Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tosca at the Lyric Opera

Original Poster
The Lyric Opera of Chicago is now running a new production of Puccini’s Tosca, and I was fortunate to take it in the other day.  This opera has some beautiful melodies, and its first act is wonderful.  But as the story moves on the gruesomeness of its plot is revealed.  Torture, extortion for sexual favors, murder, a hanging corpse, an execution, and a suicide are all brought starkly before us.  Talk about verismo opera.  And this production’s austere set adds to the gloominess and to boot uses costumes from much later in time than the original – extra touches from a director thinking he’s improved on Puccini.

As opera plots go, this one is simple.  All the action takes place in a 24 hour period in Rome in the year 1800.  The painter Cavaradossi stumbles upon an old revolutionary comrade on the run from a jailbreak and helps him with food and a good hiding place.  But the ruthless police chief Scarpia appears and finds reason to suspect Cavaradossi of just that.  Although the painter denies all, Scarpia proceeds to torture him to see if he’s lying, and forces his inamorata Tosca, a singer, to listen.  Scarpia is clearly obsessed with Tosca – he proclaims in the Te Deum scene of the first act “Tosca, you make me forget God” – and uses her relationship with Cavaradossi to attempt a two-fer – get the information he wants and possess her as well.  When Tosca can no longer stand her lover’s screams, she reveals the truth to Scarpia.  Since she confirms that Cavaradossi has in fact aided a political enemy of the state, it is not at all clear what Tosca thinks the happy ending could be for her lover (and herself as well).  Well, it is usually a capital error to expect much logic from opera characters, so strike that thought.  Nevertheless, Tosca seems to work out a solution, and through double double-crosses the opera moves on to its dramatic conclusion.     

In program notes, the director writes that “the central message of Tosca [is] the clash between corrupt authority and the freedom of the artist....  A painter and a singer have dedicated themselves to the creation of beauty and art, but they find themselves fighting for their moral survival because of a political situation over which they have no control....”  Well, I think I understand the conceit to see artists as suffering for their art, but actually the painter is tortured because he is suspected, correctly, of hiding an escaped prisoner seen as revolutionary by the current regime (technically the Kingdom of Sicily, and soon to be, when joined by the actual island, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies).  Cavaradossi could have been a shoemaker and he would have been treated all the same.  One does not endorse his behavior in recognizing that Scarpia is not an art critic. 

Cover of the Original 1899 Libretto
It is Tosca’s music that is worth the price of admission.  Notably, there are three wonderful arias, a marvelous, emotionally fluctuating first act duet between the doomed lovers, and the powerful Te Deum first act finale.  The three lead characters are most of the show, and the performers I saw were a pleasure.  Music critic Jay Nordlinger once wrote that “the role of Tosca requires a soprano to be coquettish and tender, imperious and scalding.”  Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan was all that – a great actress with a great voice.  And she can play a scene for a comedic effect as when she commands Cavaradossi to change the eye color of the woman in his unfinished portrait from “azzurra” to the brown of her own.  The Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Baron Scarpia and particularly the American tenor Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi were solid in their roles. 

In the Lyric Opera Companion, Stephanie von Buchau writes that "the most memorable slur cast on opera ... is Professor Joseph Kerman's celebrated dismissal: Tosca, that shabby little shocker."  But, she writes, "Tosca, like all of Puccini's mature operas, consists of more than just a series of caloric tunes draped over a lurid story line in dubious taste.  Puccini was an artisan, and however you rate his inspiration, you have to rate his craftsmanship very near the top of the list." No argument here, but in Tosca we the audience do not develop quite the same emotional attachment to Tosca as we do, for example, with Mimi in Boheme or Cho-Cho-San in Butterfly

Filled with beautiful music however brutal the plot, Tosca is one of the most performed operas in the world.  Just among Puccini operas, it is more often performed than Butterfly, Turandot, and all the others save Boheme.  In the index to Opera – the Extravagant Art, Herbert Lindenberger's wide-ranging treatise on opera, there are about as many citations to Tosca as there are to all other Puccini operas combined.  Perhaps it is as simple as opera being mostly about the music.

Tosca has been a favorite at Lyric Opera.  It was featured in the company’s first season in 1954, although it may have been performed in the city earlier as there had been previous opera companies.  That first production featured Eleanor Steber as Tosca, Giuseppe Di Stefano as Cavaradossi, and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia.  Two years later Tosca was back, this time with Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Bjoerling, and Gobbi again.  In the Lyric’s first 25 seasons, Tosca was featured in 10 of them with Gobbi as Scarpia in eight.  In 1976 there was a newcomer to the role of Cavaradossi at the Lyric – Luciano Pavarotti, whose "favorite tenor and idol," according to his Wikipedia entry, was the Lyric's very first in that role, Giuseppe Di Stefano.  

 R Balsamo

Some related posts:
Il Trovatore at the Lyric Opera
The Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, 2014
La Boheme at the Lyric
Aida at the Lyric
Show Boat at the Lyric Opera

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