The MET Opera House/ “Tosca” by Puccini/ Wednesday October 19th, 2022.
Welcome back friends!
Welcome back, this week, to the fabulous world of opera, and to one of the most epic “thrillers ” ever, welcome to dramatic, yet poetic, iconic, early 20th century (1900), “Tosca”, by illustrious and groundbreaking composer of “verismo”/ “every day” opera, the great, modern and daring, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).
Yay! yay! yay!
So what is “Tosca” about?
Timeless, dark and gripping, set in 1800, during the summer in Rome, “Tosca” centers intimately, around four main characters, during high political turmoil (as the French Bonapartist armies, are then, at war with the rest of Europe, and Rome is no longer under French protection, and everyone is expectantly awaiting news of the battle of Marengo, in the North of Italy, which will decide the fate of Rome).
Here are the four main highly expressive characters: two innocent love birds (“Tosca”, a famed “diva” and her lover, “Cavaradossi”, a talented painter), as well as “Angelotti” an escapee from prison, yet a former, respected, Republican Consul, now sought after by the secret police, and “Baron Scarpia” a sinister, malevolent, disturbed, Chief of the secret police, who, despite his apparent, benevolent religious inclinations, will soon, be abusing and torturing, all of them.
And “Tosca”‘plot, its unforeseen, somber, and dramatic twists and turns, and its incredibly bleak and unescapable, devastating, and tragic outcome, all of it, keeps the audiences around the world, stunned, shocked, and yet awed, by the great beauty, which fortunately, also, graces, embraces, and pierces through this great tragedy, in large part, due to the beautiful musical themes, composed by Puccini, which truly enhance the action’s intensity and expressivity.
Wow! And yay! yay!yay!
And the opera’s “action”, is set, as often, it is in plays as well, to exalt it further still, during a tumultuous, high energy, frazzled, and very short period of time, a 48h period, in three gorgeous, sun deprived, or barely sun lit, and famed locations: three monuments in Rome (the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo).
Wow! And yay!
And the tale is so daunting, and yet, also, fortunately, at times, so exhilarating, and set, in such a stunning environment, that the audience, can never get enough, or grow tired, of this epic tale, especially as Puccini’s rich and exciting music, is also filled with a variety of genres, including religious music, and modern themes, as well as also, elements which incredibly, include as well, every day city sounds (such as church bells, or a cannon shot), and of course, in addition, expected, and yet, unusually breathtakingly beautiful, and dazzling arias, sang of course, by many illustrious performers, including for the title role, by the iconic and influential Maria Callas (1923-1977), in the 1950 and 60’s, all of which, constantly leaves the audience, panting.
Wow! And yay! yay! yay!
And “Tosca” is based on an illustrious French play, by Victorien Sardou (1831–1908), a popular dramatist of his time, who specifically, wrote the play for the talents of the greatest, French theater actress of her time, who starred in some of the most popular French plays, including “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas fils; “Ruy Blas” by Victor Hugo, “Fédora” and “La Tosca” by Victorien Sardou, and “L’Aiglon” by Edmond Rostand: I mean of course, the formidable, eminent, lofty, and “divine” Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), beautifully rendered below, by her long time friend, Georges Clairin (1843-1919), a famed socialite of his time, and a wonderfully talented, French Orientalist painter and illustrator.
And the librettists for “Tosca”, are no other, than long time collaborators of Puccini: the playwrite, Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) and the poet, Luigi Illica (1857-1919), who both, also collaborated on Puccini’s two other illustrious operas (“La Bohème” and “Madama Butterfly”).
So unsurprisingly, what wonderful finesse, brilliance, and artistry, infuses also, this riveting “Tosca” opera.
Yay! yay! yay!
So welcome again to “Tosca”, and let’s discover, with more details, the plot:
Act 1 sets the stage for the drama about to develop: we first discover, inside the beautiful church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, a fleeing prison escapee, the Republican Counsul, Angelotti, seeking refuge in his family’s chapel, where his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, has hidden a key.
A painter, Cavaradossi, along with a sacristan assisting him, is also in church, and we see that Cavaradossi is working on a beautiful portrait of Mary Magdalene, inspired by a gorgeous, devout woman, praying nearby, regularly (believe it or not, actually Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti).
Angelotti emerges from his hiding place, once the sacristan has gone, recognizes Cavaradossi, and begs for his help.
Then Cavaradossi’s lover, a lovely brunette, a highly loving and devout, as well as an incredibly jealous and possessive, esteemed “diva” named (Floria) Tosca, calls “her” Cavaradossi from outside church, and Angelotti hides again.
The apprehensive Tosca, suspects that Cavaradossi has been with another woman in church, as the painting depicts a blonde she recognizes, the Marchesa Attavanti (Angelotti’s sister), but Cavaradossi calms her fears, and assures her of his love.
When Tosca leaves, a cannon shot is overheard, which signals to all, that the police have discovered Angelotti’s escape, and Angelotti and Cavaradossi, decide to flee immediately, to the painter’s villa.
The sacristan excitedly enters back into church, to tell all arriving churchgoers, that the Allies have won a great victory, against the French, at Marengo, in northern Italy. As they celebrate, Baron Scarpia, Chief of Rome’s secret police, arrives, looking for Angelotti. His “team” searches the chapel, and Scarpia discovers Marchesa Attavanti’s fan. And just like Iago does, in Shakespeare’s “Othello”, with the unexpected “discovery” of a handkerchief, Scarpia devised an equally treacherous plan, involving this time, not a “hanky”, but Marchesa Attavanti’s fan, to trick Tosca into believing, that Cavaradossi is indeed, cheating on her, after all.
