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Opera Chats: Tosca (Teatro Real, 2021)

Based on an 1887 play by Victorien Sardou, Tosca, with music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica originally premiered in Rome in January 1900. This version, staged at Madrid’s Teatro Real, was directed by Paco Azorín, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, and was filmed in July 2021.

Set in Rome in June 1800 around the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, Tosca doesn’t shy away from scenes of torture and murder, attempted rape and suicide.

Cesare Angelotti (Gerardo Bullón) escapes from prison, and is helped into hiding by a friend, the artist Mario Cavaradossi (Joseph Calleja), who is the lover of acclaimed singer Floria Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky). The sinister Baron Scarpia (Carlos Álvarez) tries to convince Tosca that Cavaradossi is cheating on her, hoping she’ll give up the whereabouts of Angelotti to get back at him. But things don’t always work out as intended.

A sacristan: Valeriano Lanchas
Spoletta: Mikeldi Atxalandabaso
Sciarrone: David Lagares
A pastor: Inés Ballesteros

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

Costume Designer: Isidre Prunés
Lighting Designer: Pedro Yagüe
Choreographer: Carlos Martos de la Vega
Chorus Master: Andrés Máspero
Video Director: Alessandro Arcangeli
Costume of Floria Tosca: Ulises Mérida

■ ■ ■

Francis: There’s another reason we should talk about Tosca before La Traviata.

Traxy: Not just that it’s from a different opera house?

F: No. This is our first time discussing Puccini!

T: Oh, yeah. The other one would have been another Verdi.

F: Exactly! Merry Christmas!

T: So you didn’t choose it so you could gloat about how this show’s leading tenor answered your question but not mine in his live Q&A back in November?

F: Well, now that you mention it …

T: Go on, then.

F: Really?

T: Adults are allowed to be excited about things too, you know. Besides, your question was way better and more interesting for him to answer – and for the rest of us to hear the answer to. I just asked the basic “which role/composer is your favourite?” which is kinda boring. Are you going to tell any potential readers what you asked?

F: Sure! I asked how he copes with being away from his family, because he seems to be away from them a lot. He was in Madrid doing Tosca in July, and repeated the role in Zürich in September or October, I think.

T: I really hope they filmed that as well, by the way.

F: Then he’s in Paris for Rigoletto in November. And that ain’t even the whole past six months!

T: True. So, tell us, how does he cope with being away?

F: “Not well.”

T: Aww.

F: I get it. Like him, I come from a big, close-knit family, and I hate being away from them. Lucky for me I don’t have to, but I can imagine how difficult it must be to be away from your family that much, especially when you have kids. But like he said, it’s the sacrifice he had to make in order to do his dream job.

T: And these days you can keep in touch with people over video chats, so it’s a little easier. At least you get to see them, even if it’s only on a screen. Has he won you over, then?

F: A man after my own heart. Not only a great performer but a real solid guy in real life too.

T: I’ll take that as a yes.

F: Please do. He’s coming to the UK next year. Would you go see one of his shows in person?

T: Oh, in a heartbeat, but the Royal Opera House is in London and Glyndebourne is somewhere on the south coast. Ish. It’s not exactly next door.

F: And you don’t like crowds in a pandemic.

T: No, I do not. Nor in general, to be fair, but if Glyndebourne was closer than London, I’d consider it. I think it’s open air as well, but it’s even further away, so that’s not really practical for us.

F: What a shame. Maybe another time?

T: Yeah. Maybe. But anyway, let’s talk about Tosca.

F: Let’s! The artwork for this production and Tosca’s dress for most of it fits the holiday season: red.

T: But that’s where the similarities end. Or are naked women Christmassy now?

F: I would have thought it’s much too cold for that, but yeah, I did not expect that lady to be fully naked.

T: I didn’t expect her to be properly naked either, but umm, I mean there was nothing left to the imagination there.

F: We didn’t see some of the text that might have explained her presence better – it was too dark and blurry on screen to read – but she was meant to represent the revolution.

T: Revolution? It thought it might have been death or something. She was so … portentous.

F: I agree, but it was Revolution that handed Angelotti the key to let him escape the prison.

T: And the dinner knife Tosca stabbed Scarpia with. Which was entirely justified, and while you would have expected a sharper knife than something that would struggle to cut through anything but the rarest of steaks … I guess stabbing him repeatedly with a blunt knife is some kind of poetic justice.

F: It’s almost as if you didn’t like Scarpia.

T: Well, fair’s fair; Carlos Álvarez was great, I wouldn’t fault him. But the character!

F: Scarpia is one of those character deaths you don’t exactly shed a tear over.

T: Hell no! I mean, he has this whole aria about how he likes his women best when he has to, uh, force them. “She loves him so she will yield to my pleasure.” Uchhh.

F: I’d much like to stab the guy repeatedly myself, to be honest.

T: Quite. But isn’t it also an achievement to be able to portray someone that awful?

F: Without wanting to rip your own skin off?

T: Okay, also that, but I was more thinking how a great performer can make you despise a character so much. It’s especially well done if the performer is a lovely person in real life.

