Dayton Opera presents Tocsa
By Eric Street
It’s time to shake off the November blahs with something dramatic, passionate, rousing and tuneful. On Friday, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 24 at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton Opera presents Giacomo Puccini’s passion-saturated masterpiece Tosca, performed in Italian with English surtitles.
Among the most popular operas ever written, Tosca promises and delivers a spine-tingling tale of love, lust and treachery set to Puccini’s easy-to-love music. It’s a great starter opera, too – particularly if you don’t mind a little carnage onstage. Puccini heroines rarely survive to collect a pension, and in Tosca all the main characters are killed off in true Shakespearian fashion by the end: one by stabbing, one by firing squad and one by leaping from a high parapet.
Tosca takes place in Rome of 1800, and uses well-known Roman settings for its action. Act I opens inside the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act II takes place in the Farnese Palace and Act III is set in the upper parts of the Castel Sant’Angelo, from which Tosca famously leaps at the end of the opera. Puccini took pains to adapt the music of his second act Te Deum to the exact pitch of the great bell of St. Peter’s Basilica. He was equally painstaking when writing the music that opens Act III, in which Rome awakens to the sounds of church bells.
Sopranos love the title role, the fiery Floria Tosca, since she is a beautiful – if temperamental – opera diva. Dayton Opera’s Tosca will be sung by soprano Kara Shay Thomson, who has recently performed the role at Kentucky Opera, Opera New Jersey and Atlanta Opera, and will sing it again in April at Florida Grand Opera. Dayton audiences may remember her as a splendid Sieglinde in the staged presentation of Act 1 of “Die Walkure” in last season’s The Glory of Wagner.
“Tosca’s a delight to sing and I know her well,” said Thomson of her upcoming role. “She’s so rewarding! She gets to do all the things I love to do – she’s dramatic, she’s tender, she sings wonderful music. She allows me to do all the things I love to do with my voice.”
Her response was quick when asked why so many people love Tosca. “[It] appeals to our sense of right and wrong,” Thomson explained. “It’s a love story, but it’s also a crime story and a tragedy. It’s also a great first opera, because it has very few characters to keep track of. There’s a girl, there’s a boy she likes and a very bad man!” she laughed.
“But if you close your eyes, there’s always the music – that’s the draw,” Thomson continued. “Those opening chords just draw you in immediately!”
Tosca’s obsessive, loathsome admirer, the corrupt chief of police Scarpia is sung by bass-baritone Mark Schnaible, who performed the title role of Boito’s Mephistopheles to great applause in September’s DPAA Season Opening Spectacular.
Dayton Opera newcomer Tenor Jonathan Burton is Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover who, in the course of the action, is arrested and tortured by Scarpia.
Also in the cast is Dayton Opera favorite Thomas Hammons as the Sacristan. Hammons most recently appeared here as Don Bartolo in last season’s The Marriage of Figaro. Conductor Joseph Mechavich will return to conduct the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. David Roth makes his Dayton debut as stage director and there’s a performance by the Kettering Children’s Choir, as well as the Dayton Opera Chorus under the direction of Jeffrey Powell.
Tosca is the most Wagnerian of Puccini’s scores because of its compelling and memorable use of musical leitmotifs. Unlike Wagner, however, Puccini does not develop or modify his motifs, nor does he weave them into the music symphonically. He uses them effectively to refer to characters, objects and ideas, and as reminders within the narrative of the opera.
The most potent of these motifs is the sequence of three very loud and strident chords that open the opera. This motif represents the evil character of Scarpia. Other motifs identify Tosca, the love of Tosca and Cavaradossi, the fugitive Angelotti, the semi-comical character of the Sacristan in Act I and the theme of torture in Act II.
Tosca in anecdote
Not only does Tosca boast one of the more vividly melodramatic plots ever to grace the operatic stage, but it also has amassed perhaps the largest store of anecdotes about legendary performance mishaps. While no warranty is offered for the absolute veracity of these stories, it would be stingy not to divulge some of the most delicious.
