Tosca by Giacomo Puccini is probably on almost every opera lover’s Top Ten list; it’s certainly on mine. Right now, Saturday October 12 2013, fresh from attending last night’s opening performance of West Bay Opera’s 58th season, it’s #1 on that list. Here are some of the reasons why:
1 Puccini's tightly knit melodic and dramatic music. Right now, 12 hours after leaving the Lucie Stern Theater, Tosca’s poignant Vissi d’arte (I lived for art), Mario’s lovely O dolce mani (Oh gentle hands), and Scarpia’s doom-threatening motif are competing for attention in my head.
2 Three of opera’s most complex characters: Mario Cavaradossi (David Gustafson) – lover, artist, patriot; Baron Scarpia (Philip Skinner) – power-driven, lecher, sadist; Floria Tosca (Stacey Stofferahn) – diva, lover, and deeply religious. One of the reasons I love seeing different productions of the opera is that they differ in the relative importance each protagonist gives to his/her different defining qualities. I’ll say more about this later.
3 One of opera’s most dramatic story lines. Almost all operas have a climax at or near the end; many operas will also have an earlier climax, usually at the end of Act II; I count five climaxes in Tosca. At the end of Act I the chorus is singing a sonorous religious Te Deum, and Scarpia is singing a profane aria of how he is planning to kill Mario as a traitor and then rape the beautiful Tosca. Each of these themes is captured and skillfully interwoven by Puccini’s music. Many otherwise brilliant productions miss this climax completely by over-emphasizing one theme over the other; Conductor José Luis Moscovich, Chorus Master Carl Panle, and Baritone Philip Skinner succeed in balancing their efforts to produce an unusual musical tension. The contrast is helped by having Scarpia sing from the artist’s platform so that he is literally singing over the chorus.
Act II has a first crisis when Mario, bloody from torture, is led off stage to imprisonment and imminent execution, cursing Tosca for having revealed the secret hiding place, and exultantly singing, “Victory” in celebration of the news that Napoleon has defeated the reactionary regime that has supported Scarpia. Events then proceed rapidly to the primary climax of the opera: Tosca’s stabbing of Scarpia.
Even after the intermission, I am still under the influence of that highly dramatic ending. In an act of genius, Puccini helps us fully unwind by inserting the lovely off-stage shepherd’s song (sung last night by 12-year-old Brian Ho who will alternate with 11-year old Joseph Cudahy in future performances). We soon get back to the main story. After some of the most beautiful singing in the entire opera, the “fake” execution turns out to be a “fake fake” which evokes the fourth climax – Tosca’s anguished cry of “Mario!” when she discovers he is really dead.
Almost before we can absorb this climax a mob enters seeking revenge for Scarpia’s death, and Tosca leaps off the parapet to crash to her death on the jagged rocks a hundred feet below as the orchestra blares a final reprise variation of the Scarpia motif (of course whereas Tosca falls to her death out of sight, her portrayer Stacey Stofferahn is safely caught by stagehands just barely hidden behind the parapet and will shortly reappear in a curtain call).
4 Puccini and his Librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa have put all of these wonderful ingredients together in a tightly woven intertwined whole with music, words, and actions each supporting and supported by the others.
And that’s why any production of Tosca is worth seeing. For this particular WBOpera production, add the exceptional Artistic Direction & Design Crew and the extraordinary Cast listed at the end of the review.
As their final production last season, WBOpera presented Verdi’s Otello, starring David Gustafson and Philip Skinner as the male leads, Otello and Iago. Well, guess what? The male leads in Tosca are David Gustafson and Philip Skinner as Mario Cavaradossi and Baron Scarpia! As I mentioned under #2 above Mario is patriot, artist, and lover, in that order. Gustafson shows all three attributes in singing and in acting. As I watch and listen I am convinced that the music dictates that as the only possible order. In Act I he tries his best to minimize the conflict, gently trying to shoo Tosca away before she discovers the hidden Angelotti, but back-tracking a bit to allay her suspicions of another mistress – and giving her non-committal nods when she insists that he changes Magdalena’s eyes from blue to black. In Act II he loses his temper and curses Tosca, but in Act III there is no conflict and he is pure lover. All with a gorgeous forceful tenor voice.
