Floria Tosca is a lusty dark-eyed singer who has captivated Napoleonic Rome. Her boyfriend Mario Cavaradossi is a painter who would seem to be based on the famous painter Michael Caravaggio. Baron Scarpia, the head of Rome’s police. He imprisons and tortures Cavaradossi in order to extort a sex deal out of Tosca.
Here we have the arts (Tosca and Cavaradossi) being tortured, manipulated, and controlled by the government (Scarpia). That is the broad-stroke political content. This opera, easily one of the ten most popular of all time, is a significant criticism of interference in the performing arts by officialdom. Times have changed. If Tosca were written today it would be about two struggling artists living in Section 8 housing and hoping for an NEA grant.
A high point for San Diego Opera
The production at San Diego Opera that ran through Sunday, February 21, featured a near-perfect Scarpia. I have long been an admirer of bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s work. He applies superlative technique to rich natural talent to produce what I believe is ideal operatic singing. To that he adds great stage acting. His performance as Scarpia was the highlight of this most recent San Diego Opera production.
Grimsley has been coming to San Diego Opera since the 1999–2000 season, when he appeared as Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin. He has only once not been the villain in San Diego. That one was as Jokanaan (John the Baptist) in Richard Strauss’s Salome. He may not have been the villain, but he did get his head chopped off.
In San Diego’s last Tosca, in 2009, Grimsley played Scarpia opposite an ideal tenor in Marcus Haddock and a vicious Sylvie Valayre as Tosca. That production was enriched by the acting decisions made by these principal singers. Valayre, for example, crouched over the dying Scarpia like a hyena waiting to strip the carcass.
Haddock provided an insight into staging the gut-wrenching Act III aria E lucevan le stelle. The aria is supposed to be Cavaradossi’s farewell letter to Tosca. The issue is that watching a guy writing and singing is uninspiring. Usually the tenor gets up from the writing desk and walks around and ruminates during the aria. Haddock’s solution was to include his hands in the torture scene of Act II. It makes sense to break the hands of an artist in a torture situation. With his hands bandaged, Cavaradossi cannot write so he dictates to the jailer instead. It was brilliant in its simplicity and it enhanced the theme of art being tortured by government.
(Haddock, unfortunately, has since suffered a stroke and is struggling to return to the stage.)
The ancient Franco Zeffirelli set in that 2009 productiion was traditional as traditional can be. Yet the age and style of the set didn’t matter because the performances of the singers were clearly committed to their characters and their singing matched. Valayre’s sexy, violent, manic, Tosca, Grimsley’s domineering Scarpia, and Haddock’s insightful and vocally ideal Cavaradossi combined to create a high point in the company’s history.
It was with pleasant anticipation that I attended the 2016 version of Tosca — Greer Grimsley to reprise Scarpia, a new set, and Maestro Massimo Zanetti at the podium. I took my seat prepared to be delighted. Zanetti conducts with the zeal of a man with his hair on fire looking for water. In 2014, he worked his magic in Un ballo in maschera and Verdi’s Requiem and was an instant favorite of musicians and audiences. His conducting that year was overshadowed by Ian Campbell announcing that the company would be closing.
I was excited to see what he would do with Tosca, and he didn’t disappoint. He was the lover the old girl deserves. His musical arc and pacing of the piece were flawless. The dramatic moments in Tosca are never in question but the transitions between Puccini’s musical incidents often are. The orchestra and Zanetti put that concern out of my mind almost immediately.
Grimsley and Maestro Zanetti once again proved to be the embodiment of everything that is right with opera. The rest of the production was more of a study in things that are wrong with opera.
The problems started immediately. An escaped prisoner enters the cathedral set and begins looking for a key to a chapel in which he can hide. The prisoner is Angellotti, the consul of the failed Roman Republic that preceded the regime that Scarpia serves.
Angellotti did the same thing every Angellotti does — he staggered around the stage demonstrating his extreme fatigue. Repetitive stumbling becomes silly after one or two pratfalls. The physical acting adds nothing to the show and can create an operatic anachronism as was the case here.
After finding the key at the foot of a five-foot-tall marble statue, Angellotti got up with so much feigned fatigue that the statue wobbled on the table it was resting on. It sounds petty, but that type of unforced error takes the audience’s attention away from the opera and onto the idea of styrofoam sculptures.
Close on the heels on the wobbling statue, the Sacristan, a sort of church custodian, walked into the cathedral and looked around in awe as if seeing it for the first time. Now, the Sacristan is an older man so maybe he sees the cathedral for the first time whenever he leaves and comes back in. But I don’t think that is what was going on. Like Angelotti’s prolonged stumbling, it felt clumsy.
When Cavaradossi enters, sung by Gwen Hughes Jones, he and the Sacristan engage in several physical jokes that aren’t necessarily based on the character but are rather bits which are considered funny by the actor or the director. Those types of physical bits are never funny and once again they put a little mark of distraction on the show.
