(Originally published in Opera Today)
When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?
Before we explore the girl’s presence, we must meet Floria Tosca, the eponymous heroine of the opera, originally the creation of French playwright Victorien Sardou. Sardou’s five act play, La Tosca, which takes place in Rome on a June day in 1800, was an immensely popular work with which Sarah Bernhardt toured the world. Puccini and librettist Luigi Illica reduced the work to an intense and brutal drama featuring three principles: Tosca, a famous opera singer; the artist Maria Cavaradossi, her lover, who is sheltering an escaped revolutionary prisoner in his country home; and Baron Scarpia, chief of police, who lusts for Tosca. Lusts is the right word. He announces that he plans to have her violently and briefly. After arresting Cavaradossi, Scarpia invites Tosca to his office, from which she can hear Cavaradossi’s screams of pain as he is being tortured. Scarpia sentences Cavaradossi to death, then appears to agree to a mock execution and a safe conduct out of Rome for the lovers if Tosca will surrender to him. When Scarpia has signed the order and turns towards her, Tosca stabs him to death. Immediately thereafter, she rushes to prison to tell Mario there will be a fake execution, but when he is really shot, and her own crime is discovered, Tosca leaps from the prison tower.
Sondra Radvanovsky’s appearance as the Roman diva made this a special occasion for the Los Angeles Opera company and its audience. Since the soprano’s first appearance with the company in 2004 in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, she has made an international career in Verdi roles. Ms. Radvanovsky’s radiant voice is evenly produced throughout all registers. Her moving “vissi d’arte” which concluded with a messa di voce brought vociferous applause. Her stabbing of Scarpia with two knife thrusts was one of the most vehement I have seen.
As Tosca’s lover, Mario Cavaradossi, Italian tenor, Marco Berti did not match Radvanovsky’s lyricism, particularly early on. Singing the first act’s “recondite armonia” to Placido Domingo, the evening’s conductor, can’t be easy work. However, Berti’s high notes, including the famous “Vittoria” were clarion sounds. And happily, he seemed more comfortable with his last act aria.
Lado Ataneli made a suave yet savage Scarpia. Keeping with his character, Puccini has given Scarpia sinuously lyrical passages, which the Georgean baritone delivered with subtlety and power. It’s a shame that opera audiences of late have demonstrated a childish tendency to hiss or boo villainous characters at their curtain calls. Ataneli was deprived of the appreciation he deserved. Philip Cokorinos, Joshua Bloom as the Sacristan and Angelotti, the escaped prisoner, respectively, turned in convincing performances, as did Eden McCoy as the young girl. Maestro Domingo led a well-paced performance. At times he seemed to be bent over as though to extract still more emotion from his orchestra. However he effected it, Puccini’s orchestration sounded lush.
John Caird, who has earned honors and worked on every kind of stage throughout the world, led the production team for Tosca, which he originally created for Houston Grand Opera in 2010. Caird considers Tosca “one of the greatest works of music theater ever written” and has lauded its “overwhelming musical, human, moral and religious powers.” At the same time he has enhanced verismo violence by staging a bloodier than usual Tosca. Each act opens with an ever more blood- blotched fore curtain, which is pulled down by the first character to appear in the ensuing act. And he has Tosca slit her own throat. Neither sets nor costumes give an indication of the time of the opera’s setting, though Ms. Radvanovsky was encumbered with a bustle. What is clear, is that the action seems to have followed a calamity. The unit sets are dark, unattractive and except for the last act, cramped. Cavaradossi works on a three story scaffolding, each of which holds a different part of the Madonna’s face he is painting. Talk of verismo — if that painting were put together, there’d be no place to hang it in that church. The second act, usually staged in Scarpia’s elegant Farnese quarters, is here a warehouse filled with cartons, statues, all sorts of matter clearly purporting to be ill gotten gains. The prison is a large empty yard made still uglier for us as we watch Angelotti’s body being hung. At the rear is a large unbarred, open window — another “unverismo” touch.
But now it is time to return to the virginal girl dressed in communion white. It is she who pulls down the curtain for the prison scene. She then crosses the stage, sits at the window’s edge where she sings the shepherd’s greeting to the sun in a childish voice, “For you I will die,” are its last words. She will remain there throughout the act. The girl first appeared in the second act, beckoning to Tosca after the singer killed Scarpia.
There is no mysterious or mystical character in either the Puccini or Sardou stories. The girl is Caird’s creation. But who is she, why does she sing the shepherd’s song? Though the director may seem to have forsaken purists’ interpretation of verismo by inserting this vision, he has, in fact, made more explicit what Puccini had only implied, and what Sardou had made clear: that Tosca was a child of the church. Puccini’s Tosca lays flowers at the Atavanti altar, and refuses to kiss Mario before the Madonna. In “vissi d’arte”, her plea to God, she recalls her devotion and generosity to the church. Her last word in the opera is “God.” In Sardou’s play we learn the full depth of Tosca’s faith. She herded goats as a child until she was found and raised by Benedictine nuns, who expected for her to join their order. As she began singing and her talent was recognized in the secular world, the composer Cimarosa insisted she become an opera singer. Sardou tells us that the entire city of Rome took sides in the ensuing conflict until the girl was brought to sing before the pope. Charmed by her voice, the pontiff patted her cheek and told her, “Go your way, my child, you will move others to compassion, as you have me. You will make people shed gentle tears and that too is a way of praying to God.”