The voices! Soprano Michelle Bradley, making her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in the title role of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, and tenor Russell Thomas as her doomed lover Cavaradossi filled the spacious Lyric Opera House with their powerful singing during Saturday’s opening night performance. Fabián Veloz, another Lyric first-timer, brought baritone darkness to his role as Baron Scarpia, one of opera’s most vicious villains. Louisa Muller directed this stellar production.
To hear them perform is reason enough to snag a ticket to Tosca, which continues with six performances through April 10, beginning on Tuesday night. And with a strong supporting cast, and set design and costuming that truly sets the mood, it is a first-rate presentation of a piece that has a very unhappy ending, even for opera.
This production also is one of the most far-reaching efforts by the classical music community to show its dedication to diversity and inclusion. Bradley and Thomas, the two leads, are Black, as is Leroy Davis in the small but important role of the Jailer. Veloz is from Argentina, and Rodell Rosel, who plays Scarpia henchman Spoletta, is Filipino-American. South Korea’s Eun Sun Kim, the guest conductor of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, is music director of the San Francisco Opera and also took the podium at a Grant Park Orchestra concert in Millennium Park last summer.
The story takes place in Rome over two days in 1800. It involves the Napoleonic Wars and the fraught political situation in an Italy well before unification—a period that was not ancient history when Puccini wrote Tosca in 1900 but is remote to audiences today.
To condense as much as possible, Rome is in turmoil as Napoleon, who conquered the city in 1798 and briefly established a Republic, left it undefended for a takeover by the Kingdom of Naples. Immediately after the curtain rise (there is no overture), Angelotti (Rivers Hawkins), who had held a high office in the Republic, arrives at a church after escaping from a fortress where he had been held as a political prisoner.
Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, has hidden women’s clothing and a fan as a costume to help him avoid capture. Cavaradossi, an artist, arrives to work on his portrait of Mary Magdalene and greets Angelotti as a friend and promises to give him refuge. Angelotti hides in his family’s private chapel as Floria Tosca makes her first appearance.
Tosca is one of the great meta roles because she is a beloved opera diva. Bradley instantly establishes her as a drama queen, recognizing the image in the portrait as the Marchesa and becoming jealous, but Cavaradossi explains that he painted Attavanti at prayer in the church, and assures Tosca of his love in the gorgeous aria “Qual’occhio al mondo,” in which he tells her she has the most beautiful eyes in the world.
Their lives start to unravel quickly when Tosca leaves and Cavaradossi spirits Angelotti off to his villa just ahead of the evil Scarpia, who rules Rome as chief of police. Scarpia, who lusts after Tosca, discovers a fan with the Attavanti family seal. He puts it to use when Tosca returns, arousing her jealousy by showing her the fan and suggesting that Cavaradossi is carrying on with the Marchesa. Tosca storms off, then Scarpia—while a religious procession ensues—sings of his intention to have Cavaradossi hanged so he can seduce Tosca, then kneels for a blessing.
Act II takes place at Scarpia’s sparely furnished office in a palace. He first brings in Cavaradossi, who is taken into an adjoining chamber in an attempt to torture him into revealing Angelotti’s hiding place. Tosca arrives and initially resists Scarpia’s pressure for her to spill, but the sounds of her lover’s screams break her: Bradley shines as the religiously pious singer, who asks why God has abandoned her in the aria “Vissi d’arte,” then reveals where Angelotti is hiding.
After hearing that Angelotti has killed himself to avoid capture, Cavaradossi accuses Tosca of betraying him, then is ordered off to prison by Scarpia to be hanged at dawn. Scarpia then drives a hard bargain, telling Tosca that if she gives herself to him, he will spare Cavaradossi (he’s lying). Tosca agrees on the condition that Scarpia provide a safe conduct order so the lovers can leave the country.
While he is writing, Tosca secretly takes a knife off Scarpia’s dining table, and when he starts to molest her, she stabs him to death with the spectacular line, “This is Tosca’s kiss!” She then resumes her religious piety by forgiving Scarpia and surrounding his body with candles.
Act III takes place in the prison yard and has the most dramatic stage setting, a huge statue of an avenging angel. Tosca arrives, informs Cavaradossi of what she has done, and they have one more romantic interlude in the aria “O dolci mani.” But—avoiding spoilers if you’ve never seen Tosca—that the plan backfires terribly, leaving Tosca with one last one-liner, “Scarpia, we meet before God.”
So, just another opera, in which all three leads and the main supporting character die. But oh those voices.
It is also worth noting that the evening began with a choral performance of Ukraine’s national anthem, making the night at the opera even more memorable.
Tosca continues with evening performances tomorrow (March 15) and Friday, March 18, a matinee on March 23, an evening performance on March 26, and matinees on April 3, 7 and 10. Tickets ($39-$279 for tomorrow’s performance) can be purchased by clicking here. Lyric Opera House is located at 20 N. Wacker Drive. For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.
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