The story of bouncing Tosca has been variously attributed to a production of the New York City Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Havana Opera and a small theater in northern England. Tosca’s climactic leap to her death from the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo usually ends on a concealed backstage mattress, which greatly saves wear and tear on the plummeting soprano. But in this legendary performance the stage workers had thoughtfully guarded her safety by replacing the mattress with a trampoline. The amused audience was treated to the unexpected sight of Tosca reappearing two or three times after her fatal plunge! The renowned British soprano Eva Turner admitted to being that Tosca in a TV special hosted by Robert Merrill in which he interviewed some of the greatest Toscas of the century, including Turner, Grace Bumbry, Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Ljuba Welitsch and Birgit Nilsson. American soprano Eleanor Steber, however – herself a Tosca to be reckoned with – always insisted that the bouncing soprano in question was Lily Djanel, and the place Havana.
Steber, too, once was the victim of a Tosca-fall gone wrong. As the story goes, stagehands had unwittingly removed the mattress and the plunging Steber fell hard, breaking a tooth.
The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco is the site of another delightful – if possibly apocryphal – anecdote involving an under-rehearsed production of Tosca’s final scene. The members of the firing squad were played by supernumeraries who received sketchy, last-minute instruction to shoot the person they found onstage and then to exit with the principals. However, when they got onstage, they discovered, to their confusion, there were two people there instead of one – Tosca and her tenor, Mario Cavaradossi. Not knowing which one to shoot, they wavered back and forth a bit as both principals indicated not to shoot them.
They finally settled on Tosca, shot her and seemed bewildered when Cavarradossi instead keeled over dead. They also did not leave, since they were told to exit with the principals – and neither of the principals exited. Tosca gestured to shoo them away, but they remained onstage until Spoletta came in with the soldiers. When Tosca jumped from the parapet, they saw their chance to finally leave with at least one of the principals and jumped down one by one after her, bringing a Shakespearean sweep to the tragedy.
The first Tosca anecdote this writer heard involved the celebrated diva – and sometimes Callas-rival – Renata Tebaldi. In this production, a stagehand had somehow failed to leave a knife available for Tosca to stab the lustful Scarpia in Act II. Resourceful Renata did the next best thing, and stabbed the poor lecher to death with a banana seized from a fruit basket on the table!
Baritone Tito Gobbi – another famous Scarpia – recalled a premiere with Maria Callas in which he had to improvise to save her in Act II. While he was on the floor, having just been killed, he saw that Callas was walking around the stage unable to find her way out. Severely nearsighted, she had worn glasses during the rehearsal, but now in the performance could not locate the exit! Gobbi tried to discreetly point out the exit, but started laughing so hard that both his laughing and his pointing were seen by the audience. The morning after, the newspapers raved about his memorable portrayal of Scarpia’s death throes.
In 1964 at London’s Royal Opera House, Tito Gobbi was again with Callas, who many opera buffs regard as the greatest Tosca of all time. As he recounts in his autobiography, during a dress rehearsal of the Act II duet, Callas moved close to the table, not realizing that she was getting too close to the candles. Soon her wig began to smoke. Gobbi pretended to attempt to embrace her and closed his hands over the fire in her hair to extinguish it.
Gobbi also pays tribute to the ferocity of Callas’ acting in this role, noting that he was often afraid during their performances that she really would kill him in Act II. She very nearly did so once when her stage knife failed to retract. Gobbi was cut, but not severely hurt, and with a cry of “My God!” went right on with his death scene as planned.
Not all Tosca mistakes are accounted as disasters. Soprano Maria Jeritza, who brought her own distinctive style to the role for many years at the Met and in Vienna, was said to be Puccini’s ideal Tosca. Jeritza accidentally fell to the stage while eluding Scarpia’s lecherous grasp, and decided to deliver her show-stopping “Vissi d’arte” from a prone position. This proved hugely successful, and Jeritza sang the aria lying down thereafter. Sopranos since then have largely followed her lead.
Dayton Opera presents Tosca Friday, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 24 at 3 p.m. at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, 1 W. Second St. Tickets from $36 to $93. Come one hour prior to both performances to hear the backstory of Puccini’s Tosca with colorful insight by UD Professor Dr. Sam Dorf. Delicious “Opera bites” are also available in the Wintergarden before the performance and at the first intermission.
For more information and to purchase tickets, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Eric Street at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.