(Note: video illustrations offer renditions of classic “Tosca” arias by other artists.)
In 1900, the year of Tosca’s premiere, Michele Virgillio wrote that ‘Tosca and Scarpia are people created by a sick imagination in a moment of aesthetic aberration.’ Maybe so, but the music Puccini created contains some of the most beloved arias in opera. That is the crux—an ill-fated journey for three characters involving art, politics, religion, jealousy, love, torture, murder, rape and suicide— told in the most musically sublime and romantic way. One doesn’t earn ones stripes as a warhorse opera by being subtle.
Santa Fe Opera’s summer, 2023 production is directed by Keith Warner, conducted by John Fiore, with sets and costumes by Ashley Martin-Davis and stars Leah Hawkins (alternating with Angel Blue) in the title role, with Joshua Guerrero (alternating with Freddie De Tommaso) as Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, and Reginald Smith, Jr. as the evil Scarpia. The production is straightforward except for a time-shift basically evident in the use of a vacuum cleaner, and in the costuming, with military uniforms reminiscent of the era of a different authoritarian, no longer Napoleon, but Mussolini. The set features a moveable row of columns indicating Rome, but there is no Castel Sant’Angelo and no knife on Scarpia’s dining table. Key plot points have been changed.
A conductor, John Mauceri, wrote, in program notes for a past production of the opera in Los Angeles, “I hated what I had to become in order to conduct the second act. As an artist we have to reach deep into the darkest parts of our personality – the very parts we work so hard to transcend – in order to embody the violence of which we are all capable.”
Indeed, under the direction of Fiore, the Santa Fe orchestra offered plenty of darkness, starting with the triumphantly creepy opening orchestral motif that would later be revealed as Scarpia’s theme— a powerful foreshadowing. In Act 1, after Cavaradossi’s early aria (“Recondita armonia”), with the arrival of Tosca, there was a time of flirtation, a bit of lovers’ spat, and some humor. That was it for lightness. Time marches on in this opera, and there is a lot of dying to get done. Guerrero, as Cavaradossi, had a full-throttled if not quite golden tenor voice, and a charming lock of hair that kept falling in his face. He and Hawkins may not have oozed lust in their scenes together, but vocally, justice was well-served to Puccini.
Scarpia, a character who boasts of casting off lovers and enjoying rape, is no easy acting job. Villains often have more depth than tenor heroes, and not just vocally. Here, Smith Jr. digs into the sleaze factor but never offers a glimpse of soul—if that is possible. He is a purely evil man who enjoys making others suffer. Written for baritone, Smith Jr. is a bad guy with high notes. “Scarpia is nesting in your heart.” “Tosca. You make me forget God.”
In Act Two, “Vissi d’arte,” Tosca sings: “I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!” The melodic line is stunning, no matter how many times a soprano and orchestra come together to present it. On stage, things are moving rapidly in the wrong direction for Tosca and for her lover. “In this hour of grief, why, why, Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus? “ Hawkins began her career as a mezzo-soprano and her voice still offers hints of the colors and timbre of that lower register. Her diva is earthier than she is etherial. She knows the way things work.
I could listen to Pavarotti sing “E lucevan le stella” every day. Guerrero did just fine.
Speaking of the way things work, there were a few glitches in “Tosca”. As the action moved to Scarpia’s apartment, the Roman columns have been realigned to create this new room. As Cavaradossi is being tortured elsewhere in the castle, a solider is seen pushing a winch lever, as if to tighten the screws around the prisoner’s head. Not successful, especially as it is partially obscured by columns and Cavaradossi is nowhere to be seen. And then (spoiler alert) Tosca kills Scarpia by garrote instead of by stabbing, and since there were vacuum cleaners and guns, there was no need for her to jump to her own death. In silhouette, she held a pistol to her head as a spirit version of her, a woman in a red gown, walked slowly upstage. This production had no need for a mattress backstage.