Arts & Events

A TOSCA with Contemporary Relevance

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday October 12, 2018 - 04:46:00 PM

Think about it. We have just witnessed, in the testimony under oath of Christine Blasey-Ford, allegations that Brett Kavanugh, a man nominated for the position of Supreme Court Justice, allegedly sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. In Blasey-Ford’s testimony, Kavanaugh and his elite prep school buddy, Mark Judge, pushed her into a bedroom, locked the door, and threw her on a bed, where Kavanaugh climbed atop her and tried to remove her clothes while he held his hand over her mouth to prevent her from calling for help. What is this scenario other than the plot of Puccini’s Tosca, where Baron Scarpia, the Roman chief of police, tries to force himself on Floria Tosca in a vile effort to satisfy his perverse lusts for sex and power? 

San Francisco Opera most likely had no notion of the rise of the MeToo movement when it decided to mount a new production of Puccini’s Tosca in the Fall of 2018. Yet in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein’s decades long sexual abuse of women as he exercised his power as a Hollywood mogul, Tosca, an opera that Joseph Kerman once notoriously dismissed as “that shabby little shocker,” has become a mirror of sorts of the ongoing saga of men of power sexually abusing women, not to mention that other “shabby little shocker” of priests sexually abusing children. 

As an opera, Tosca, long a doormat for critics who poked holes in its dramaturgy and sneered at some of its music, has suddenly risen in stature by virtue of its contemporary relevancy. Yet audiences have always loved Tosca and respected it for its taut dramaturgy and its musical high points. Tosca was the first opera produced by San Francisco Opera in its 1923 inaugural season at the Civic Auditorium, and it also inaugurated the War Memorial Opera House on October 15, 1932. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Tosca has received an infusion of new blood, so to speak, in the contemporary political climate of the MeToo movement. 

The team of Director Shawna Lucey, Set and Costume Designer Robert Innes Hopkins, and Lighting Director Michael James Clark strove to make their new production of Tosca relevant to today’s world. “Tosca,” says Shawna Lucey, “is a piece for today like almost never before. In a world where corrupt dealings decay civic institutions, torture is fair and legal, and the Church colludes with tyrants for self-preservation, a woman fights back against her fate and the damning crush of this society.” 

To their credit, this production team has remained largely faithful to the traditional staging of Tosca. Act I is still set in a Roman church, Act II in the Palazzo Farnese, and Act III atop Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo. My only reservation, a visceral one, occurred when the curtain opened on the set for Act II, which was a mish-mash of architectural styles that had nothing whatever of the style of the Palazzo Farnese. Oh well, we don’t go to opera for verisimilitude.  

What we go for is, first and foremost, great singing. This was supplied by Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio, who was making her San Francisco Opera debut and her role debut as Floria Tosca. Giannattasio has a ravishing voice, one that is especially impressive when she sings full out at the top of the soprano range. But she is by no means a singer who belts at full blast for the sake of sheer power. Giannattasio’s Tosca is a thoroughly thought out characterization, one that combines the soft, tender side as well as the passionate, jealous, and fierce side of the role. In the Act I love interplay between Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi, Carmen Giannattasio often sang surprisingly softly but did so only in the moments of loving intimacy between Tosca and Mario. Giannattasio also let loose her awesome power in the moments of sudden jealous anger and suspicion. Likewise, in her Act II portrayal of Tosca’s self-defense murder of Scarpia, Giannattasio revealed the intensely religious side of Tosca, who once she has killed Scarpia, states that only now can she forgive him, as she crosses herself and prays for her own forgiveness from the Virgin Mary. Finally, her words over the dead body of Scarpia, “davvanti al lui tremava tutta Roma/Before him all Rome trembled,” were not spat out in bone-chilling vengeance as Maria Callas so memorably delivered them, but instead were almost tentative, as if Giannattasio’s Tosca could hardly believe what she had just done. Likewise, her aria “Vissi d’arte” was sung as a moment of heartfelt prayer in which Tosca begs for God to take pity on her in her moment of extreme affliction at the malevolent hands of Scarpia. 

In the role of Scarpia, baritone Scott Hendricks was most impressive. His was not the suavely elegant malevolence of Tito Gobbi’s great interpretation of Scarpia. Rather, Scott Hendricks went full out in portraying an extremely violent Scarpia, one who not only orders Cavaradossi’s torture but also sexually assaults Tosca and physically beats up his henchman Spoletta. The latter, sung here by tenor Joel Sorensen, was portrayed as a cringing sycophant.  

As for Brian Jagde’s Cavaradossi, we have seen and heard it before, both in 2014 and 2012. Basically, Jagde’s voice is a baritonal tenor and only features a true tenor timbre when he sings fortissimo high notes. I find Jagde not quite right for the role of Cavaradossi, though he garners a generous share of applause from the audience for the role’s usual highlights. Bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams was a convincing Angelotti, the political renegade and leader of the Napoleonic resistance in Rome. Veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis was persuasive as the Sacristan, a narrow-minded clerical nobody who filches food from the basket left for Cavaradossi. Baritone Andrew Manea was fine in the minor role of Sciarrone, one of Scarpia’s henchmen. At the October 11 performance I attended, the role of the Shepherd Boy was beautifully sung by Miles Kaludzinski.  

Making his San Francisco Opera debut with Tosca, British conductor Leo Hussain led a taut performance, one full of orchestral color. One might mention in passing the elegant clarinet solo by principal clarinetist Jose Gonzalez Granero that accompanies the aria “E lucevan le stelle” in Act III. Under the leadership of Ian Robertson, the Opera Chorus sang beautifully, especially in the glorious Te Deum music that closes Act I. All told, this was a fine Tosca, and one with a distinct resonance in this contemporary moment of the MeToo movement.