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article imageOp-Ed: Sex, Politics, God, And One Great Tosca Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jan 25, 2012 in Entertainment
Toronto - Puccini's opera is one of the most loved and frequently produced works in the classical music world. The Canadian Opera Company's current production is rooted in tradition but has some modern touches.
One of my earliest cultural memories is watching Tosca on television. Puccini’s opera beat any Saturday morning cartoon: the outfits were gorgeous, the story was gripping, and and the music was Peter-And-The-Wolf-style thrilling. Puccini’s 1900 opera also boasts a zesty villain. The booming cadences that announce the entrance of Baron Scarpia, the fearsome head of Rome’s police force, is spectacular sonic drama.
I was reminded of this childhood wonder recently, when The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca opened at the Four Seasons Centre (it’s on through February 25th). A revival of the 2008 co-production with the Norwegian Opera And Ballet, it’s a wonderful introduction for opera newcomers and a treat for longtime fans. Director Paul Curran sets the work firmly in 1800 Rome, but offers hints of modern characterization. Rather than being the frumpy, matronly woman of past productions, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka’s Tosca (she alternates the role with Julie Makerov) is refreshingly sexy, costumed in low-cut empress-style dresses with brunette spirals cascading down her white neck. Though the director describes Tosca in the program notes as “a deeply religious woman,” here she is clearly at odds with her beliefs, a woman who wants to believe in the sanctity of the church but is faced with the brutality of her world and her passions.
The story revolves around, as Curran puts it, sex, politics, and religion. Floria Tosca is an admired actress who loves the nobleman-turned-painter Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Carlo Ventre, sharing the role with Brandon Jovanovich), who has been commissioned to paint Mary Magdalene in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. Angelotti (Christian Van Horne) Consul to the defeated Republic, has escaped from jail and comes to hide in his family’s chapel. The two flee, but when they are later captured, Scarpia (baritone Mark Delavan) presents Tosca with an ugly deal: she can save Cavaradossi from the firing squad if she surrenders herself sexually. Ultimately, there are no happy endings, with measures of justice and tragedy meted out in orchestral tones that are both poetic and brutal.
Curran has staged the world of Tosca as a series of vast indoor spaces that, whether sumptuous or spartan, are curiously lonely. The stage of the Four Seasons is filled with these mammoth creations (courtesy of designer Kevin Knight), with the opening scene framed at one end by an altar to the Madonna, and Cavaradossi’s painting at the other. Tosca enters, all jealous accusations and wild declarations of love.
“Won’t the Madonna notice?” Cavaradossi asks her, when she goes to kiss him. “She’s very understanding,” Tosca replies, with a clearly guilty smile.
The physical passion between the two characters is given a hearty underline in this production; they simply can’t keep their eyes (or hands) off of each other, but it’s also clear Voltairean Cavaradossi’s true loyalties lie with politics. This raises the ire of Scarpia, chief of police, whose introduction in the middle of the stage, rising out of mist and stone like a biblical villain, is truly show-stopping. He reveals his mixed approach to all things holy as the Te Deum ceremony unfolds, famously declaring “Tosca, you make me forget God!” amidst swirling violins and church bells.
Mark Delavan as Scarpia (centre) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca  201...
Mark Delavan as Scarpia (centre) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, 2012.
Michael Cooper
This scene is given extra resonance in the current COC production, with church goers facing the audience. Are we meant to be the “God” Scarpia refers to? Are we, as a society, his judge and jury? Scarpia stands in front of a Pope-like figure (a kind of vulgar alternate to God’s representative on earth, it would seem) at the end of Act One, effectively binding the sex/politics/religion themes together in one memorable tableaux.
The mix is repeated in Scarpia’s awkward attempts to seduce Tosca in his sumptuous, if clearly unloved rooms at the Palazzo Farnese. He paces the floor, waves his arms around, tells us (the audience, clearly his confessor) he prefers “violent conquest” to tender demonstrations of love. The set, beautifully decorated but strangely empty, bears this out, though Delavan’s performance is enough to fill it with every ounce of sound and fury. Much like Shakespeare’s Iago, Scarpia is a fascinatingly evil figure whose presence threatens to (and occasionally does) overtake the main characters, but thankfully, the American baritone compellingly offers much more insight musically and acting-wise than the cartoonish Scarpias of productions past.
Pieczonka’s singing is equally beautiful, her “Vissi d’arte” truly breathtaking, though she doesn’t seem to muster the appropriate conviction in begging for her lover’s life as Scarpia’s lackeys torture him. More passionate is her murder of the Baron, stabbing him not once, but twice, and quickly dropping the sword (with its cross-shaped scabbard) on top of him. Curran dispenses with the tradition of having her lay candles at his corpse, implying Tosca’s religious convictions are as mixed and troubled as the Baron’s.
Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi in the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca  2012.
Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi in the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, 2012.
Michael Cooper
The final scene takes place on the parapets of Sant’Angelo, where Mario is imprisoned. Having given his ring to a prison officer for the delivery of a letter to Tosca, he is deeply moved to find the officer returning the trinket; it’s striking to observe Ventre here, his face a mix of wonder, gratitude, and sadness, so passionately translating complicated feelings into a beautiful “E lucavan le stelle.” The famous aria becomes less about the titular lead character and more a common plea for humanity. When Tosca enters to tell him about their escape and mock execution, his joy is short-lived. Never before (not even through all those Met broadcasts in childhood) have I seen a more cynical Mario. Proudly refusing a blindfold, Ventre’s Mario seems perfectly aware of the machinations of Scarpia and the state. Tosca realizes this too late, and her final call - “Scarpia, we meet before God!” - echoes the villain’s earlier dialogue, and highlights director Curran’s approach to framing these two characters within the context of sex, politics, and as ever, religion.
The COC Orchestra skillfully reflects the tension of this drama. It is hypnotizing, this score of Puccini’s, and it is gorgeously played under the masterful baton of conductor Paolo Carignani, bolstered by members of the COC chorus. Though occasionally loud, the COC Orchestra understands Tosca is grand opera with a capital “G,” and their bold playing matches the work’s inherent melodrama. Go see it. If you’re new to opera, if you’re an old hand, it doesn’t matter. The Canadian Opera Company’s Tosca hits all the right notes.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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