Vissi d'arte, Vissi d'amore...
I've lived for art, I've lived for love... ~Floria Tosca, Act II
It is Rome, circa 1800. Italy struggles against Napoleonic aggression. Local government is fat, corrupt, and oppressive. Civil unrest is pervasive. A painter and an actor find solace in love and in art, but fall into a political scandal for all the right reasons.
This is Puccini's Tosca, a true blockbuster in the operatic cannon. (And, anecdotally, the most accident-prone.)
Tosca premiered in 1900 in Rome. Italy was suffering from the scars of unification. The middling to peasant classes believed government to be fat, corrupt, and oppressive. Civil unrest was pervasive. On opening night of Tosca, in fact, the theater received a bomb threat likely due to Queen Margherita's presence. In "real life," King Umberto would be murdered within six months. Audiences looked to art and to love as their poultice.
Tosca is a political thriller in a time of political scandal. In the true spirit of the play's the thing wherein we catch the king, the role of Floria Tosca was written for a diva to play a diva.
If you are drawn to opera but have never been, Tosca is the ideal entry point. It is love story meets dirty-rotten politician, and is not convoluted with the usual operatic nonsense. There is no overture, the entire opera moves swiftly through a tight 105 minutes, and is divided nicely by two intermissions.
Try it. You'll like it.
In addition to the painter and the diva, there is a crooked chief of police, one of the best bad guys ever. And though the number of characters is limited, Puccini wrote in a satisfying chorus number into Tosca's first act.
It is an opera one could easily fall for - head-over-heels, if one is not careful. Tosca's unique expression of human love and devotion is mesmerizing when all its parts are in the right places. When that happens, you may not snap out of it before you find that tears are dotting your eveningwear.* (Crying, incidentally, is not obligatory in any American opera house.)
The Minnesota Opera is performing Tosca for the third time in fifteen seasons. As with most MN Opera productions, Tosca has a double cast. All three leads will alternate. Consequently, this review is most applicable to the November 5th, 8th, 10th, and 12th.
This season's Tosca can claim more star power than any past Minnesota Opera production, indicating the soaring credibility of the company. The casting of Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova in the role of Floria Tosca has certainly had opera fans at attention. And for good reason. Ms. Gorchakova is perfectly diva-like in the role of the diva. She moves from tender lover to jealous avenger with convincing grace and confidence. From tenderness to rage, her voice moves nimbly through all facets of Tosca. Her voice is wild and weighty and always sensual. Her Tosca is bold but never brutish. Ms. Gorchakova gave a stellar performance on opening night, though she had to pull back on a few key notes. Her "Vissi d'arte" had the audience holding its collective breath. This is one of the truly lyrical arias and was performed with great precision and lyricism.
Baritone Kim Josephson played Scarpia, the sadistic chief of police. The character of Scarpia is right up there with Shakespeare's Iago in the devilish villain category. (And in fact, Iago and Scarpia have equal skill at tapping into the destructive power of human jealousy.) As with many dramatic works, Tosca can hinge on the quality of the Scarpia. Josephson is a Met Opera and Lyric Opera veteran, and the undeniable superstar of this production. His Scarpia is shrewd and charming - more than the simple, brutish, lusty Scarpia of many productions. And Josephson's voice is the most mesmerizing in the room.
Cast as the Italian painter Cavaradossi, tenor William Joyner strained in his high range, beginning early in Act I with "Recondita armonia" and again in "Quale occhio al mondo" later in Act I. (It should be said that the latter aria is an exceptional challenge on either end of the range for the tenor, and also demands serious volume.) But Joyner's melancholy "E lucevan le stelle" in the final act of the opera is a treat.
Resident Minnesota Opera artist Raymond Ayers plays Angelotti, an enzymatic character who is only around for the first act. (You may remember from last season that Ayers gave a remarkable performance as Chou En-lai in Nixon in China.) Ayers is a fine tenor, but Angelotti's political threat is undermined in this production by a youthful portrayal. It is hard to complain about such a minor detail in a production this breathtaking.
The supertitles were in perfect step, and the libretto was translated well, if a tad leniently, from the Italian. A few of the translations offered (enjoyable) subtle twists. For example, when Cavaradossi chides Tosca for her show of jealousy in front of the statue of the Madonna, instead of the typical "she is good," or "she is forgiving" (referring to the Madonna), Tosca remarks "she understands." Like the archetype of the Virgin Mary, for better or for worse, Tosca is a woman's woman - and she's pretty happy about it.
Gail Bakkom's exquisite costumes were as delightful as always, and build a feminine Tosca with the requisite amount of stature. I find Bakkom's costumes easily on par with those of the Met and the Lyric. (In 2003, Bakkom did breathtaking costumes for La Traviata, Lucrezia Borgia and Rigoletto, and for last season's gorgeous production of Maria Padilla.) Tosca's performance garb had a convincing heft to it, and it made its own music against the stage as she protested the torture of her lover.
The audience did not hesitate to offer ovations with each of Andrew Horn's (three) sets which were first created for the Baltimore Opera's 2001 production of Tosca. The sets and costumes maintain a traditional (Napoleonic) approach, ca. 1800. The statue of the Archangel Michael and his plague-ending sword made its customary appearance in the final set.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya is making his debut with the Minnesota Opera with this production, and to his debuts this year, he has added the Sante Fe Opera, as well. Aside from an unruly clarinet, the orchestra showed a rich and full presence. The orchestral interlude that opens Act III was quite lovely; French horns and winds were flawless in their key Act III moments.
Not to be overlooked is Michael Cavanagh's dramatic direction. Though it fits among Horn's sets and Bakkom's costumes, there are insightful and daring nuances here that add magnitude to an already stand-out production. Scarpia's murder is more pre-meditated; Tosca is given more agency. At the Vienna State Opera's 2004 production, and in most DVD productions Tosca is portrayed as trapped. But here, instead of having to claw her way out, we have the sense she could leave the palace, but she won't. She summons the strength to stay. Instead of tapping into some primal fear, she seems to draw courage from her love for Cavaradossi. Tosca is strong, but not entirely independent. There is nuance, but within a framework that is loyal to Puccini's intentions.
But Cavanagh's real genius shines through in the final scene. As Tosca looks forward to their future together in the foreground, he doesn't place Cavaradossi and his firing squad in the background, as is the general custom. Instead, Cavanagh brings Cavaradossi's death downstage, making the audience experience Tosca's grief firsthand. (There are some other stage dramatics that wowed me in this final scene; the point is for the audience to be as shocked as Tosca herself, so that's as far as I will go.)
The Minnesota Opera's next production is Don Giovanni, the "other" blockbuster this season, which will be performed March 4th through 12th at the Ordway Center. Tickets are $32 to $120.
*Any opera newbies should also please note that the "dress code" is only formal for the opening night of the Minnesota Opera season. Tuxedos become scarce after that. If you got 'em, wear 'em, if not, don't fret. Not owning a tuxedo is no reason to avoid the Minnesota Opera, especially when the production is this top notch.