F: Oh. Yeah, that’s an achievement for sure. Mr Álvarez is a talented man in many ways.

T: One thing bugs me with Act 1, though.

F: How quick Tosca is to believe Cavaradossi is having an affair with the Marchesa?

T: … Well, yes, she shows very little faith in her supposed soulmate there, but then Scarpia is good at playing to her jealous paranoia. No, I meant the sound. I’m hoping it’s a microphone problem at times when Calleja sings some of those notes, but it might have actually been an off night.

F: Because some notes sounded uncharacteristically poor?

T: Yup.

F: Even if it wasn’t, these things happen. It’s a shame they happened on the night of the filming, that goes without saying, but unless it was a microphone problem that was later identified and fixed he must have warmed up a bit more by the second act.

T: Yeah. I’m hoping it was a sound mixing issue, but perhaps it wasn’t.

F: Are you disappointed? Has the halo slipped?

T: No. Nobody’s perfect, and besides, the chemistry between the ill-fated lovers was amazing. That more than makes up for a temporary sound issue.

F: That’s one of the things I personally really liked about this production. The passion! They’re so tactile with each other and I love it. What’s the expression? I’m here for it.

T: Me too, 100.

F: It’s not the only production to do it well, don’t get me wrong, but there was a genuine warmth and playfulness here that I found appealing.

T: I guess they are so good together because Radvanovsky and Calleja go way back, and Calleja referred to the two of them as “platonic soulmates” in another Instagram video.

F: That’s real sweet, I love that. And you know, I think knowing someone for a long time helps. It means you’ve developed a level of trust between you, so you’re comfortable with each other in a way you wouldn’t be with a stranger, which you need to be if you want to portray a convincing couple.

T: Like, otherwise it’s “these people just look awkward together so how on earth are we meant to believe that they’re madly in love? They don’t even look like they like each other.” That kind of thing?

F: Yeah! What they’re selling, we ain’t buying. Except I totally buy this. They’re great together.

T: I agree. Seeing as how we’ve already expressed our combined admiration for Joseph Calleja, how do you feel about Sondra Radvanovsky?

F: Ahh, La Tosca herself. She’s magnificent, amazing, stupendous, fantastic, bellissima … I could go on.

T: Please do.

F: That voice! Those ovations after Vissi d’arte were well-deserved. I felt like joining in.

T: Why didn’t you?

F: I’ll save the standing ovations for the auditorium, where the plaudits can be appreciated by the person to which they’re intended. My couch ain’t done half as much to deserve that kind of praise.

T: It might start to get ideas above its station, huh?

F: See? You get it.

T: I was surprised at how long the applause went on.

F: Three minutes, give or take.

T: I expected applause like that at the end of the act, not during it. I mean, it went on for such a long time that Radvanovsky started to look slightly embarrassed and like she wanted them to stop so she could continue the performance.

F: Clearly humbled by the response. Radvanovsky, to me, ain’t playing the role of Floria Tosca, she is Floria Tosca. Never seen anyone quite like her. I hope they’re filming the current run at the Met so I get to see her in the role again.

T: And Calleja is performing Cavaradossi again in January according to the website, but someone else is performing Tosca then.

F: What about the naked woman? Is she in it?

T: Completely different staging. To my knowledge there is no naked woman.

F: Dang.

T: Besides, she’s standing on those prison steps for what seems like forever. She must have great blood circulation. I can’t stand still for that long, I’d keel over and faint.

F: I can’t decide if it’s an easy part to play or a difficult one.

T: Because she has no lyrics or melodies she needs to remember?

F: Right, but at the same time she has to move purposefully across the stage at various intervals without tripping or looking self-conscious, or burst into laughter. Moving with strength and poise.

T: While completely starkers. Yeah, I’d forget myself and would have to fight the urge to scratch whatever part that will inevitably start to itch.

F: Playing the role of Naked Revolution Lady not your forte?

T: Nor is any soprano’s part, in fairness, but that’s a whole different story.

F: On the contrary, I think you could pull off Dr Melfi or Carmela no problem.

T:

F: You’re welcome.

T:

F: Or Janice.

T: I see we’re going full on with The Sopranos references now.

F: Yes! It’s one of the greatest shows ever made!

T: That it is. They didn’t have as many awkward close-ups of people’s hands either. Or big, painted eyes looking in through windows. Or facemasks on some of the actors.

F: Ah, the glorious days long before COVID.

T: Those were the days. When we could have booked tickets at the opera without having to worry about catching the plague by going to the theatre. You know, I like Tosca’s red dress, holiday season or not. I’d wear that.

F: I like the costumes in this production. Less so the more modern ones, but even they seem very fitting, and they somehow manage to make a statement and being understated at the same time. That appeals to me.

T: Would you ever dress like that in private?

F: Who says I’m not?

T: Fair point.

F: What went through your head when Scarpia said he’d write Cavaradossi a pardon?

T: “It’s a trap!”

F: What gave it away?

