It has been a while since I did an opera review. But I saw a terrific version of “Tosca” last week, in the Metropolitan Live in HD season, and I wanted to share some of my impressions.
Tosca is a very familiar and very popular opera by Giacomo Puccini, based on a French play written in 1887 by writer Victorien Sardou. The setting is Rome, Italy. As the Met’s Set Designer, John Macfarlane, explained to us during the intermission, all the action takes place in 3 very specific, and very real, locations. The story is tight, not just in place, but in time: The entire action takes place in the course of less than 24 hours. In his play, Sardou gave precise dates for the action: the afternoon, evening, and early morning of 17-18 June, 1800. Napoleon Bonaparte has just invaded Italy. People, especially Russians, usually go “boo hiss” when they hear Napoleon’s name, but please note that he is the good guy in this story. We want him to conquer Rome and save Tosca and her boyfriend before it’s too late. Just like Bonie arrived in the nick of time to save that miserable Pit and Pendulum guy from the Spanish Inquisition in Poe’s story.
Here, the unseen-on-stage King of Naples, is the bad guy, along with his henchman, Baron Scarpia, brutal and sneaky Chief of Police. Scarpia and his small army of royalist spies and minions have the citizens of Rome shaking in their boots. “All Rome trembled before you!” Tosca lashes out at him, in one of the more dramatic scenes of the play.
Puccini’s opera premiered in 1900 and has been a standard part of the classical opera repertoire ever since. It is beloved by all types of audiences, both high- and low-brow. The melodrama features war, political rebellion, sacrireligious acts in the Church, attempted rape, murder and torture, which makes it a particularly steamy type of soap opera. The heroine is an actual opera diva herself, Floria Tosca, who goes by the stage name “La Tosca”. This is a great part for real opera divas, because they get to play themselves! The Met production starred Bulgarian diva Sonya Yoncheva, the rising-star soprano, who has been getting all the juicy parts this season!
And speaking of the South Slavic talent pool, Yoncheva gets to play opposite Serbian baritone Željko Lučić who always makes a terrific villain in Italian operas. Lučić really made Scarpia come alive as a viable and real-life villain with both political and personal motives, not just some one-dimensional cartoon baddie, as he is often portrayed. Plus, Scarpia proves himself to be a marvelous detective. Within just 5 minutes of his grand entrance into the Church, Scarpia, with the aid of just a few clues (a key, a lady’s fan, and a freshly-painted portrait) has solved the entire mystery of the missing political fugitive, pro-Napoleon underground leader, Cesare Angelotti. Scarpia efficiently has deduced the who, how, what and why, not only exactly what happened and who helped Angelotti, but also figured out whither he has fled, the only missing piece being the exact address of the refuge. But already he has a plan how to figure that out.
The third major role, that of Tosca’s fresco-painting boyfriend, Mario Cavaradossi, went to sexy Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, thus completing a trio of dream-casting. Grigolo had to make his entrance and face his first major challenge right out of the box with the famous aria Recondita armonia, a beautiful short piece about the nature of art and beauty. Grigolo nailed it. Watching the opera in Live HD with TV-type camera close-ups, one could see the concentration on his face and his controlled breathing as he pushed out that sustained B-flat in perfect pitch on the syllables “TA-AH-CA sei tu!”
|Dammi i colori…
Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse!
L’arte nel suo mistero,
|Pass me the colors…
Concealed harmony of contrasting beauties!
Art, in its mysterious way,
Next: We learn why the gruff Lučić admires Theater Director Sir David McVicar: “He didn’t ask us to do anything stupid…”
[to be continued]