If I were to look up “diva” in the dictionary, I’d half expect to see one of the definitions — maybe THE definition — to be “Floria Tosca.” The character after which Puccini named his famous opera has all the attributes that would come to mind when I think of a diva: petulant but passionate, jealous but loving, a general pain in the ass but someone you’d definitely want on your side in a fight, and most importantly, a singer with the grandest of voices.
Because of that, a successful production of Tosca (the opera) requires a dramatic soprano as Tosca (the character) who is willing to be AND is capable of being the ultimate diva on stage. I firmly believe that more than any of the other female leads in Puccini’s most famous operas — Mimi (La Boheme), Turandot, or even Butterfly — Floria Tosca needs to be grandiose or the whole show will fall flat.
Sondra Radvanovsky is that kind of Floria Tosca in all the best ways. As evidenced last Saturday night during the opening performance of Los Angeles Opera’s six show run, Ms. Radvanovsky had both dramatic flair and subtlety, matched by stunning vocal chops. She easily covered the full range of emotion and expression this demanding role calls for: I believed that she loved Cavaradossi; I believed that she was intensely suspicious and jealous that he may have been cheating on her; I believed that she was a reluctant murderer, but a determined one once she set her mind to it; that she was naive enough to think the execution was a fake, and crazy enough to kill herself. I bought it all, hook, line, and sinker.
It was awe-inspiring to watch and listen to Ms. Radvanovsky in all three acts, but if all you experienced was her rendition of “Vissi d’arte,” you’d probably still walk away with the same impression. This one aria was a microcosm of her whole performance: sad, anguished, powerful, a touch melancholy; and just when you thought you couldn’t ask for much more, she floated the final note for what seemed like an eternity, adding a little crescendo, then decrescendo, then back and forth again, injecting an extra touch of anxiousness and despair. It was breathtaking.
She got perfect support from conductor Plácido Domingo. LA Opera’s General Director certainly knows his way around this score, and on this night, his conducting was as effective as I’d ever experienced. While he mostly went for an unabashedly big sound from the orchestra, he knew when to turn the heat down, when to push and when to ease up.
The orchestra responded enthusiastically, giving Mr. Domingo that big sound while never letting textures get thick and gloppy. The solo clarinet work in Act 3 was particularly beautiful, with just the right amount of tension and rubato.
Director John Caird wasn’t afraid to add his own over-the-top touches, mainly with blood, more blood, and even more blood spurting out to and fro. Beyond the special effects, he knew when to keep the action compact and when to go big. He made dramatic use of the space on stage, both horizontally and vertically: during the first act, all three main characters sang their way up and down the three levels of the scaffolding which supported Cavaradossi’s giant painting; the third act begins with an already dead Angelotti being hoisted up to the high ceiling courtesy of one of the multiple nooses hanging down. He also added a mysterious young girl into the action; whether the symbolism was eerie, heavy-handed, or just silly is debatable, but it was just one more thing that kept things from being ordinary.
The combined contributions of those three — Ms. Radvanovsky, and Messrs. Domingo and Caird — easily make this production worth seeing. Everyone and everything else was good enough to not get in the way of one’s enjoyment.
The two male leads couldn’t quite match Ms. Radvanovsky’s brilliance, but for opposite reasons:
- Lido Ataneli was a solid Scarpia. His characterization of one of opera’s iconic villains was detailed but restrained, more smug and smarmy than truly menacing. It worked for me dramatically, and his nuanced singing matched his acting nicely; however, one wished that his voice could be bigger at times. “Va, Tosca” started with the right amount of intensity, and as it built, I kept anticipating it to erupt into that gloriously creepy moment when the quasi-pious Scarpia declares with much fanfare that Tosca makes him forget God; it should be stirring, but it never got there because Mr. Ataneli’s voice didn’t quite rise to the occasion.