T: The note didn’t even specify his name, only Tosca “and the cavalier with her”. Not to mention his “oh yeah we’ll totally fake his execution, just like we did with that other guy, wink wink, nudge nudge”. Like that was never going to backfire? Scarpia obviously never intended to spare him, he just needed Tosca to believe it in order to agree to give herself to him.

F: Well, you did conclude he’s a dishonorable scumbag.

T: Yes, and good riddance!

F: On a more somber note, E lucevan le stelle. The song Cavaradossi sings as he awaits his execution, reminiscing about loving Tosca.

T: It’s heartbreaking. The emotion is so intense.

F: Some might call it melodramatic.

T: Oh yeah, it’s melodramatic as fuck, but that’s also what I’ve come to love about opera. Big emotions, you can’t not have an emotional reaction to it – and, okay, most of that means you end up in tears, but crying can serve as an emotional valve.

F: You mean an outlet?

T: Probably the better word to use there, yeah. Like most of last year, where I basically ended up having more days crying than not crying. Opera is a way to cry for an actual reason, instead of just bursting into tears randomly because you happened to think about a character you’re writing being separated from one of their loved ones.

F: That’s a potent combination paired with lockdown blues.

T: Tell me about it. Lockdown blues means you’re predisposed to poor mental health, and that means you need very little for that emotional cup to run over. But I’m better now.

F: Would you credit opera with making you feel better?

T: It’s given me something else to focus on, I guess. Or maybe I’ve adopted better coping mechanisms. How did lockdown affect you?

F: Made me climb the fucking walls, thanks, but I’d rather look ahead than dwell on things that happened in the past and that I can’t change.

T: You could write some kind of self help book with phrases like that.

F: Or join Twitter, doling out bite-sized chunks of wisdom one tweet at a time.

T: Twitter is probably the opposite of a healthy coping mechanism.

F: But it seems like fun, though. In a sort of cesspool, screaming into the void kind of way.

T: Oh my gods, you’ve actually joined Twitter, haven’t you?

F: That’s for me to know and for you to find out! But anyway, we leave Mario Cavaradossi with the words that he dies in desperation, having never loved life so much as he now does. Thoughts?

T: He knows he’s about to die, and yet his love for Tosca keeps his spirit from being entirely broken.

F: She’s the light in his darkness.

T: But it’s not to last, because it’s opera and this is in some ways even sadder than most.

F: Or is it?

T: “Everyone dies” is pretty sad, no?

F: But at the same time, everyone dies. No one is left to pick up the pieces. No one is left to mourn the death of their beloved. Think about it. No one’s left to suffer.

T: This feels like a “two wrongs make a right” kind of thing.

F: So you agree with me?

T: I guess. I mean, in a way what you say makes sense.

F: There can be no grief if there ain’t someone there to grieve.

T: Yeah. But that doesn’t make it a happy ending.

F: It’s still a tragedy, but it’s less tragic than if it had turned out Cavaradossi’s death was faked.

T: How very Romeo and Juliet that would have been.

F: Tell me about it. I don’t think it would’ve been as good. It would cheapen it.

T: Agreed. It’s best the way it is. And I was right about it being a trap.

F: You were, but not in the sense you mentioned. The phrasing of the letter had very little to do with it, it was just to get Tosca to stand down. It was all in the verbal command.

T: I’m glad she stabbed Scarpia, he had it coming.

F: For sure.

T: I’m sad that they still bloody shot Cavaradossi.

F: Naturally. Are you sad about Tosca’s fate?

T: I suppose being imprisoned for murder, where you have nothing else to do but to dwell on the execution of your presumed soulmate, would have been far worse than death.

F: Prisons in those days? Yeah, they were no walk in the park at the best of times, and she was used to a much classier environment.

T: As well she should be.

F: I suspect we could discuss Tosca for hours here, but I think it’s time we wrapped up. Anything specific you feel you’ve learned?

T: Don’t, uh, hide escaped prisoners in old wells?

F: Aside from that.

T: True love is worth fighting for.

F: Even dying for?

T: Given the right set of circumstances, yes, probably.

F: How would you rate Tosca as an opera?

T: Loved it. The YouTube commenters sure didn’t, but I do. I want to watch more versions of it for comparison. I must admit I’m really rather into this one for some reason.

F: Because of the truly amazing cast?

T: Well, yes, but I actually meant the story. Like, Madama Butterfly is just depressing, La Bohème is sweet but also depressing, but this … You know what? It’s not just because of the passion, it’s because it’s about a rebellion and I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.

F: You’d hide an escaped rebel in an old well in your garden?

T: I mean, we don’t have a well so they’d have to make do with a shed full of spiders, but … for a just cause? I wouldn’t rule it out. Plus I don’t actually know any convicts, escaped or otherwise, so it’s a bit of a moot point. Anyway. What are we discussing next time?

F: Let’s leave that one open for now. It might be another Verdi, it might not. We’ll see how we feel in the new year. Deal?

T: Deal. So many operas, so little time.

F: There is always time for opera, and if there ain’t, you make time for it. It’s just how it is.

T: An irrefutable fact of life.

F: Exactly so. A presto!

Francis

Sinner, not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos and going to the opera. Is a meticulous dresser and has Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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