New York Arts / Opera

Tosca on the Edge: The Glimmerglass Opera, 2010

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Castel Sant'Angelo (with St. Peter's in distance) where Tosca leaps to her death


Music By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illiaca and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the play by Victorien Sardou

David Angus, Conductor;  Ned Canty, Director; Donald Eastman, Sets; Matthew Pachtman, Costumes; Jeff Harris, Lighting; Zachary Schwartzman, Assistant Conductor; Richard K. Blanton, Assistant DirectorJeanne-Minette Cilliers, Principal Coach/Accompanist; Ming Kwong, Assistant Coach/Accompanist;Richard K. Blanton, Stage Manager; Anne Ford-Coates, Hair and Makeup Design


Floria Tosca, Lise Lindstrom
Mario Cavaradossi, Adam Diegel
Baron Scarpia, Lester Lynch
Cesare Angelotti, Aaron Sorensen
Sacristan, Robert Kerr
Spoletta, Dominick Rodriguez
Sciarrone, Zachary Nelson
Shepherd, Xi Wang
Jailer, Jonathan Lasch

The great scandal surrounding the Met’s 2010 production of Tosca seemed to be a hyperbolic reaction to the palpably conflicting musical and psychological currents of Puccini’s darkest opera.  Joseph Kerman’s famous dismissal of it as a “shabby little shocker” is at least one-third correct: shocking it is. Yet, swathing those nasty bits with the sounds and imagery of the Catholic liturgy – Puccini’s innovative use of Latin plainchant, modal counterpoint, carillons and chimes, vaulted church interiors, ritratti della Madonna, and the spectacle of worship – is the primary way Puccini projects a creepy sense of moral and psychological irony and repression throughout. The character of Tosca – passionate, obtuse in her petty jealousies and perception of others, at times cloyingly pious and self-righteous – is sometimes at odds with the lush, gorgeous music the composer gives her. Throughout this work, Puccini mixes a brew of seedy lasciviousness, human weakness, and the hopelessness of piety, all with beautiful and memorable music. The three or four arias and duets that emerge as “set” pieces (well shrouded in Puccini’s experimentation with through-composition) have immortalized this work for over a century.

Tosca Poster

The broader narrative, however, and its political, social, and psychological ambiguities seem to be dismissed by an adoring public. Perhaps Puccini, in allowing these outcropping of operatic beauty, unwittingly unleashed a sub-textual tension in this work. Tosca succumbs to a lyrically reassuring Italianate Romanticism, while the composer, ambivalently, tries to experiment with a twentieth-century sense of alienation and ambivalence. After all, the work appeared only a few years before a real operatic shocker, Strauss’s Salomé: a work that is uncompromisingly louche, yet every bit as fixed in the operatic canon of the early twentieth-century. Strauss simply didn’t aim for the heartstrings in the same unabashed way as Puccini does. Nor does Strauss see any need to counterbalance shock with superficial religious equipage. No production of Salomé would shock or induce scandal, since scandal is its very raison d’être. Yet, when a production indulges in depicting Scarpia’s sexual excess, audiences howl with indignation. Additionally, Puccini chooses, perhaps subconsciously, to make the depraved Scarpia the most interesting character in his tale. Mario Cavaradossi, a painter and Tosca’s somewhat henpecked sweetheart, who might be the unluckiest hero in the history of opera, is an object of shrewish jealousy, insouciantly keeps bad company (the political escapee, Angelotti), dies gullibly imagining that his execution would actually be faked, and, worst of all, never finishes his portrait of the Madonna. Scarpia, evil as he might be, is really dispatched rather quickly, but not before he brags to us (in a soliloquy of sorts) of his utter moral vacuity and venality. Tosca kills him after he extorts her sexual favor for release of Cavaradossi. She drapes a crucifix over his warm corpse and sets some votive candles about reminding us that she is still a good Catholic and not a naïve  murderess who imagines she has saved her lover. While such characterizations might seem shallow, the music contains some of Puccini’s most experimental moments. It is also clear that he had listened to and learned from Wagner. The use of bells is reminiscent of Parsifal; his use of leitmotivs (the most evident being the opening one depicting Scarpia) is “Wagner-lite”; and the ecstatic exchange between his lovers has more than a hint of Tristan und Isolde.