Then we had tourists entering the cathedral and being shooed away by the Sacristan. What in the name of God are tourists doing walking around Rome? Napoleon and his army of rapacious Frenchmen are just up the road. How many people have canceled trips to Paris this year after the terrorist attacks? That’s right. No tourists. But something needs to happen onstage, right? No, no it doesn’t.
Puccini wrote some music to set the tone for the scene as Cavaradossi prepares to continue his painting of Mary Magdalene. That’s it. Cavaradossi is preparing to sing an aria (Recondita armonia) about art’s mysterious power to blend diverse beauty. And music leading up to it represents the thought building in his head. We don’t need a mindless, distracting little interaction with tourists. Our attention should be drawn to the artist preparing.
Let’s count these up. There was the distraction of Angellotti being belligerently weak, a wobbling statue, a Sacristan who can’t remember he’s been to this cathedral every day for his entire adult life, physical “humor” that isn’t in the score, and tourists in the time of war. That makes five nonsensical elements in the first few minutes of the opera.
That type of sloppy acting and unfocused direction adds up over the course of an opera and makes it feel contrived and campy. None of it is necessary. Directors of opera always want to recite their mantra, “It won’t read.” This means that the house is so big and the audience is so far from the stage that realistic acting won’t be noticed. Therefore, opera acting needs to be exaggerated to read. Trust me, it reads — badly.
This isn’t just a San Diego Opera issue. This type of theatrical masturbation is everywhere in the opera world. No one wants to see an opera set under a black light.
The tiresome staging distractions continued but in the Te Deum at the end of Act I we got a big one. In one of all of opera’s great moments, the church bells toll and the cathedral’s choir and priests prepare to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon with a religious service. All the while, Scarpia sings of his desire for Tosca. But instead of feeling the tension between Scarpia’s lust that makes me “forget my God” and the Te Deum prayer, I was drawn to a flurry of chair-passing activity to find seats for a pretend congregation. Worse than distracting, it’s stupid. We, the audience, are the congregation in that scene.
This type of nonsense gives opera a bad reputation when it comes to staging and acting. Apologists like to blame the rigors of singing for the poor stage activity, but the majority of these activities aren’t related to the singing or the story; they exist only to make a pretty picture, which may or may not have anything to do with the drama.
The other common opera issue that was present in Tosca is that, of the three principal singers, only Greer Grimsley had a bio that made sense. The roles for which he is known all go together with his voice type. The Tosca, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou, had a list of roles that do not line up with being a Tosca. Her voice was not quite appropriate for this type of spinto role. Think of it like weight classes in wrestling or boxing. Tosca is a light-heavyweight role but Alexia Voulgaridou is a middleweight to lightweight fighter.
If we could consider only her singing and technique in another context, then she is a great singer. But in the context of Tosca, she sounded as if she was trying to create more weight in the sound. The quality was good until the very top of her range, where she lost the beauty and warmth of tone it possessed in the lower range.
It is dangerous to try to categorize a singer at this level, but my feeling was that she was miscast and that her performance suffered because of it. The current San Diego Opera administration can’t be blamed. This production was cast by Ian Campbell.
Voulgaridou had her professional debut as Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In days gone by, that would mean no Tosca for her. Had her debut been as the contessa in Figaro, then she would have been on the Tosca track if there were a track left.
I could say almost the same thing about the tenor, Gwyn Hughes Jones. He listed roles such as Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Rodolfo in La Bohème, and Nemorino in The Elixir of Love. All of those roles go together and would suite his voice very well. He is also more of a middleweight. Cavaradossi is not in line with those roles. The crazy thing is that Gwyn Hughes Jones also has sung Manrico from Trovatore, Calaf from Turandot, and Walther from Wagner’s Meistersinger. Those are all legitimate heavyweight roles and make no sense with his voice.
The issue is not with the singers — if a company offers a role for the right money you take it. The issue is with companies hiring younger and younger singers for roles such as Pinkerton or Mimi or Nemorino. This pushes more established singers to take whatever work is offered them. It changes the dynamic of operas and ultimately results in less compelling performances
One more issue must be mentioned. In Act II, Tosca gets to sing her aria to art, Vissi d’arte. This is her counterpart to Cavaradossi’s aforementioned Act I aria about art (Recondita armonia) and confirms her as representative of the arts. A few minutes after Vissi d’arte she kills the scheming Scarpia — who, it bears repeating, symbolizes government control of art.
In most Tosca productions you will ever see, she stabs him once, he goes down, and then maybe she stabs him again.
A 200-pound man who deals in violence every day is not going down from one thrust of a six-inch pointy thing. Tosca needs to attack Scarpia Goodfellas-style and not just for dramatic reasons. This is the moment when the arts kill the representation of oppressive government. It’s a great moment.