Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Tosca” is a tragic love story, but to limit the description to that would be to sell it short indeed.
Fortunately, the current production of the Virginia Opera, directed by Lillian Groag, brings out so much more!
The story is also a suspenseful political thriller with a very poetic text, as Ewa Płonka in the leading role as Tosca sings movingly of “ancient ruins fragrant with thyme and nocturnal happiness” and “slow sea breezes in the moonlight.”
The plot rests firmly in Europe’s Napoleonic era: a Republic has been established in Rome, only to be stamped out by reactionary authorities. In “Tosca,” the opera singer Floria Tosca (the work at hand is an opera about an opera singer) and the painter Mario Cavaradossi are entangled in these political mechanizations.
Cavaradossi is shielding the deposed counsel of the Roman Republic, who has newly escaped from his jailors and is on the run. One of the most famous operas, “Tosca” is extremely emotional and dramatic, and a significant part of this is due to the over the top villain Baron Scarpia. Scarpia, who directs the feared Roman police, tortures Mario and skillfully manipulates the Tosca’s inmate to help incriminate her lover Mario. “Tosca’s blood is burning with love,” the prima donna Tosca sings radiantly of herself, but we must add it is also a blood burning with jealousy.
As already stated above, soprano Płonka sings movingly with a soaring voice in the title role as Tosca, especially in the aria “Vissi d’arte”: “I’ve lived for art. I’ve lived for love.” Her duets with tenor Matthew Vickers as Mario are equally wonderful. Vickers shines solo in the aria “E lucevan le stelle,” one of the most famous arias in all opera. He complements his glorious voice here with beautiful facial and bodily gestures as he recalls first meeting Tosca.
Bass-baritone Kyle Albertson delights with his character Scarpia’s villainy; he is wonderful in his acting as well as his emotional rendition (along with the church clergy and choir) of “Te Deum.”
While they sing to God, Scarpia expresses his desire to see Cavaradossi and the escaped counsel hanged as well as his lust of Tosca, whom he later admires – ironically – as “agile as a leopard to save her lover.”
The opera “Tosca” does not convey its emotion purely through singing and acting alone, but via evocative sets, dramatic lighting and orchestral color.
This production does all three elements of justice with its exquisite staging, stunning use of lighting and excellent orchestra. The church setting, for example, contains Mario’s large painting of a blonde, blue-eyed and appealing lady with a devotional expression – arousing, of course, the jealousy and ire of Tosca: “Make her eyes darker – like mine!” exclaims Tosca, in one of the rare moments of humor in this somber opera.
On and off lighting and uses of red tinting (signifying torture and prefiguring death) as well as candlelight flickering to orchestral crescendos make for an exciting second act.
A special spotlight on the broken glass of a church window at the close of Act I seems to signify the shattered moral state of church and government alike in the world of “Tosca.” The orchestra, conducted superbly by Adam Turner, is breathtaking throughout the entire production.