Sex and Violence at HGO in Tosca

The setup:
It's easy to hear why Giacomo Puccini's verismo-fueled Tosca (1900) has always been an international hit among opera lovers. It's primal, with themes etched in capital letters — Love, Lust, Jealousy, Revolutionary Fervor, Religiosity — while its music is elemental, overflowing with ethereal lyricism, earthy passion, hellish sadism. Condensed to its essence without an ounce of fat, it's got everything, plus three of the best, most demanding roles in the rep. There are no detours in this opera. Sex and violence drive it. Tightly wound, the opera never fails to make an impression.

The execution:
The story is simple but fraught with drama. Opera diva Tosca (Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska) loves painter/political firebrand Cavaradossi (Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov), but is insanely jealous and coyly berates his choice of model for his altar painting of the Madonna. She assumes he's having an affair with the patrician beauty.

High maintenance to say the least, she is easily manipulated by evil police chief Scarpia (Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber), who's out to crush the underground revolutionary movement in which he suspects Cavaradossi plays a major part. The painter has indeed abetted the revolution's leader.

Scarpia's other motive is less political; he lusts after Tosca. As he informs us in Act II, his credo is, to paraphrase, “so many women, so little time.” He arrests an unrepentant Cavaradossi, commands Tosca to appear at supper and proceeds to torture the painter in her presence. Tell me what you know, he coolly seduces, while Cavaradossi screams from the cell. She's in love, what can she do? She spills what she knows, pleading with the sadist for her lover's life. “Quanto? Quanto?” How much, she demands. “You” is his answer, as he rushes to her arms. “Here is Tosca's kiss,” she howls, stabbing him with his own dinner knife.

Dead though he may be, Scarpia's malicious influence infects the couple. Cavaradossi's promised mock execution turns out to be the real thing. Swearing vengeance before God, Tosca leaps from the battlements instead of being captured by Scarpia's thugs.

Houston Grand Opera's revival of this John Caird production, which debuted in 2010, is sadly, visually, not all we may want from 19th-century Rome, where librettists Illica and Giacosa (with more than enough demanding imput from Puccini) set their sleek adaptation of Sardou's blood-and-thunder play written expressly for Sarah Bernhardt. It's drab and gray, broken in fragments, shadowy and inky, like something the opera's villain Scarpia might have welcomed, if not designed.

Monastyrska, last seen at HGO in 2013 as Verdi's Nubian princess in Aida, possesses a volcano-powered voice. Volume is not a problem. When she lets go, you can hear her out on Fish Plaza. Her voice is pure and white, with a plummy low register. She's always on pitch even when blasting, hitting all notes square on. But she's hardly subtle. A rudimentary actor regardless of her loud vocal splendor, she grandly throws out her arms wide, planting her feet like a sequoia, and is content for that expansive Bernhardt gesture to be enough to convey any basic stage need: love, hate, happiness. Tosca's world-famous Act II showstopper, “Vissi d'arte” (“I've lived for art”), in which she asks an unresponsive heaven why all this misery and horror is heaped upon her when she has always been so kind and generous, isn't nearly the tearjerker it should be. It sounds good, it sounds loud, but it doesn't affect. (Wily master of theater, Puccini toyed with the idea of cutting the aria, for all its beauty, because he thought it stopped the story's momentum at its height. Fortunately, he relented and the number became the opera's most salient feature.) On a definite upswing, this soprano is making quite a splash internationally. Next up, Tosca at NYC's Metropolitan Opera. Big voices are always a plus in the world of opera.

Cursed with a straggly, greasy wig, Dolgov doesn't let that deter him. Although his sound is slighter than the heft of Tosca's, he's an ideal Cavaradossi: impassioned and impetuous; lean enough to fit into the shirt-and-slacks neo-Romantic look by costumer Bunny Christie; and blessed with a plangent, graceful tenor that reminds one of Domingo, our century's greatest tenor. Under his caressing finesse, Cavaradossi’s two stellar arias, “Recondita armonia” (“Strange harmony”) and “E lucevan le stelle” (“The stars were shining”), are paragons of male singing, warm and lustrous, virile and sexy.

A most convincing, lecherous Scarpia, Dobber grabs the stage and doesn't let go, no matter the pounding force from Monastyrska nor the sweet ardency from Dolgov. One of opera's most sublime roles, a great Scarpia can run with the opera. Unctuous and urbane, Dobber instinctively knows when to hold back and when to go all out. (So did Puccini, who contrasts Scarpia's lust with a booming, glorious “Te Deum” as the cathedral fills with congregants.) He has a resonant, dark sound, amplified by exceptional stage presence. He is a force to be reckoned with, a baritone in his prime.

For all its rich, cholesterol-laden melodrama, Tosca’s music seduces and pulls you in. Not many operas can boast such a sparkling array of hit tune arias. No wonder it’s one of the world’s most popular works.

Some production tweaks are in evidence since this production's last outing, and, thank goodness, those “mini-me” minions of Scarpia are gone, replaced by more individualized characters, but we're still left with that dusty, off-putting set with its inexplicable broken hole in the ceiling. Act II's Farnese Palace is filled with packing crates as if Scarpia has become an international art thief, and the picturesque Castel Sant'Angelo is merely a claustrophobic courtyard with a large picture window upstage (through which Tosca will fling herself, after slicing her own throat!) The body of revolutionary Angelotti, whose corpse Scarpia fiendishly hangs in Act III, remains hanging around even during the curtain calls. Talk about bad luck! Is there a special place in hell for wanton opera directors?

The verdict:
Maestro Patrick Summers summons all the crashing tutta forza from the HGO orchestra without sacrificing any of Puccini’s characteristic glimmer and radiant softness, but an overbearing Tosca does not do anyone any favors. An ideal Cavaradossi and Scarpia do, however.

Performances of Tosca are scheduled for October 25m, 31; November 3, 5 (with Kelly Kaduce, Chad Shelton, and Weston Hurt as principals), 6, and 14 (same cast as the 5th). Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $18-$252.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover