Deadly Passions

It's long, it's violent, there aren't a lot of likable characters in it, and it is, in a word, brilliant. In Giacomo Puccini's psychological drama Tosca, the plot revolves not around true love dealt low by fate, but lovers who are felled by true evil and greed in the form of Baron Scarpia -- as well as their own jealousy and mistrust. Puccini himself once said it was a plot of passions, not feelings.

And passion is vividly displayed in Houston Grand Opera's season opener of this tale of torture, attempted rape, murder and betrayal set in the hours prior to Napoleon's victory in Austria.

The performance belongs to Russian soprano Maria Guleghina. The New York Times refers to her as "the reigning Tosca of the decade," and she does not disappoint. As she makes her fateful choice in Act II there is a split second of silence as she lies on the apartment floor. And then her voice rises in the most glorious strains of vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore ("what I did for art, what I did for love"). Coming off the diva fest that was HGO's last season, this still stands out as one of the most moving arias recently presented in Houston.

Floria Tosca, a convent-reared opera singer in Rome, is madly in love with painter Mario Cavaradossi. But this is not the typical Puccini love affair. Cavaradossi has a wandering eye (the Madonna he paints bears a strong resemblance to a lady parishioner), and he does not trust Tosca with the secret that he's hidden a fleeing rebel. Tosca's overblown jealousy leads to their downfall when Scarpia, the local chief of police, uses her violent passions to trap her lover. The second act is a vehement, nonstop struggle in the foreboding chambers of Scarpia. Cavaradossi is being tortured off-stage while the baron viciously tries to bend Tosca to his carnal desires. If she submits, he will release her lover and give them free passage.

Does she give in? No. She agrees to the night of lust but then stabs the baron to death with his steak knife. In homage to her church background she dramatically places two candlesticks by his outstretched arms and almost lovingly lays the cross from the wall atop his stilled chest. Tosca flees the chamber and in the third act arrives at the roof of the Castel Sant'Angelo where Cavaradossi is about to be executed. She explains to her lover that it is all arranged, the guards will fire blanks, he will fall, and after everyone leaves they will flee. The audience, of course, knows that the baron has betrayed them, which makes Tosca's belief in the faked execution almost surreal. No one is surprised when the firing squad fells the painter or when Tosca flings herself from the parapet. What choice does she have?

Such a dark and twisted tale of humanity would make for a somber evening at the opera if it weren't for the breathtaking sets and staging, and the wonderful music. The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle builds a cathedral worthy of Rome in Act I, a chamber of horrors in Act II and a foreboding castle parapet in Act III. American lighting designer Christopher Akerlind's lighting effects from a fabulous sunrise to flickering lights on the torture chamber are right on, and occasionally deeply disturbing.

Mexican tenor Alfredo Portilla, in his HGO debut, is in fine voice as Cavaradossi and gives a strong stage presence. German bass-baritone Franz Grundheber is an astonishing Scarpia whose second-act song of moral bankruptcy is both beautiful and frightening.

Antonello Allemandi, in another HGO debut, leads the orchestra with passion, and American director Garnett Bruce creates mythic staging, particularly in Act I, as a high mass makes a jarring background for the principals' actions. Everything about this Tosca is big, dark and passionate, held together with terrific music.

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Marene Gustin