The four Glimmerglass productions this year use (or, more properly, reuse) stage panels and scenery from past productions. Designer Donald Eastman says that such recycling was a mandate this year, most likely as an economy measure. Reusing sets originally designed for the 2005 production of Death in Venice, Mr. Eastman, with considerable creative dexterity, has refashioned interiors suitable for Tosca, as well as The Marriage of Figaro, Tolomeo, and The Tender Land. The background of the opera is set in the politically volatile years from 1798 to 1800. Napoleon had created a short-lived Republic (the Parthenopæan Republic), ousting the Bourbon king, Ferdinand IV, who fled to Sicily. Within a year, however, Napoleon was forced out, and the clergy reinstated Ferdinand. The action of Tosca is centered on the day of Napoleon’s returning victory at the Battle of Marengo, July, 1800. The Austrians’ early advance (and apparent victory) was ultimately crushed by the end of day. The portrayal of Scarpia and his gang (a loyalist to the clergy, and Ferdinand), while fictional, was undoubtedly based on historical precedent by the French playwright Victorien Sardou, on whose play, La Tosca, the opera is based. The Angelotti character, based on the actual Republican consul Angelucci, has escaped from prison, and is taking refuge in Sant’Andrea della Valle Basilica. Mr. Eastman and director Ned Canty opted for a staging that sets the drama in 1900, the actual time of the opera’s premiere. The drab and musty interior of the church emphasizes an unsettling state of affairs rather than any historical or architecturally accurate rendering of the Basilica. The interior of Palazzo Farnese, for Act II, is likewise a chilling and gloomy visage of Scarpia’s police headquarters replete with dangling telegraph wires and interrogative lamps, subtle suggestions of torture and surveillance. Only the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo, which appears in the thin incandescence of early morning of Act III, and which will be where our lovers perish, is an ironic respite from the claustrophobia we sense earlier. Realistically, imminence never mars a romantic sensibility – heaven adores lost lovers – especially one that plunges to her death from a rampart.

Floria Tosca, Lise Lindstrom and Mario Cavaradossi, Adam Diegel

In 2009 soprano Lise Lindstrom made an impressive debut at the Met in Puccini’s Turandot, filling in at the last minute for an ailing Maria Guleghina. She has a warm, well-tempered voice that avoided the lure of lush operatic display to which other singers might be all too easily drawn. Hers is a diffident, and, at times, edgy characterization that brought a refreshing naturalness to the role. A proud Tosca emerges: her physical beauty guarded in her pious dress, while the beauty and sensuality of her voice were revealed only under extraordinary circumstances. One such circumstance, in Act II, yields Vissi d’Arte, the aria that all awaits; Ms. Lindstrom, allowing herself far more expressive freedom than in Act I, underscored the poignancy of the music and text with a rich and vibrant timbre. In the final act, with her lover, and just before her suicide, Ms. Lindstrom’s delivered the full measure and power of her voice. Tenor Adam Diegel’s Cavaradossi was assuredly sung without excess or ungainly ostentation. Thus, he was perfectly paired for Ms. Lindstrom, as was evident in their beautifully balanced duets. However, in Act III, when in the throes of despair and impending death, Mr. Diegel’s  E lucevan le stelle was striking and intensely dramatic. It was one of the most riveting moments of the evening.

Baron Scarpia, Lester Lynch

However estimable the singing of our ill-fated lovers, tonight’s performance seemed stolen by baritone Lester Lynch. His Baron Scarpia was truly unforgettable. The malevolent glare in his eyes, his peacock-proud stride, and his richly hued voice gave the villain’s part a virility and nobility that was unexpected and thrilling. While one cannot garner sympathy for Puccini’s over-the-top bad guy, Mr. Lynch’s virtuoso performance allowed us to enjoy every moment of Scarpia’s evil presence.

Puccini spent an inordinately long time notating the actual bell patterns at Matins service for the recreation in Act III. Also, in both Act I and Act III he experiments with antique pre-Baroque counterpoint and basso quasi ostinato. He undoubtedly wanted an overwhelming sense of grandeur in Act I (Te Deum), in which the uneasy worshippers clutch to the thrall of music, even when punctuated with cannon volleys. David Angus and the Glimmerglass orchestra gave us a balance of clarity, brutal surprise, and exultation.

Tosca is ultimately a greatly entertaining opera: musically inventive, generously dosed with Puccini’s melodic gifts. Even if the characters are fey and their motivations stretch credulity, it is an opera that is calculated to please. Tonight’s performance added elements of honesty and balance that are missed by most.

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