REVIEW: The Drama of Tosca

by Gregory Moomjy

On June 17, something miraculous occurred; “The Drama of Tosca”, a recording of a live performance with a live audience (yes, you read that correctly) from May 2021, was posted on the Opera Philadelphia channel. After we take 30 seconds to rejoice that live performances are returning, let’s discuss its true importance.

It was an enjoyable evening. Anna María Martínez was dynamic as opera’s beloved diva. The orchestra, under Corrado Rovaris, highlighted Puccini’s trademark lyricism. But this wasn’t Tosca. Or, at least not what we normally think of as Tosca.

Instead, it was a 90-minute adaptation of the classic opera.

Adaptations are one of the three principal methods for bringing opera back after Covid. Other strategies are to make more opera shorts or miniseries. These new genres, exemplified by The Island We Made, also at Opera Philadelphia, or Boston Lyric Opera’s Desert In are short, yet compelling works of music drama meant to be streamed. Other examples are New Camerata Opera’s opera film Julie or The Rosina Project’s’ hip-hopera remix of The Barber of Seville.  Still another option is simply to wait until Covid restrictions are completely lifted and audiences can return to the theater as normal. Not all these choices are viable for every company, but as “The Drama of Tosca” demonstrates, adaptations at least are. 

So, what, in this case, is an adaptation? It is a shortened version of an opera which manages to maintain the core of the piece. Some music may be cut or rearranged, and as was the case here, a narrator could be added. Sometimes, the music of an opera could be rearranged to tell a slightly different story. This is the case with a recent piece by Divaria Productions, a small company in New York City.  They reworked the music of Don Giovannito tell the story of its first New York performances in the 1820s. 

Whatever the case may be, the essence of classic works must be at the center of the new adaptations.

In this regard, Opera Philadelphia performed admirably. Their efforts were helped in no small measure by Charlotte Blake Alston as the Narrator. Her observations provide fresh insight into the character’s’ motivations and Puccini’s compositional acumen.

For instance, the piece began with Cavaradossi’s execution. Here, the Narrator drew attention to Tosca’s exclamation, “Bravo! What an artist!” This occurs the moment her lover falls dead. However, the Narrator made it clear that for Tosca, herself an opera singer, all this was supposed to be a macabre performance. The Narrator reminded the audience that Tosca even gave her boyfriend last minute instructions on how to convincingly fall to the ground. In the theater, even in tragedies, the actors don’t really die at the end. The fact that the Narrator was there to focus the audience’s attention on the cruelty of the trap that ensnared Tosca made the ending profoundly disturbing.

Puccini is widely known for his use of local color. Madama Butterfly contains quotations from folk music and Japan’s national anthem circa 1905. Massenet once quibbled that he was annoyed that no Frenchmen could compose a Parisian street scene to rival Act II of La Boheme. Yet, the Narrator reminded us that we can count on Tosca for an accurate depiction of reactionary Rome in sound. She emphasized Puccini’s use of bells in the score. By contrasting the bells of prison fortresses, and churches owned by a corrupt Papacy, to Philadelphia’s own Liberty Bell.

This comparison immediately led to Cavardossi’s cry for freedom, given in a sturdy rendition by Brian Jagde. His brilliant tenor may have had too much squillo for ‘Ricondita armonia,’but he was able to manage it better as the evening went on. He capped his performance with a prayerful ‘E lucevan le stelle.’

As Scarpia, Quinn Kelsey’s arch villain was more slimy than demonic. This was heightened by the narrator’s funny, yet apt insinuation that he was (probably) a member of the Mafia.

This was a valiant foray by Opera Philadelphia into adaptations. Truth be told, perhaps they should have said more about Italian history circa 1800. This may have allowed them to explore the reasons for Cavardossi’s assassination, as he espoused the ideals of the French Revolution, and therefore supported Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. But, that is a small historical point.

Additionally, the evening ended with Martínez’s warm rendition of ‘Visi d’arte.’ This produced mixed results. By not depicting Tosca’s suicide, it left the political thrust of the libretto inconclusive. However, it did allow the Narrator to soliloquize about the enduring power of art, and the communion between performers and audiences that live theater creates.

At the end of the day, isn’t that why we go to the opera?

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