TOSCA. Opera by Giacomo Puccini, librettists: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Cast: Lisa Houben (Tosca); Cesar Sanchez (Cavaradossi); Mark Walters (Scarpia); Kevin Thompson (Angelotti); Peter Strummer (Sacristan). Lighting design: Jimmy Lawlor; Stage Director: Jeffrey Buchman; Chorus Master: Robin Stamper, Conductor: Daniel Lipton. Produced by Opera Tampa.
Time for blood & thunder, lust, jealousy & murder. Opera Tampa’s performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (1902) last Sunday delivered all this and more, abetted by the composer’s muscular/sweet music, and urged onward by the company’s well-wrought sense of drama. Even though Tosca is a relatively short opera, the time sped by, with each scene well-blocked and sternly paced.
It’s a sign of a successful production when it reveals aspects of the work you hadn’t noticed before. I’ve seen this opera many times, but rarely with such crisp handling of all the clashing elements. Opera Tampa’s staging of climactic scenes helped illuminate their subtle meanings. For example, at the end of Act I, Scarpia simultaneously plans the capture of the rebels and the conquest of Tosca. He is in the church as the “Te Deum” begins. In the midst of his nefarious machinations, the celebrants sing pious religious music! Musically, it’s quite a feat on Puccini’s part and quite tricky to balance. But conductor Daniel Lipton and chorus master Robin Stamper pulled it off. As written, the scene emphasizes that the autocracy Scarpia represents openly collaborates with Rome’s ecclesiastical authority. But few productions have spotlighted this so sharply. And the company does it again in Act II. As Scarpia interrogates the patriot Cavaradossi, Tosca sings a religious cantata offstage in honor of the queen: “Sale, ascende l’uman cantico” (Heavenward ascends our holy song). The theme is the same, the church in collusion with civil authority. The choir, with Tosca’s voice rising above it, provides a dissonant tense background to the gruesome proceedings.
The principals performed so well that I was disappointed the theater wasn’t full. These frivolous Tampa Bay residents! They don’t know what they’re missing. As Cavaradossi, Cesar Sanchez presents a stalwart member of the opposition, willing to give his life for the cause of liberty. He also conveys great poignancy in his signature aria, “E lucevan le stelle,” his farewell to life. Other great singers of the past have sung this quite differently. Jussi Bjorling took the role in a unique direction as he conveyed the anger of a life about to end. Caruso was more emotional than Bjorling, audibly sobbing at the last line, and was more on the edge than Sanchez. Tosca, a refined lady of the theater, is a bit of a borderline personality with her Act I jealousy. In Lisa Houben’s hands, she opens up the rage throttle in Act II when she kills Scarpia with a dinner knife. Prior to that, I think she could have employed broader physical gestures to establish her character, similar to what Catherine Malfitano did in 1991 when she gestured expressively with her fingers, asking Placido Domingo to paint the Madonna with black eyes. (Such little touches get noticed.) Of course Mark Walters as Scarpia got the ultimate compliment for his role during the curtain call. He got booed! Apparently the audience loved his death scene, which I personally found quite liberating.
Attention should be paid to Jimmy Lawlor, the lighting designer. The illumination for the final scene establishes such a foreboding mood! When Tosca hurled herself over the parapet, the lights suddenly went all contrasty, like a stark photo of a bleak landscape. I assume director Jeffrey Buchman had something to do with the simple but effective stage design of that last scene.
The composer shone his flickering candle on many afflictions of his day: poverty (La bohème ), colonialism (Madama Butterfly ), and absolutism (Turandot ). But these days few see these operas as political tracts. Puccini primarily designed them as entertainment and, as the current production eloquently showed, they can succeed at that very well.