LA Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, with orchestra conducted by Placido Domingo and staring Sondra Radvanovsky is directed by first-time LA Opera director John Caird. Caird is known primarily for his directing credits with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and therefore used to digging into the layers of meanings in art. He and his collaborators have come up with an approach to Tosca I have not seen elucidated before in quite the same way.
The opening scene of this ultra dramatic piece is often a bit slow, with the Cavaradossi (played in this production by Italian tenor Marco Berti), Tosca’s lover and painter in the church bantering about with the sacristan (Philip Cokorinos) and discovering his friend, escaped political prisoner Angelotti (Joshua Bell) in the church. Tosca's entrance is generally grand and glamorous, her role as popular singer played up more than her identity as one a devotee who sings in the church. Generally the painting is on the ground and we don’t get to see it.
In this production with both scenery and costuming attributed to British designer Bunnie Christie, the Church is turned around with the altar downstage and the altar facing the audience. The artwork is on scaffolding so it is visible to the audience. These both seem like common sense, creative ways of presenting. The stage however is very dark, lit only by candlelights, the likes of which were available in 1800. So as lush and full as the set is, it is still a bit harder to see details.
Tosca enters and we find a quieter, gentler woman. The fiery jealous banter seems milder and more playful than the usual Latin flavor. The costume is simple. A white peasant-looking dress. All this a bit of a disappointment. Cavaradossi also is less shiny, somewhat pudgy and his clothing without panache. These two artists seem humble indeed and not up to their usual more flamboyant presentations. Seems odd since in the program there is an article about how the Latin sensibility is so important in the true understanding of the piece.
Berti’s first big aria is sung with a piece of paper in his hand. At first I didn’t realize this was supposed to be a drawing. His hand shook a bit with nerves and it gave the appearance of a stand-in who had to read the lines. His voice did not seem completely warmed up. Though clear and strong, it had a bit of a strident tone. Another disappointment for this romantic pair.
Angelotti hides from the long and cruel arm of the law, headed up and personified by the evil Scarpia (Lado Atanali). Cavaradossi’s pledge to his friend that he would protect him with his own life, is highlighted,along with Domingo’s ultra dramatic conducting of the themes.
First intermission and I was hoping to see more elaborate costuming. How would this play out? Act Two in Castel Sant’Angelo is filled with beautiful statues on boxes, evidently seized by the lustful and voracious Scarpia. The set is quite elaborate and beautiful and also dark. Scarpia has a pleasant and mild face and his dark character and evil soul do not overcome his mild-mannered appearance and dulcet voice. Tosca appears in a prettier, fancier dress. It is, as in the first act, also white, and it is not particularly flattering to her body. But in the second act, the plot thickens.
Although the casting seemed not quite right physically and there even were a few physical mishaps, (as when Scarpia tells his henchman to open the bottle and have a sip, and the action has already been completed)… the beauty and the power of the music, the voices, and the plot become ever more intense. Scarpia tortures Cavaradossi and blackmails Tosca.
When this more gentle, innocent Tosca delivers her aria “Vissi d’arte” asking why this is happening to her, who always was a friend to the downtrodden, who lived only for art and love—it absolutely brings the house down. Her lament of her powerlessness lives up to what director Caird calls “one of the most heartrending arias in all of the grand opera repertoire.” I have never heard the applause and cheers louder or go on longer at LAOpera than the appreciative audience responding to her strong and soulful rendition.
Quoting Caird, “The reason for the popularity of Tosca is enshrined in its overwhelming musical, human, moral and religious powers….a timeless piece for artistic and political freedom…Tosca stands as a beacon of enlightenment, a passionate plea for freedom of speech, thought, and artistic expression." As such she is wearing white in the darkness. The emphasis on the main characters' kindness and integrity make it so much the more poignant. She and Cavaradossi are led to their deaths because of her refusal to surrender her dignity as a woman and an artist or betray her beloved, and considers those more important than life itself.
Wow. Please go see this opera, and be swept away by it’s power and beauty as well as the uncovering of its deep undertones and meanings.
Georja Umano is an actress and animal advocate.
Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera
Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
Sunday June 2, 2013 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday June 5, 2013 7:30 p.m.
Saturday June 8, 2013 7:30 p.m.