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Going to the mat for verisimilitude

For the climactic scene of Opera Pacific's 'Tosca,' a stuntwoman will be standing (well, actually jumping) in for the soprano in the title role to take an 18-foot suicide plunge.

November 13, 2005|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

THE opera, it is said, isn't over until the fat lady sings -- or, when it comes to one of the most famous, until the fictional diva Floria Tosca flings herself from a parapet of Rome's Castello Sant'Angelo in the mother of all suicide leaps.

That opera is, of course, Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca," which premiered in 1900 and, in a coincidence of scheduling, is being mounted this month by both Opera Pacific and the Los Angeles Opera. The former will begin a four-performance run Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and the latter will receive the first of eight performances Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

These dueling "Toscas," directed by Garnett Bruce and Ian Judge, respectively, teem with the requisite operatic elements -- passion, seduction, betrayal and murder -- and both will climax with the crashing chords accompanying the soprano's death jump. Suicide, a common operatic occurrence (77 instances, it has been estimated, among principal characters in some 300 operas), is in this case Tosca's only alternative: Face it, after killing Rome's police chief and then witnessing the execution of her lover, she's in no mood for more warbling.

Realism, granted, is not exactly rampant in opera, but it is the basis for Bruce's staging, originally designed by Boyd Ostroff for Opera Company of Philadelphia. In it, the singer playing Tosca (either Doina Dimitriu or Victoria Litherland) will be doubled by a stuntwoman who, with the aid of a crane and scaffolding, takes an 18-foot gasp-worthy plunge.

"The design of the crane and scaffolding allow for a realistic jump," says the Baltimore-based Bruce, 38, a veteran of numerous regional opera assignments. "And the opportunity for a fantastic finish was irresistible, since L.A. has more stunt people than other cities."

Enter Elle Alexander, 40, who says she's never broken a bone while plying her trade onstage, in films and in music videos, including doubling for Courtney Love in the video of the 1998 Hole song "Celebrity Skin." This is her first foray into opera.

"In film, you can stop and reshoot," Alexander says. "But in a live show, you're on and you go. Timing has to be perfect, so it looks like the singer is leaping to her death and you don't even know I'm there."

Bruce explains that Alexander, wearing a wig, a cape and flat shoes, conceals herself behind a large piece of scenery waiting to trade places with the singer portraying Tosca. Then she emerges briefly and climbs up the crane, which is suspended from cables in the fly loft.

"To the audience, it will look like they're doing renovations to the castle. It looks like a crane has been placed on top," the director says. In fact, the crane "is almost directly over the jumping pads, which are hidden by an 8-foot flat that is made to look like the fortress where the final act takes place. The double has 12 bars of music to make the climb. As the music builds -- if all goes well -- she'll take off and head for the crash pads below."

Alexander, whose specialties are high falls, fights and fire, uses a foam-filled crash pad from the Burbank-based stunt company Controlled Chaos Entertainment. Measuring 7 by 11 feet, the pad is about 4 feet thick and is set up by a "safety" person who also spots the 5-foot-11 blond.

"I'm doing a face-off," Alexander explains. "Your arms are out to the side and you start falling facedown. At the last moment, you flip over and land on your back."

The do-it-yourself diva

FIFTY miles to the north, Judge's Tosca, Violeta Urmana, will do her own death dive.

"She's only falling 4 feet onto a jump bag," says properties coordinator Kirk Graves, "but the platform is 15 feet in the air, meaning she's still 11 feet from the ground when she lands."

Urmana's aim, however, has to be spot-on, as the bag, chambered foam rubber covered with rubberized canvas, measures only 5 by 10 feet and is just 2 feet thick.

This "Tosca" is a remounting of Judge's 1989 production, which starred Maria Ewing. The director recalls Ewing looking anxious at a rehearsal before the jump.

"A pile of mattresses and cardboard boxes was set up on a platform for her landing," Judge says, "and she asked if it could be changed. I assumed we had a big actress problem and said we could raise the platform so she wouldn't have to make much of a leap. 'No, no,' she said. 'I want it lowered. I must be terrified.'

"Indeed," he says, "the audience let out a cry as she made the leap."

Says Bruce: "For any Tosca, it's a leap of faith and a way to push herself off into the heavens."

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