Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tosca (and L'Allegro)

When I'm awakened at 2 in the morning by a bunch of drunken clubgoers screaming at one another outside my window, I think that the romance of city life is overrated. But there are occasions when living in a major metropolitan area has its rewards, and last Saturday was one of them.

In the afternoon we went to see the dress rehearsal of San Francisco Opera's production of Tosca. It's not our favorite Puccini opera, but since the tickets were free (they were given to us by a regular customer at my bookshop), we couldn't resist.

Tosca was the opera Puccini wrote after La Bohème. Like La Bohème, it's based on a literary source--in Tosca's case, Victorien Sardou's 1887 play La Tosca--and the libretto was written by the brilliant Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (who also collaborated on the libretti for Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut). But otherwise, there aren't many resemblances between the two works. Unlike La Bohème's ensemble of bohemians, Tosca centers on three characters: the artist Cavaradossi, the diva Flora Tosca, and Baron Scarpia, head of the secret police in Rome. Cavaradossi and Tosca are lovers, but the malevolent Scarpia lusts after Tosca and suspects Cavaradossi of supporting the recently overthrown Roman Republic.

A bit of history, which is important to the opera's plot. The opera is set in June 1800. Several years earlier French armies under Napoleon had invaded Italy and, after defeating the forces of the Austrian empire which then occupied most of the northern part of the country, eventually entered Rome. As they had elsewhere in Italy the French declared a republic, and the Pope (who was both spiritual and secular ruler of the Papal States--a huge swath of central Italy stretching between the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas) was taken prisoner. However, a few months later Napoleon embarked on his invasion of Egypt. While he was occupied with the disastrous Egyptian campaign and its aftermath, the Austrians returned and retook northern Italy, while the army of the Kingdom of Naples (then ruled by the Spanish royal family) captured Rome. Reprisals were carried out, and suspected republicans were executed or imprisoned. In Tosca, it is the escape of the republican prisoner Angelotti that sets events in motion.

However, in 1800 Napoleon's army re-invaded northern Italy and, on June 14, fought a major battle with the Austrians at Marengo (not far from Turin in the northwest). It is news of Napoleon's apparent defeat in this battle that is announced in Act I of Tosca, and which is the occasion for the victory mass that is sung at the close of that act.

While the mass begins, Baron Scarpia is gloating over his plan to use Cavaradossi's arrest on suspicion of aiding Angelotti in order to blackmail Tosca for sex: "Ah, to see the flame of those imperious eyes grow faint and languid with passion...For him, death, and for her, my arms..." In an amazing juxtaposition, as the choir begins to sing the Te Deum, Scarpia cries out, "Tosca, you make me forget God!"

Since the opera takes place at a specific historical time and references are made to actual events, people, and locations (the settings for all three acts--the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant' Angelo--are still standing) directors have little leeway to change its time or place, making Tosca more or less immune from Regietheater. And indeed the SF Opera's production shows how effective a traditional staging can be. The set and costume designs by Thierry Bosquet were based on Armando Agnini's original 1932 SF staging, and they were quite handsome. The Act III Castel Sant' Angelo set, which looks out over the skyline of Rome as the dawn slowly illuminates the dome of Sant'Andrea della Valle, was especially striking.

Since we saw a dress rehearsal, I don't want to write about any of the singers we saw (for the record: Jordan Bisch as Angelotti, Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi, Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca, and Lado Ataneli as Scarpia). But I will mention that there is a 1992 DVD version of Tosca starring Plácido Domingo (Cavaradossi), Catherine Malfitano (Tosca), and Ruggero Raimondi (Scarpia), which was broadcast live from the actual locations and at the actual times specified in the libretto. (The orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, was playing live in a studio nearby, and the singers apparently wore tiny radio transmitters that enabled them to hear the music and sing on location.) Here is the finale of Act I from this broadcast:

Scarpia's blasphemy in this scene is especially shocking because the opera premiered in Rome almost exactly a century after the events it describes; perhaps it was only permissible because Scarpia is the evil agent of a foreign power.

After seeing this brutal and bloody opera (which features--spoiler alert!--torture, attempted rape, murder, execution and suicides; musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it "that shabby little shocker") we drove across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley to see the Mark Morris Dance Company perform Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato accompanied by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, soloists, and the UC Berkeley Chamber Choir. Seeing both on the same day was almost too much of a good thing; fortunately, we had a break of several hours in between. Perhaps I'll write about the MMDG performance in another post; for now, I'll just say that the chance to see these two amazing live performances in one day made us glad once again that we live in the city.

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