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TOSCA: Opera Review

Having returned to L.A. after my voyage from Tahiti to Pitcairn Island aboard the cargo/cruiser Aranui, I’m happily back in the reviewer’s seat and was enraptured by LA Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which premiered in Rome 122 years ago. Those in the TikTok generation and others who consider opera to be a stuffy, bourgeois art form should consider the plot of Tosca, which could be proverbially ripped from today’s headlines. Tosca centers around political prisoners, secret police, torture, executions and direct action against tyrants. I kid thee not, Dear Reader!

Tosca is set in 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars, and Cesare Angelotti (Chinese bass Wei Wu) is described as “consul of the deceased Roman Republic.” This short-lived secular republic in league with invader Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution had attempted to overthrow the papal states and Hapsburg dynasty, which have dominated Italy. In Act I Angelotti escapes from the cylindrical Castel Sant’Angelo (then used as a prison but now is one of Rome’s iconic landmarks), and, according to a prearranged plan hatched with his sister, the beautiful Marchesa Attavanti, he stealthily flees to the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle.

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Angel Blue as Tosca and Ryan McKinny as Scarpia

There, artist Mario Cavaradossi (New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano; Illinois tenor Gregory Kunde plays the part Dec. 7-10) is restoring or painting a mural-sized portrait of Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ loyal disciple. Cavaradossi assists Angelotti, who dons a disguise of women’s clothing, which has been cached in the church for the escapee by his sister. (Note: As this classic opera contains cross-dressing, like some Shakespeare plays, it may be illegal to mount Tosca in some U.S. states.) The painter then directs the on-the-lam revolutionary to his villa, where Angelotti can hide out.

Cavaradossi’s lover is the diva Floria Tosca (angelic Angeleno soprano Angel Blue) who, upon entering the church, expresses jealousy because the Magdalene image resembles a blonde beauty (in fact, Cavaradossi was inspired by the pretty Marchesa Attavanti when she appeared in the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle). The emotional Floria’s suspicion of infidelity is an important plot point, but it may be amplified here by the fact that she is being depicted by an African American performer, possibly injecting an element of racial envy into the plot.

(Perhaps Puccini in 1900 intended something along these lines. Stage directions indicate the Marchesa is “fair-haired, blue-eyed,” while Floria is “dark-eyed.” Maybe Floria meant to be a southern Italian, who tend to be darker than northern Italians, which the blonde Marchesa might have been one of?)

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Michael Fabiano as Cavardossi

In any case, this plot point is important because one of opera’s most vile villains, the aptly-named scorpion-like Scarpia (L.A. bass-baritone Ryan McKinny), exploits the jealousy of the voluptuous, famous Floria, who he lusts after. The boastful, rapacious intelligence chief, despicably sings: “I prefer violent conquest to sweet seduction” (or words to that effect). The head of the secret police, the cruel Scarpia (who makes J. Edgar Hoover look like a pussycat in comparison) is hot on the heels of the escaped Angelotti, and plots to recapture and punish him, by any means necessary.

Another timely aspect of this opera is its protagonist is a female (in this production, a Black woman at that!), who takes decisive, bold, even revolutionary action. At the risk of plot spoiling, let’s just say that the eponymous title character goes all Assata Shakur on the villainous secret policeman…

This is enough plot details, which I have gone into at length here to show how opera, which some disdain as “old fashioned,” can actually be quite cutting edge, relevant and extremely political. (Having said that, in terms of form, this production of Tosca is a faithful period piece and not formally innovative, like this season’s previous offerings, the updated Lucia Di Lammermoor and the dazzling Omar.

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In addition, I think this bears commenting on: The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements caught up with LA Opera when Placido Domingo, the renowned performer as well as the company’s general director, stepped down in 2019 amidst allegations of inappropriate behavior. It seems that LA Opera, which is keen to remain timely, has also learned from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which faulted the Motion Picture Academy for its lack of ethnic diversity (which the Academy has taken measures to address). LA Opera has not only cast nonwhite performers in so-called traditional roles (such as Tosca), but also mounted largely Black productions such as its last show, the new opera Omar.

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Angel Blue as Tosca and Ryan McKinny as Scarpia in LA Opera's 2022 production of "Tosca" 

This policy of inclusivity is not only fair and just, but it also opens up the medium to a lot more talent, just as Jackie Robinson’s breaking of major league baseball’s color barrier enhanced sports. Furthermore, in terms of the audience, diversity is simply a good marketing strategy, as people want to see artists onstage and onscreen who look like them, and Tosca’s sold-out opening night crowd packing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion featured many Black ticket buyers.

In addition to the above political plot points, LA Opera’s production of Puccini’s three act-show with two intermissions also included the other essential elements that make for a stellar operatic event. The songbirds caused the audience to burst into spontaneous applause and cries of “Bravo!” several times, such as when the put upon (literally and figuratively!) Floria sings her lament “Vissi d’arte” (“Love and music”) as the heinous Scarpia prepares to coerce Angel Blue’s character into having sex with him against her will.

Puccini’s music was smoothly delivered by LA Opera Orchestra under the baton of Louis Lohraseb (presumably his 2019 stint conducting the same body live to accompany Halloween screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho at the Ace Hotel – see: https://www.laopera.org/about-us/previous-seasons/201920-season/psycho/ – prepared Lohraseb for helming an opera about the Norman Bates-like Scarpia). The three sets for Tosca’s three acts, of the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle, Scarpia’s HQ at the Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant’Angelo, designed by Scotland’s Bunny Christie were top notch. In fact, when the curtain rose for Act II, the scenery for Scarpia’s command post, filled with statues and packing crates presumably filled with artwork the secret policeman might have looted and an offstage torture chamber prompted tan impromptu ovation from theatergoers. Ms. Christie’s period costumes enhanced the sense of historical authenticity for this story set during the Napoleonic era.

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Ryan McKinny as Scarpia in LA Opera's 2022 production of "Tosca"

Oxford, England’s director John Caird deftly helms the sprawling production’s mise-en-scène, which includes some mass scenes, as well as touching, poignant vignettes. Corning, New York fight director Andrew Kenneth Moss also reinforces the realism of this nitty gritty opera about star-crossed lovers swept up by the tides of history in an age of war, revolution and counterrevolution, with its libretto penned by Luigi Illica (who also collaborated with Puccini on La Bohème and Madama Butterfly).

I loved this tale of tempest-tossed characters and how it was dramatized and told, with a protagonist who is arguably a feminist icon of the arts. Thelma and Louise have nothing on Floria! But if I have one suggestion to the heroine and her beau: When you’re in the middle of a desperate rescue attempt, quit the lovey-dovey jibber jabber and get going while the going is good! Save all those sweet nothings for when you’re safe and sound… But then again, if Puccini and Illica took this erstwhile critic’s advice, there’d probably be no Tosca!

And lest we forget: Free Leonard Peltier, free Mumia (imagine what operas their life stories could conjure up?), free Brittney Griner and free all political prisoners!

Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, is being performed Sundays, Nov. 27 and Dec. 4 at 2:00 p.m.; and on Thursday, Dec. 1, Wednesday, Dec. 7 and Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For tickets: https://www.laopera.org/performances/202223-season/tosca/; (213)972-8001. Tosca is sung in Italian, with English supertitles.