There’s no question about Scarpia’s priorities: power and sadism with lust a distant third. When Philip Skinner first strides on stage in the middle of Act I, he hasn’t sung two words before you know, “this man is trouble.” His unsmiling face and uncompromising stance tells you this is a man of near-absolute power which he enjoys using – doubly so if it causes pain to others. His total dominance over his henchmen Spoletta (Nadav Hart) and Saciarrone (Mathew Pierce) is unbelievably arrogant. He snaps his fingers without looking, one or more of them appear and need at most a subdued gesture to divine what he wants done, do it, and silently withdraw.
Scarpia really gets his kicks from using his power over an individual to make him/her suffer physically and emotionally. His disproportionate hatred of Mario is because the painter refuses to give in mentally but defies his power to the death – literally. As for Tosca, he is blatant. “Nothing will give me greater pleasure than to look down on your face and see that expression of utter hatred in your eyes.” Skinner’s powerful and dramatic voice do full justice to Puccini’s powerful and dramatic music. His final words as he lies dying don’t portray sorrow or regret, but shame that he has been laid low by a mere woman.
Last night was Stacey Stofferahn ’s debut with WBOpera- I hope we'll see her many times in the future. She has a lovely soprano voice, and held her own in her duets with each of the two men. She was all of diva, lover, and religious, and played them with a minimum of conflict. In Act I she was a marvelous jealous lover, and her love duet with Mario in Act III was sheer delight. She sang Vissi d’arte in Act II with all of the religious intensity that the aria deserves.
Her most dramatic moment was during the stunning climax at the end of Act II. She has whispered her feeble “Si” to Scarpia’s unspeakable demand, and accepted his insincere promises. As he is bent over his desk writing the safe-conduct pass, she is hopelessly trying to accept her shameful fate when her eye spots the sharp knife on the table. She instantly sees the possibility it offers; her body springs to attention as she grabs the knife, and gives a half-turn so her back is toward Scarpia. She is no longer sweet religious Tosca, lover of Mario; she is Action-Woman, operating on pure adrenalin. As Scarpia rises from his chair and comes toward her, she shifts her grip on the knife to hold it in stabbing position. She holds that pose, silently heaving with emotion. Scarpia approaches her with the pass in his hand. She senses he is about to embrace her.
She whirls about with arm rising, faces him with a yard gap between their bodies, and drives the knife into his chest. Scarpia falls to the ground. He twitches helplessly. She taunts him, knife at the ready. He gives a final twitch. Both arms fall limply to the floor. She checks him closely to be sure. The adrenalin drains from her body.
“é morto” (He is dead), she sings. “Now I forgive him.” She is again gentle, religious Tosca. She places candles at his head and a crucifix on his chest and slowly walks out of the room as the curtain falls.
See why I love that opera? It is now Sunday evening and I have just returned from seeing it a second time and enjoying it even more. And I’ll probably get even more out of it when I go again next Saturday, October 19 at 8 pm. And if you live anywhere near Palo Alto, you owe it to yourself to come then or to the final matinee on Sunday October 21 at 2:00. There are a handful of good seats left, but don’t waste any time before getting your tickets.
WEST BAY OPERA 221 Lambert Avenue
Lucie Stern Theatre 1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto CA 94306 650.424.9999
Except as noted, all photos by Otak Jump – arrangement and cropping by Philip Hodge.
Artistic Direction & Design
General Director: José Luis Moscovich
Conductor: José Luis Moscovich
Director: Richard Harrell
Set Designer: Jean-François Revon
Costume Designer: Lisa Lutkenhouse Lowe *
Lighting Designer: Lucas Krech
Make-up Designer: Rande Harris
Properties Designer: Shirley Benson
Angelotti: William O'Neill *
Sagrestano: Carl King
Mario Cavaradossi: David Gustafson
Floria Tosca: Stacey Stofferahn *
Baron Scarpia: Philip Skinner
Spoletta: Nadav Hart
Sciarrone: Mathew Pierce
Jailer: Jay Iness