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Tosca in the Time of Trump

With great pleasure, the Dresser saw Washington National Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca at the Kennedy Center Opera House on May 10, 2019. Entry into this three-act opera is easy because the melodramatic and historically based story is grounded in understandable reality and the music is lyrically accessible. Despite Wagnerian influences of through-composed music and leitmotivs to identify characters, objects, and ideas, the runtime is short at two and three quarters hours, including two 20-minute intermissions. In this time of Trump, this story of a woman defeating an amoral man with encompassing power is relief from tyranny.8. Keri Alkema (Tosca) and Alan Held (Scarpia) in WNO's Tosca.creditScottSuchman.jpg

The libretto, written in Italian by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, is based on Victorien Sardou's five-act, French language play La Tosca that Sardou wrote for Sarah Bernhardt. After Puccini obtained the rights to turn this wordy, popular play into an opera in 1895, the work took four years to complete. Puccini repeatedly argued with his librettists and publisher over the libretto.

The actual history of Tosca's setting is complicated. In 1798, the French under Napoleon had deposed the Roman Catholic Pope and his government, establishing a new republic ruled by seven consuls. However in September 1799, the French who had been protecting the Roman Republic withdrew and the armies of the Kingdom of Naples moved in. In May 1800, the army of Napoleon returned and routed the Neapolitans.

1. Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi in WNO's Tosca.creditScottSuchman.jpgIn the opera Tosca, Cesare Angelotti was a former consul of the Roman Republic who became a political prisoner, presumably of the Neapolitans. In the first scene of the opera, he has escaped from prison and is hiding in the church where Mario Cavaradossi, the lover of the opera singer Floria Tosca, is painting a portrait of Mary Magdalene, based on an unknown woman who turns out to be the sister of Angelotti. Cavaradossi, as a sympathizer of Napoleon, helps Angelotti escape just as the Regent of Police, Baron Scarpia, arrives. Scarpia orders Cavaradossi to be tortured and uses Tosca's love of Cavaradossi to discover Angelotti's hiding place.

In the end none of this mattered because Scarpia fell in love with the soprano. He wanted to make her his sexual conquest. She strikes a deal with him to give her and her companion a letter of passage to leave the country in return for her sexual favors. He then arranges with his man Spoletto to conduct a fake execution of Cavaradossi to cover up the artist's release. Still, Tosca is outraged for everything that has happened and is about to happen, so she grabs a knife from the dinner table and stabs him until he falls dead, declaring this is her kiss. In the end, Scarpia betrayed her by ordering all along an actual execution of her lover. As Scarpia's men come for her, she jumps from the walls of the Castel Sant'Angelo where she enjoyed a hopeful moment with the imprisoned Cavaradossi for their eminent escape but has just witnessed his death by firing squad.
12. Riccardo Massi and Keri Alkema as Cavaradossi and Tosca in WNO's Tosca.credit ScottSuchman .jpg
The jewel in the crown of this performance, and the production in general, is the casting. Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist alumna soprano Keri Alkema as Floria Tosca demonstrated her mastery in moving from an agitated state as she yelled at Alan Held as the ruthless chief of police Baron Scarpia, who is torturing her lover, to a prayerful woman spent and desperate singing the quiet aria "Vissi d'arte." The lyricism of Italian tenor Richardo Massi as Cavaradossi when he sang such songs as "E lucevan le stelle" ("The stars were shining") was heart swelling and heart breaking. Alan Held as Scarpia who many operagoers will recognize as the baritone who played Wotan in productions of Wagner's Ring Cycle is convincing as he delivers such lines as "Those who live so deeply, suffer deeply." He declares he has no use for the stuff of love, but he is excited by Tosca's fiery temper. Of course it is his attraction to her that allows Tosca to stop him from assaulting her. Boy soprano Holden Browne as the Shepherd Boy who opens the third act took the Dresser's breath away. It was probably a combination of things--his sweet sound married with Puccini's music for this role which sounds like sacred, medieval chant and that lyrical vocal line plays against orchestration that sounds bubbly and hopeful as one would imagine the awakening of spring and new birth. Note that two singers each share the roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi, and the Shepherd Boy.

Conductor Speranza Scappucci adds measured intensity to this story of passion and death. Sets come from the Seattle Opera's production of Tosca and seem modestly handsome, stealing nothing from the light of a stellar cast.

In Lisa Hase-Jackson's poem "Prairie Rumors," a woman is passionately affected by an aurora borealis which puts charged particles into the Earth's atmosphere. She undresses and presses her ear (and her body) to the prairie as if she were listening for "the breath of a sleeping child." At the end of Tosca, Cavaradossi, imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo but out on its parapet under the stars, daydreams about being reunited with Tosca and then unexpectedly she appears, tells him he will be free, that they "Together in exile/ we shall bear our love through the world./Harmonies of colour." In both "Prairie Rumors" and Tosca, fake news abounds. In the poem are rumors of aliens and second-coming. In the opera, Scarpia has lied to Tosca, depriving Cavaradossi of his second-coming and the opportunity for them to unite and have children. For the Dresser living in the time of a presidential despot who disrespects women, Tosca's fatal "kisses" to Scarpia feel justified.

Prairie Rumors


When aurora borealis
crept into the northern plains
of Kansas like a tire-shattering

arctic front, sheriffs
of sparsely populated counties
received reports of fire

and aliens and second-coming
predictions echoed within the walls
of steepled buildings.

The clash of atoms disturbed
a farmer's wife,
who could not find sleep beneath

magnetized particles
so rose from bed
to leave the house where

her children slept. Passing
the chicken coop, the pigsty,
the barn of cattle and hay

she found herself upon the prairie
beneath the pulsing arch of reds and greens
that synchronized her heart's rhythm

and moved her to remove
her clothes, lie against the cold
damp earth
   and press her ear close
against the soil
   and listen as one does
for the breath of a sleeping child.

by Lisa Hase-Jackson
from Flint & Fire

Photo Credits: Scott Suchman

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 13, 2019 12:42 PM.

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