Part love story, part macabre thriller, Puccini’s Tosca is a tragedy. An incredibly sad, heart-rending, “everybody dies!” tragedy. Puccini’s trick is that, while the story’s gut-wrenching, the music is glorious.
All this to say, Tosca, which opens the Opera in the Heights 2019–20 season this month, is outrageous. The character’s an opera singer. She’s a diva who never seems to step off-stage and carries the drama of her profession into her personal life. She lives every moment as if it’s the climax of a three-act tragedy in which she’s the star. She’s spoiled, temperamental, willful—and Mario Cavaradossi loves her. (Sopranos Victoria Cannizzo and Elizabeth Baldwin Victoria alternate the title role here.)
Cavaradossi is a painter. At the start of the opera, we see him working in a church. His friend, Cesare Angelotti, is hiding there. An escaped political prisoner being pursued by a cruel, corrupt chief of police, Baron Scarpia, Angelotti asks Cavaradossi for help. Cavaradossi agrees. (Tenor Gerardo Gaytan alternates the role with Peter Scott Drackley.)
In storms Tosca. (To a church, mind.) “Who were you talking to?” she demands. “Was it another woman?”
And so it begins. Cavaradossi trying to help his friend, Tosca jealous and demanding, and Scarpia barreling down on them, determined to exert cruel control over everyone. Adding to the drama, the story’s set in Rome, in 1800, and Napoleon’s marching on Italy. Talk about tension. Puccini’s intentions for the characters couldn’t be more clear if the words “doom or glory” were blinking in huge neon lights over the stage. There’s torture, betrayal, murder, suicide, and more before the final curtain—and through it all is Puccini’s wonderful music.
So why is the savage story of Tosca one of Puccini’s most popular operas? “I love what everybody else loves about Puccini—it’s beautiful music!” says guest conductor Sameer Patel. “It’s gorgeous! The arias, such as Mario’s aria in Act I, are some of the most beautiful melodies ever written.”
“I also love the drama,” he says. “In Act II, there are interrogations of Tosca and of Mario and it plays like a great crime story. It’s nonstop. It’s incredible how Puccini and the librettist were able to craft such drama. In so many ways, Tosca gives you the best of classical music. There’s a propulsive drama through the whole score. Even if you were to take out the text, if you were to take out the singing and the vocal lines, you could still follow the story.”
Gerardo Gaston says he relishes the role of Cavaradossi.
“I’ve spent the last several months thinking about what kind of Cavaradossi I want to be,” he tells us. “And everything comes down to the fact that he loves Tosca. He loves everything about her. Even her being jealous, her being demanding, he loves it all. For him, she’s just beautiful.”
He goes on: “Like Tosca, Mario is a passionate person. He sees beauty in everything. It’s easy to play to play that passion. And then you see this big turn and you see his hatred towards Scarpia. He hates him because he represents everything that he’s against—deception, corruption, greed. You hear it in the music. Every time Scarpia’s name is mentioned, Mario changes, he hardens.”
And his love for Tosca is ever present. At one point, Mario is alone, he thinks he’s about to be executed. It’s a somber, serious moment, but Puccini weaves fragments of the love duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca from Act I into the music.
At the end of Act III, the stage is littered with dead bodies and broken hearts, but here again is Puccini’s genius: No one died in vain. Tosca, her lover Mario, the prisoner Angelotti—everyone died because they believed in something. Justice, love, truth, honor—something.
Tosca is bloody, raw, and, in the hands of good singers and musicians, so very much worth the effort. Enjoy.
Thru Oct. 13. Tickets from $34.50. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd. 713-861-5303. More info and tickets at operaintheheights.org.