OPERA SCENE – TOSCA
OPERA STAR LOSES LOVER IN POLITICAL INTRIGUE
By John Patrick Ford
Tosca is one of opera’s most abused women. In order to save her lover’s life, she must endure a sexual assault by the Roman Chief of Police who has arrested her lover and bargains for Tosca’s favors to save his life.
As an early critic of the opera reported, Tosca is a “shabby little shocker.” It’s true, a famous opera singer, jealously in love with a handsome artist caught up in a Napoleonic War resistance movement, appears to be an over-the-edge melodrama. However, that is what great operas are made of, and Tosca one of the best.
The first grand opera of the San Diego 2016 season opens on February 13 in a new production for San Diego Opera at the Civic Theatre. The plot for Tosca is a perfect fit for the season theme of ladies in distress. In the first act the beautiful diva Tosca suspects that her lover Mario is creating a portrait of the Virgin Mary at the church in the likeness of another Roman beauty that may have caught Mario’s eye. She tries to overcome her suspicions.
In the second act Tosca is summoned to Baron Scarpia’s private quarters to witness the torture of her lover in order to get information about a rebellious group of Roman patriots who oppose the Austrian occupation. Another scene of distress forces Tosca to agree to the lecherous Baron’s advances in order to secure the necessary papers for her lover’s escape.
After the escape passports are signed, Tosca turns the table on Scarpia and runs him through with a knife from his supper table as he passionately lunges at her. This scene is the height of a masterful melodrama complete with Giacomo Puccini’s popular soprano aria describing the life of a woman who only wants to live for art and has to make personal sacrifices.
The drama intensifies in the third act where a faux-execution turns out to be real thing taking the life of Mario as Tosca stands by ready to flee. While she cries over the body of her lover, Scarpia’s soldiers come to arrest her for the murder of their chief. The only escape is to leap to her death from the top of the fortress completing the cycle of a lady in distress.
The title role is sung by Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou in her SDO debut paired with Gwyn Hughes Jones as Mario, also making his local debut. The pivotal role of Baron Scarpia is performed by Greer Grimsley returning after several previous performances in San Diego. The conductor is Massimo Zanetti who conducted A Masked Ball and the Verdi Requiem in 2014.
Details for each of the artists can be found on the SDO website.
In researching the premier of Tosca, I found that the creation of this masterpiece was an opera in itself. It is based on a popular French play by Sardou written in 1887 and featuring the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca in over 3000 performances. When Puccini attended the play when it was touring in Italy in 1889, he saw the possibility of a new opera and asked his publisher Ricordi to obtain the rights. The negotiation was not easy because Sardou had reservations that the opera would do justice to his masterpiece. Besides, he didn’t care too much for Puccini’s music.
After the rights were secured, there was difficulty in finding a librettist. The first choice, Luigi Illica, failed because he felt the play was too cumbersome to convert to the opera stage. At that point Sardou became uneasy and Puccini took offense, so he withdrew from the project.
Ricordi then assigned the opera to a new composer, Alberto Franchetti, who was never at ease with the commission. Recordi then bargained to retrieve the opera rights from Franchetti by convincing him that the work was too violent to be successfully staged. By that time Puccini had renewed his interest in setting the play to an opera and finally took control again in 1895. It still took four more years to get it on the stage with its premiere in 1900 at Rome.
Puccini wanted Arturo Toscanini to conduct the premiere, but the maestro was too busy in Milan. Enrico Caruso was considered for the role of Mario but rejected as being too young and not well-known, It later became one of Caruso’s signature roles.
Despite the long and complicated period of bringing this piece to the opera stage, its popularity is enduring and not necessarily “shabby.” The plot has its moments of violence, but the interludes of Puccini leitmotifs identified with each character establishes the opera as a masterpiece.
“Tosca” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7:00 p.m. Saturday February 13, Tuesday February 16 and Friday February 19; and 2:00 p.m. Sunday February 21. For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit www.sdopera.com
(Opera image is the cover of the libretto published by Ricordi 1899)
Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University