In the late 19th century, Verismo was an opera movement led by the great composer, Giacomo Puccini. Italian for ‘truth’, verismo takes a melodramatic, realistic approach to the intensity on stage with stories about everyday people in extraordinary times. Puccini’s Tosca is verismo at its finest, and the Chicago Lyric Opera’s Tosca is Puccini at its best.
More on this later, but first a few words on the opening night feel of Saturday evening’s Tosca premier.
There was a special type of energy in the lobby before the performance, a buzz generated by the eclectically beautiful mix of people that made up the Lyric audience. The black-tie, gown and furs, high-fashion folks sipped champagne with the suit and sneakers, cocktail dress, cocktail drinking crowd, and the passing-on-the-fashion-show, red wine or coffee folks. Opera lovers who haven’t missed an opening night in decades milled about with opera newbies who came for the spectacle, in search of a new type of post-pandemic experience.
It was an evening of firsts, and you could feel it in the audience’s excitement. They were excited for a night at the opera, of course, but they were also excited to see the Lyric debut of the great soprano, Michele Bradley, in her first-ever performance as Tosca. They were excited for the debut of Maestro Eun Sun Kim as the Lyric Orchestra’s Conductor. They were excited to see Tosca Director Louisa Muller’s labor of love, an opera many consider Puccini’s greatest.
So the stage was set when Lyric’s General Director, Anthony Freud walked into the spotlight before the performance and announced, “Opera is an international art form and Lyric is an international company. We have within our Lyric family a number of members with strong Ukrainian roots. As we resume our season with this evening’s performance of Tosca, our hearts go out to all those who are enduring such suffering and facing such danger as a result of the horrifying war in Ukraine.”
Then the curtain rose, revealing the Lyric chorus dressed in black, and the audience rose to its feet for the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem, a song so steeped in verismo that it begins with the line… “Ukraine is not dead yet, neither glory nor freedom, fate will smile on us, young brothers!”
And with this stirring moment of unity, an extraordinary night at the opera had begun.
Set in Rome during the Napoleonic Wars, Tosca’s first act introduces us to Angelotti, a government official turned political prisoner who has just escaped from the oppressive power that threatens the fledgling Roman Republic. In the chapel near the small shrine where she prays, Angelotti’s sister Marchesa has left women’s clothing and a fan to serve as his disguise. The painter, Mario Cavaradossi, discovers Angelotti and vows to hide him. Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca, sees the portrait Cavaradossi has painted of Angelotti’s sister while she was praying, highlighting Marchesa’s beautiful blue eyes, and she accuses Cavaradossi of cheating. When the villainous Baron Scarpia arrives on the hunt for Angelotti, the evil Duke expresses his lust for Tosca, then uses the fan Angelotti dropped when he fled in haste to insinuate Cavaradossi’s unfaithfulness, and we are off to the races…
Cavaradossi is brave and honorable, and he will do anything to protect Angelotti. Tosca is passionate and beautiful, and she will do anything to protect Cavaradossi. Scarpia is cunning and evil, and he will do anything to conquer Tosca. As the opera unfolds, the melodrama builds, and Tosca and Cavaradossi fight for their lives. With Acts II and III, we are first transported to Scarpia’s evil lair for the torture of Cavaradossi and Scarpia’s attempted rape of Tosca, and then to the fortress where both Cavaradossi and Tosca will meet their fate.
Michele Bradley doesn’t disappoint in her title role. Bradley’s Tosca is, at once, filled with love and jealousy, courage and doubt, piety and passion, hope and fierce resistance. Act I finds her simmering with desire for Cavaradossi then accusatory when she sees his portrait of another woman. When her lover is detained by Scarpia and the evil Baron’s plans for Tosca are made clear, she delivers a stirringly beautiful and anguished account of the great aria “Vissi d’arte” from her knees, and then she rises to drive a knife into Scarpia’s heart.
As the protector of Angelotti and the object of Tosca’s love, Russell Thomas’s Cavaradossi is romantic and brave. Thomas’s tenor voice ranges flawlessly from sweet to strong, with an acting performance that brings added depth and heartbreak to the story.
Fabian Veloz’s Baron Scarpia stands in dramatic contrast to Cavaradossi. Puccini’s critics like to point out that he often favors the beauty and force of the music over the realism of the character. His heroes sound gorgeously heroic, but his villains often don’t sound all that villainous: they sound, well, gorgeous, too. But Veloz works this out. His acting performance leaves no doubt as to the nature of his character, as he ratchets up the dramatic tension throughout the first two acts with evil line after evil line, while his strong baritone voice cuts through the drama with intensity and power.
From the opening notes of Puccini’s score, Eun Sun Kim and the Lyric Orchestra deliver a crisp yet complex and textured evening of music. The pace is brisk, which helps move the action, while also allowing time and space for the singers to deliver the most memorable moments of the opera. This sharp, technically flawless rendition of the intensely dramatic score shows off Louisa Muller’s skillful direction against the backdrop of the late Jean Pierre Ponnelle’s remarkable set design.
With the Lyric’s Tosca, Muller and Sun Kim, Bradley and Thomas, Veloz and Ponnelle find the balance between the story and music, the passion and political intrigue, the sweet love story and melodramatic tragedy. The result? As with any great opera, the whole of Tosca’s total is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Here, I should take a moment to point out that, as operas go, Tosca is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Though beloved by audiences, it has been, at points, assailed by critics who have described it as “cheap,” “trivial,” and “banal.” Musicologist Joseph Kerman even famously called Tosca “a shabby little shocker.”
Maybe that’s fair. After all, Puccini was, in his own words, a “man of the theater.” Above all, he loved the music, and he played for the drama and excitement. He wanted a reaction. He wanted to move audiences. He wanted big fat operatic crocodile tears.
For what it’s worth, however, I find myself in the same Tosca camp as the American composer and musicologist Robert Greenberg who said, “I’ll be straight with you. If Tosca’s saccharin sweet melodies, melodramatic duets, and sadomasochistic means of torture don’t tear out your heart, stomp on it, and make you weep like an idiot, then 1) You are simply too smart for the rest of us, 2) Your sophistication has developed to the point where you are no longer capable of enjoying the great things in life like a chili dog, a sloppy kiss, a perfectly executed double play, or a 57 Chevy convertible, and 3) You are no longer able to kick back, let it hang, and just have a good old time!” This, for all its melodrama and tragedy, is Tosca.
But Lyric’s Tosca was more than the performance, more than the production. There was something different about it. Something more. With the performance of the Ukrainian national anthem before the opera, the story of Tosca took on added meaning, a special truth.
While there may have been a time when Puccini’s great opera might have seemed overly melodramatic, consider this. On Saturday night, the Chicago Lyric Opera performers and audience stood together for a few moments before the opera in an extraordinary time of pain and suffering to give their hearts up to the plight of a passionate, all too human, courageous, and beautiful hero, in the face of a villain that has chosen to cause pain, seemingly, for its own sake.
Tosca runs through April 10th at the Chicago Lyric Opera House.