For the last six years, Houston Grand Opera has opened its season with a flashy 19th century Italian opera—two Puccinis, two Verdis and one Rossini. This year it’s back to Puccini with his most violent opera, Tosca, opening Oct. 23. Running concurrently a week later on Oct. 30 is Tchaikovsky’s equally heart-rending Eugene Onegin.
Both operas are incredibly popular in the list of great works. Set in 1800 in Rome, Tosca begins with an escaped political prisoner, Angelotti, seeking refuge in a church. A painter working in the church, Cavaradossi, finds him and agrees to help Angelotti escape. But Floria Tosca, Cavaradossi’s lover and a renowned opera singer, gets caught in the middle and is tricked by the savage chief of police. Without spoiling the ending, you can expect torture, sadism and, of course, fiery love arias with lush orchestration to match.
First performed in Moscow, 1879, Eugene Onegin follows in Tosca’s ardent footsteps. Tatyana (for whom Tchaikovsky originally named the opera) is a bookish introvert from the country until she meets the strikingly handsome Eugene Onegin. She is overcome by love and in a mad passion she writes him a letter expressing her devotion. But Onegin has other things to worry about, not least a duel with his friend, and he scoffs at her emotional display calling her innocent and naïve. Uniquely, the opera spans several years and with a few jumps forward in time it’s no surprise that Onegin ends up regretting his words.
Known for exquisite music and lively action, these operas see the stage regularly, so how do a cast and creative team keep it new and exciting? HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers, who will conduct Tosca, believes that with such large emotions and heroic characters, Tosca will always be the epitome of what is means to be operatic.
The first time Summers conducted Tosca, it was performed for an audience without any memory of it. It was 1988 in Shanghai and it was the first time the opera had ever been performed in China. It’s an experience that continues to shape Summers’ approach as a conductor.
“I think our performance cannot be just shooting an arrow back at the past,” Summers says. “We’re performing for now.”
A mostly-Russian cast sings the mighty Italian opera with Liudmyla Monastyrska as Tosca, Alexey Dolgov as Mario Cavaradossi, and Andrzej Dobber as the vicious Scarpia.
As the revival director of Robert Carsen’s poetic Onegin production, Paula Suozzi has an even larger challenge in making the opera feel original. Suozzi has been working on this production since 1997 when it debuted with the Metropolitan Opera, but with each revival, she continues to make discoveries.
“If you were to sit down and watch, the shape is basically the same, but each of the moments, we discover those as we go,” Suozzi says. “I can’t sit there and say we’ve always done it like this because that’s not helpful for anybody—and that’s not fun.”
This is true largely because different singers are taking over the roles—Scott Hendricks as Onegin and Katie Van Kooten as Tatyana. Michael Hofstetter, from Germany, conducts.
Suozzi describes the production’s aesthetic as simple and stark—a setting that allows singers to bring the character’s personalities to the fore. Tosca, thick with heady obsession and character mania, will likely balance nicely. And as for Tosca’s reputation for bloodshed, Summers regrets that supertitles have made many audiences take opera’s narrative too literally by focusing on the surface plot. “Music tells us something about these characters that words cannot,” Summers says. So sit back and listen, and don’t forget your handkerchief.
Tosca. Oct 23–Nov 14. $18-322; Eugene Onegin. Oct 30–Nov 13. $35-342. Wortham Theater Center, 550 Prairie St. 713-228-6737. houstongrandopera.org