Tosca vows to avenge this unbearable treason, and as the church fills with worshippers singing a beautiful “Te deum”, Scarpia sends his henchmen, to follow her, as he imagines that Tosca will lead them, right to Cavaradossi and Angelotti.
Scarpia then, concludes as well, that he is also set, on making the attractive, vivacious, and illustrious Tosca, his.
In Act 2, the plot thickens: we find “Baron Scarpia” enjoying a wonderful meal, next to a blazing, warm chimney, at Palazzo Farnese, and we can feel Scarpia’s great anticipation, at having found a way to have Tosca join him, for more “fun”, after singing that evening, in the Palazzo, at a royal gala, to celebrate the Allies’ victory.
We also learn that Scarpia’s team of henchmen, has broken into Cavaradossi’s villa, and have found no trace of Angelotti, but have nevertheless, arrested a “defying” Cavaradossi, and brought him to the Palazzo.
Scarpia interrogates the angry painter, and sends for Tosca.
When she arrives, Cavaradossi urges Tosca to keep the secret of Angelotti’s exact hiding place, in his villa, before being lead by force, by Scarpia’s henchmen, to be tortured in another room.
Scarpia begins to question Tosca, and unable to bear Cavaradossi’s screams, Tosca reveals quickly Angelotti’s exact location.
Cavaradossi then, badly hurt, and hardly conscious, is brought out of the “torture” room.
And Scarpia cruelly, reveals Tosca’ betrayal to Cavaradossi, and Cavaradossi angrily, curses Tosca.
Suddenly, word arrives that the news from Marengo was incorrect, and that Bonaparte has actually won the battle. Cavaradossi shouts out his “defiance”, and Scarpia orders him to be executed.
Yet, once alone with Tosca, Scarpia calmly suggests, that he would let Cavaradossi go free, if she’d only accept a “one night stand” with him.
Tosca refuses, and Scarpia becomes more insistent, and alludes to Cavaradossi’s certain
fatal fate, if she keeps on refusing him.
Despairing, she prays to God for help, and sings one of the most beautiful aria of the entire operatic canon, if you ask me, about how she lives for art only, and needs help from God.
Let’s listen to this gorgeous aria, sang with so much feeling, by the great Callas.
So moving, beautiful and sad.
We then learn, that Angelotti has killed himself, to avoid falling into Scarpia’s hands.
Gasp. Oh boy.
Tosca, pretends then and there, to agree to Scarpia’s lewd “one night stand” proposition, as Scarpia orders to prepare first, a “mock” execution of Cavaradossi, from which, Cavaradossi can then, later reunite with Tosca.
Tosca demands as well, that Scarpia write her a passage of safe conduct.
Once done, as Scarpia approaches Tosca, to get his “prize”, Tosca seizes a knife from the dining table, and stabs him, and before fleeing with the safe-conduct pass, Tosca performs funeral rites over Scarpia’s body.
Act 3 finds a haunting resolution: as the sun is about to rise, Cavaradossi awaits alone, to be executed by a few soldiers, on a high “platform” of the gorgeous Castel Sant’Angelo.
Cavaradossi then, bribes the jailer, to deliver a farewell letter to Tosca, and finally, overcome with emotion, delivers a beautiful aria, about their first romantic encounter.
This is the second illustrious aria of “Tosca”, and my very favorite, of this opera, sang a few years ago by the great Placido Domingo:
So beautiful and sad.
Tosca appears, and the two lovebirds, imagine their future together, free and happy.
As the execution squad arrives, Tosca implores Cavaradossi to fake his death convincingly, and watches from a distance. The soldiers fire and depart.
When Cavaradossi doesn’t move, Tosca realizes that the execution was real, and that Scarpia has betrayed her.
Gasp. So sad.
As Scarpia’s henchmen rush in, to arrest her, she cries out, that she will meet Scarpia before God, and leaps to her own death.
Gasp. Just incredibly sad.
So incredibly epic, staggering and unfair, as theater, opera, or musicals sometimes tend to be.
But not always, fortunately.
What to say about the production and the singers?
That Mc Vicar’s huge scaled production, his elegant sets, depicting a variety of awesome Roman sites, all of it, was incredible and extraordinarily beautiful: whether the barely lit, yet warm, welcoming, fervent church, or the comfort and cachet of the palace’s dining room, filled with scary artwork, or the chill and yet beauty of the morning’s first light, on the castle’s elevated platform; all these sets, were absolutely amazing.
A truly stunning production, which gave “Tosca”, added and welcomed, extra gravitas, and great historical context, to this incredibly sad and powerful story.
And what wonderful and beautiful, 19th century costumes, I love of course, the “Empire” look of the “performing” Tosca.
As for the singers and orchestra, all conducted with verve and elegance, by Maestro Carlo Rizzi, in addition to the beautiful “Te deum” chorus, in Act 1, three performers, particularly stood out for me:
First and foremost, last Wednesday evening, Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kursak, in the dramatic title role, was terrific, nuanced, a great actress, with wonderful bursts of expressivity, a terrific Tosca!
I also, particularly liked Michael Fabiano, the American tenor, as Mario Cavaradossi, the loving, courageous, and heroic, painter and lover, and what a beautiful voice.
And George Gagnidze, the Georgian baritone, as the vile Chief of the secret police, Baron Scarpia, was just awesome, very smooth, subtle, and incredibly accurate, as a great villain.
Bravo! bravo! bravo!
And wow! wow! wow!
So to sum up my feelings about Puccini’s epic “Tosca”, seen last Wednesday evening, in great company: What a dark, despairing, and devastating story, and what a tragic destiny for this esteemed diva, and yet, what gorgeous, expressive and modern music, what truly awesome arias, and what a great “Tosca”, Kursak has proven to be.
Yay! and wow!, wow!, wow!
Just wonderful, and so powerful!
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