singers take 30 seconds over."

This time around, Ewing is working with Behr and director Christopher Harlan, who assisted Judge on the earlier production. Yet while she may listen to their suggestions at rehearsal, may adjust for prop and exit changes, it is very clear who has the last word.

"You need a director to support you, guide you, and make you feel that what you are doing is in the right direction," Ewing says. "But the best directors know how to suggest things which are pretty much along the lines of what you are doing. If you're not allowed to delve into yourself and your instincts, you have nothing to offer. You become a puppet, being told what to do, how to move and where to move, which is devoid of meaning."

Talk to Sir Peter Hall, her ex-husband and the man who directed her in "Carmen," "Salome" and other operas in the U.S. and abroad. "She defines what an operatic performer is," Hall says. "She fuses great acting and great singing. You usually get one or the other--sometimes you get neither--but it's very rare to get the two things together."

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