- Marco Berti sounded fine and had a big enough voice when he needed it, but he seemed to come from the stand-in-one-place-and-sing school of operatic acting. More disappointingly, I never felt emotionally invested in his singing. “Recondita armonia” was stiff, and “E lucevan le stelle” verged on sterile. Perhaps he was nervous singing in front of one of the greatest tenors the world has ever seen . . .
The rest of the cast handled their smaller roles with aplomb. Joshua Bloom was an appropriately desperate Angelotti. Philip Cokorinos was a resonant Sacristan. Rodell Rosel did a nice job vocally and dramatically as the constantly put-upon Spoletta. Daniel Armstrong handled Sciarrone without problem, and Eden McCoy was smooth as the Young Girl. The singers of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sounded great and added some atmosphere to the on-stage proceedings. The various other non-singing cast members and supernumeraries seemed completely integral to the action on stage.
The sets and costumes, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera, seemed to place the action in the WWII era rather than the original setting of pre-republican Italy. It was grand in scale and full of detail, working reasonably well overall; however, it was not without its own quirks:
- Scarpia’s chambers in Act 2 were apparently meant to give the sense that he was hording various works of art. Instead, the endless stacks of greyish-brown crates evoked a distinctly different impression, best described by friend and fellow tweet-seater, Beverly Reynolds: “Scarpia’s office looks like that warehouse from Indiana Jones. Pretty sure the Ark of the Covenant is in there somewhere.”
- In Act 3, the ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo are replaced by a cavernous room with a ceiling from which hung nooses, and which also contains one large open window in the back wall. You certainly get no sensation that this space is particularly high, and if someone were to hurl themselves off the ledge of the window, it would seem that their fall would only be about three feet. In this context, Mr. Caird’s decision to have Tosca slit her throat before she falls off the ledge isn’t just another excuse to bloody up the stage and her white dress, it becomes a dramatic necessity so that the audience members know that she’s dead.
All that said, the benefits of this Tosca easily outweigh its deficiencies. Go to experience the artistry of Sondra Radvanovsky, and you’ll be pleasantly appreciative when a nice production of a Puccini classic breaks out around her.
Random other thoughts:
- One more thing about Ms. Radvanovsky’s “Vissi d’arte.” As you might expect, the opera stopped dead in its tracks when the audience at the Dorothy Chandler erupted in a prolonged haze of cheers and shouts of “Brava!” What you might not expect — I certainly wouldn’t have — was the following: from my seat, I could just see out of the corner of my eye the side monitors which constantly show a live feed of the conductor in the pit, allowing the singers on stage to more easily follow his baton even if they are looking towards stage right or left; after the final note of “Vissi d’arte,” Mr. Domingo had a huge smile on his face and put down his baton to enthusiastically clap along with everyone else in the house; he didn’t stop to pick it up again until the cheers had died down noticeably. I’d be shocked if more than a few people besides the orchestra and singers on stage could see him, so the unabashed appreciation wasn’t just playing to the audience. If there was any doubt as to how good Ms. Radvanovsky sang the aria, watching his reaction would have put those doubts to rest.
- Mr. Domingo will conduct five of the six performances. For the June 2nd show, Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer makes his LA Opera debut.
Los Angeles Opera: May 18 – June 8, 2013; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Floria Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky
Mario Cavaradossi: Marco Berti
Baron Scarpia: Lado Ataneli
Cesare Angelotti: Joshua Bloom
The Sacristan: Philip Cokorinos
Spoletta: Rodell Rosel
Sciarrone: Daniel Armstrong++
Young Girl: Eden McCoy*
Conductor: Plácido Domingo
Conductor (June 2): Jordi Bernàcer*
Director: John Caird*
Scenic and Costume Design: Bunny Christie*
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon
Fight Director: Ed Douglas
* LA Opera debut artist
++ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program alumnus
- Plácido Domingo: Brian Lauritzen
- All others: Robert Millard for Los Angeles Opera