Librettist: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Conductor: Paolo Arrivabeni
Producer/Director: Alessandro Talevi
Saioa Hernandez: Flora Tosca
Vittorio Grigolo: Mario Caravadossi
Roberto Frontali: Baron Scarpia
Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Scuola di Canto Corale
Tosca! The one and only. Needless to say that, if I was going to attend one opera during my stay in Rome, which I hope won’t be the case, it obviously had to be the one about that fateful day of June 17, 1800 in Rome.
To begin with, Tosca was my first foray ever in the world of opera, and while I watched it in the less enjoyable format of television during the last class of an Italian language course decades ago, I fell quick and hard for the opera itself, and the art form as well.
These days, as a permanent lover of opera with quite a few Toscas under her belt, and a temporary resident of Rome with now first-hand knowledge of the story’s three iconic locations, I simply had to go check out the production of it at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, where it also happened to have had its world première on January 14, 1900.
Incidentally, for the past seven years, the Opera di Roma has been showing that very same original production, using meticulous replicas of the sets and costumes, and following the same stage directions that Puccini and other fortunate audience members got to appraise that evening. Talk about the full Tosca experience!
But having been distracted by everything that Rome has to offer, I hadn’t seen time go and before I knew it, the run was almost over. Fortunately, sanity prevailed at last, and I did manage to grab an exorbitantly priced ticket in extremis for last Sunday’s sold-out matinee that started, in true Italian style, at 4:30 P.M., right after the sacrosanct Sunday combo of late lunch and siesta.
And just like that, I ended up in a premium box with a quiet young couple apparently from Eastern Europe, a friendly older couple from San Diego, CA, on their 10th annual Roman holiday trip, global pandemic be damned, and an effusive young Italian clarinetist, who was attending his first opera ever and, I am happy to report, fell quick and hard for it too.
The name of Giacomo Puccini’s possibly most popular opera cannot help but conjure up in many opera buffs’ mind and heart images of a battered city facing the fall of its Republic, the restoration of the Papal States, and a pending invasion by French troops, a dreadfully ill-fated love triangle, whose each protagonist will die their own violent death, and an intensely lyrical score that keeps the deliciously explosive combination of love, lust, politics, religion and art alive and well. And we just cannot get enough of it.
The title role is by default a daunting challenge for any soprano, and on Sunday our Tosca was intrepid Spaniard Saioa Hernandez, who was making her debut in Rome in the ultimate Roman diva role. That, of course, meant that, if for any reason she was going to fail, she was going to do it all the way.
As far as I am concerned, she did not fail, but she did not exactly hit a home run either. Her acting was adequate, and her voice was agile and commanding enough to make a lasting positive impression. She even passed the big test with flying colors with her masterfully controlled “Vissi d’arte”, which got her a well-deserved big round of applause.
Thing is, the woman dutifully hit all the marks, but somehow her Tosca still felt more like solid professional work than fierce character ownership. She was missing the innate sensuality of the glamorous singer, and she did not have much chemistry with Grigolo, all of which contributed to making her performance good enough, but not memorable.
On the other hand, “memorable” is an adjective that I would unhesitatingly use to describe Italian super-star tenor Vittorio’s Grigolo’s turn on Sunday, in which he was everything one could have hoped for and more in the role of the dashing revolutionary/artist Cavaradossi, which led me to me to marvel at what a difference three years had made.
Back at the Met with Sonya Yoncheva in 2018, I remembered him as showing lots of talent and promise, but still kind of working his way into the character. Fast forward three years, and I could definitely tell that he had successfully matured into the part that nowadays fits him like a glove. His singing, in particular, has become more poised and nuanced, and if he still burst with youthful energy more often than not, we happily went along with it.
Italian baritone Roberto Frontali clearly had a ball fulfilling Scarpia’s bad-ass shoes, complete with a bright yellow toupee that would have made Trump proud. His beautifully burnished voice was robust and expressive, and readily helped him not to fall into the trap of turning his quintessential villain into a mere caricature of evil.
The members of the choirs were all masked, but that did not keep them from singing their hearts out during the truly hair-rising “Te Deum”, which gloriously brought together many powerful forces to celebrate the alleged defeat of Napoleon, and also to remind us all that Tosca’s musical high notes are not limited to the famous arias sung by the three headliners.
Rome’s opera house is an eye-popping visual delight of opulent red-and-gold walls and a lovely ceiling fresco ; in short, the perfect setting for the perfect evening out. But those glitzy surroundings also make the contrast even starker when the sets are as understated, borderline drab, as the ones used for this Tosca, which can be summed up as trompe l’œil backdrops, a few accessories, and some pretty cool blue lighting in the last act. The costumes were nice, yet predictable, but then again, history cannot be rewritten.
As for Puccini’s music, it sounded as vigorously dramatic, richly colorful and gorgeously melodic as ever. The house orchestra and maestro Paolo Arrivabeni could probably play the entire score in their sleep by now, but they thankfully did not, opting to steadily and splendidly supporting the relentless action instead. Even better, the house’s excellent acoustics guaranteed a totally satisfying musical experience for the audience, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
I knew that Tosca in Rome would be a special occasion for me not matter what. But little did I know that it was actually going to be even more special that I could have ever dreamed of. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened when, after Grigolo was done with his magnificent, literally show-stopping rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” and the ensuing thunderous ovation would not taper off, he eventually broke character, quickly consulted maestro Arrivabeni, got back into character, sang it again, broke character again, uttered an uncharacteristically sheepish “grazie”, got back into character again, and then moved on to his death scene. You gotta love the Italians!
As much as I’d like to think that this totally unexpected but obviously thrilling encore was for my benefit, or the benefit of the opera neophyte sitting in front of me, I suspect it had more to do with the fact that this was the last performance of this Tosca run, or, even more probable, because, back in 1990, a 13-year-old Grigolo made his professional debut on that very same stage in that very same opera in the role of the shepherd boy, in the company of no less than Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi. Turns out I got even more Tosca history than I had bargained for!