Monday, October 21, 2002

'TOSCA' (Cleveland Opera)

Cleveland Opera's TOSCA Sizzles with Passion:

One attending the opera knows to leave their reality-based thinking at home. Opera is supposed to be entertaining, larger than life, a spectacle to behold, melodramatic or comic, but definitely schmaltzy.

Cleveland Opera's TOSCA fulfills those expectations in Puccini's TOSCA. From the moment the curtain goes up, we see the lavish and detailed sets borrowed from the Seattle Opera and hear the brilliant music of Puccini sung beautifully by the cast. It is simply an excellent production.

Based on historical fact and a play by Victorien Sardou, and libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the story begins with an escaped prisoner from the Battle of Marengo, Angelotti, who seeks refuge in a church. He meets the painter, Cavaradossi, who is the lover of the opera singer, Tosca. Their conversation is interrupted by the passionate, beautiful and ever-jealous Tosca, and Cavaradossi agrees to meet her that night. He resumes plans to help Angelotti and hides him at his villa.

The Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia, is searching for Angelotti and uses Tosca's jealousy to find him and her lover, Cavaradossi. Scarpia wants Tosca for himself, and poor Tosca has to endure the screams of her lover being interrogated. She reveals the hiding place of Angelotti to save her lover, not knowing that Scarpia will kill him anyway. Scarpia invites her to save her lover by giving herself to him. She pretends to do so, but stabs him instead. Scarpia had promised to do a "fake shooting" of Cavaradossi, but secretly he decided to really shoot him.

Tosca had planned to live happily ever after with Cavaradossi, but realizing he is dead and she has been duped, is not given a chance to grieve as soldiers come for her after discovering she killed the Scarpia. Her last words before jumping from the parapet to her death are: "Oh, Scarpia, the Lord will judge."

Throughout the play, the church is always in the background, and sets up many of contrasts in the story. One audience ember told me that she is amazed by the contrasts in this opera.

In Act I, the contrast between the material life and the spiritual life is evident. Tosca is described as a pious woman who attends church frequently and at one point says to Cavaradossi "not in front of the Madonna" and a few minutes later is kissing him right there! Scarpia, who exudes selfishness, lust and greed from the moment we meet him, is seen lying prone on the ground during prayers at the end of Act I, an act of great piety, and an excellent directorial moment for Mr. Bamberger.

In Act II, when Scarpia is trying to bargain with Tosca for her body, lovely sacred music is heard in the background drowning out his negotiations. Another contrast: Tosca laughs after she kills Scarpia, then slowly walks to get the cross and candles to place by his dead body. Act III opens with beautiful, floating clouds and the clear, sweet soprano of a local shepherd, another contrast to the tragic ending.

One of the most painful moments for Tosca, and a reflective one for the audience, has to be when she is faced with giving her body to the evil Scarpia to save her lover, or to let him die. She prays to the Madonna, and begins to question her faith. "I lived for art. I lived for love.... why do you repay me this way." How many of us have asked God that same question when faced with a tough decision.

There are moments of comic relief, the most poignant one at the end of the play when Tosca is fantasizing about her life with Cavaradossi after the "fake execution" when she shows him how to fake falling after he is shot. Perhaps the author felt the audience needed laughter before the impending tragedy of the death of both lovers.

The performances of all the leads were strong, particularly Antonio Nagore as Cavaradossi, Victoria Litherland, who replaced Elizabeth Byrne at the last moment as Tosca, and Stephen West as Baron Scarpia. There were times when the orchestra drowned them out, but their performances and the music of Puccini allowed the audience to ignore the imbalance.

Capsule judgement: Mr. Bamberger knows how to create a spectacle, and Tosca leaves us wanting more great opera performed in Cleveland.