Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Librettist: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Conductor: Juraj Valcuha
Producer/Director: Edoardo de Angelis
Oksana Dyka: Flora Tosca
Jonas Kaufmann: Mario Caravadossi
Gabriele Viviani: Baron Scarpia
Coro e Coro di Voci Bianche del Teatro di San Carlo
It is hard to believe that over four months have passed since I last attended a live music performance, and not just any music performance, but the most Roman opera of them all, the one and only Tosca, which not only unfolded in its original home, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, but was also replicating the original production.
Those extra-special circumstances, however, were not quite enough to make the whole experience totally satisfying. So I took the only next logical step worthy of an opera aficionada: I jumped into a south-bound train, grabbed my Neapolitan friend Vittorio, and off we went to check out the Tosca playing in Naples’ prestigious Teatro di San Carlo ‒ AKA the San Carlo for the conoscienti ‒ which effectively allowed me to go from the 1900 original production to the 2020 modern take on it by local director Eduardo de Angelis in one fell swoop.
Therefore, after a sun-soaked morning in the wonderful Real Orto Botanico, which was a wonderfully refreshing change from the treasure-filled but gritty historic center and the glorious but bare lungomare, a home-cooked lunch, and a quick spin around the beautiful park inside the walls of the Palazzo Reale, we found ourselves in the city’s first and foremost cultural venue at 6:00 PM, which is, for all I could tell, the Neapolitan version of a matinee.
As if being the oldest continually active opera house, not only of Italy, or Europe, but the world was not enough, the San Carlo, which first opened in 1737, has remained one of the most highly regarded too. And while its red-and-gold décor is a common theme among such historical European cultural venues, it definitely takes it to another level in terms of sophistication and grandeur with, among other things, a royal box that more than lives up to its name.
As for our commoners’ box (Spending time in the royal botanical garden and the royal palace earlier in the day still did not qualify us for the royal box), at one level above the parquet and slightly on the side, it was nothing to sneeze at either. Even better, we were eventually joined by equally excited opera lovers from Philadelphia and Edinburgh.
One of the less satisfying elements of my Tosca in Rome was that Spanish soprano Saioa Hernandez turned out to be merely adequate. In Naples, Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka was anything but merely adequate, and took over the part with fierce determination, a truly magnetic presence and plenty of vocal power, even if the naturally steely quality of her voice occasionally made me wish for a little more warmth. Her first appearance, all-clad in shimmering black and donning a neat Louise Brooks haircut adorned by an also black tiara, made her look more like Morticia Adams than a 19th century Roman diva, but she was a sight to behold regardless.
Cavaradossi was everybody’s favorite German tenor Jonas Kaufman, who delivered a more poised, but no less committed, performance than Vittorio Grigolo did in Rome. Forever the effortless charismatic Romantic hero, blessed with prodigious singing and acting skills, not to mention a still impossibly handsome face, he wasted no time pulling off another star turn as the dashing painter/revolutionary. Although he did not relent to our über-insistent request for an encore of “E lucevan le stelle”, he was still a huge hit with the sold-out audience, including our Scottish box-mate Edward, who openly confessed being a die-hard groupie (and who could blame him?).
Italian baritone Gabriele Viviani was a deliciously bad-ass Scarpia, proudly donning a bald head, a stylish overcoat, an unflappable demeanor, and oozing just enough sadistic flair to be ominously present without being excessively overbearing. His commanding singing, all foreboding dark hues and haughty tones, winningly completed his superb portrait of the notorious chief of police.
All the secondary roles were handled admirably, each providing infallible support in their own special way. The adult chorus acquitted itself splendidly of its part, and the mask-wearing members of the children chorus, not to be outdone, promptly distinguished themselves with equal dedication.
A special mention should, however, go to the young contralto who showed up on stage flanked by two young girls at the beginning of Act 3 for the dawn-breaking shepherd’s song and conferred it ethereal beauty and poignant innocence, providing a welcome, if momentary, respite before the relentless drama resumed.
As much as I lamented the lack of imagination of Rome’s staunchly traditional production, it did not take long for me to wonder what the action going on before me in Naples was all about. It all started as soon as the curtain rose, when the expected interior of the Basilica the Sant’Andrea della Valle was replaced by the apparently post-apocalyptic skeleton of a tree holding three huge rocks, which immediately brought to my mind the Giuseppe Penone sculpture standing by the Palazzo Fendi in Rome, which, I err to guess, was probably not the original intent.
Even more unexpected was the fact that the painted portrait of the famously blond and blue-eyed marquise Attavanti that fuels Tosca’s jealousy had morphed into a very much alive African-American model proudly standing topless while Cavaradossi was gamely indulging in a little bit of bodypainting. But not to worry. As if to dispel any confusion (kind of), at the very end of the act, Scarpia quickly pulled the blue veil off her head to reveal a blond wig. If you think that’s taking political correctness a little too far, I won’t disagree.
From there on, things did not exactly go down, but they did not go very high either. Some iconic moments, such as Tosca dutifully placing candles around Scarpia’s barely dead body as a sign of her unwavering piousness, were acceptably missing. Others directing choices, such as a badly hurt Cavaradossi grabbing a pile of gold necklaces laying on a table as he was collapsing in Palazzo Farnese in Act 2, was probably supposed to say something, but it was not clear what. The Fall of Scarpia’s Empire?
On the other hand, the numbers and hieroglyphs randomly appearing in the night sky in lieu of stars at the beginning of Act 3 may have been another unexplained surprise, but at least they admittedly looked kind of cool. And the huge broken statue of the fallen Archangel of Castel Sant’Angelo occupying most of the stage was positively attention-grabbing, and brought a strongly symbolic touch of decadence to the proceedings.
But that did not quite compensate for some frustrating stage direction, such as the beginning of “E Lucevan le stelle” and Tosca’s fatal leap happening so far off stage left that we, along with all the audience on our side, could barely see it. You’d think that a professional stage director would take that into account, but no such luck there. Cavaradossi’s death was another departure for tradition too when, with no firing squad in sight, he was just shot Camorra style. I am not sure if this was meant to incorporate a hint of local culture, but it did anyway.
Needless to say, an opera house as world-renowned as the San Carlo owes it to itself to have a first-rate orchestra, especially when it comes to Italian fare, and I am happy to confirm that it absolutely does, as their remarkably inspired performance of Puccini’s intensely colorful, richly lyrical score under the baton of the theater’s music director Juraj Valcuha indisputably proved. Standing out among many memorable musical highlights was the Te Deum, a personal favorite of mine, which was as vigorously hair-raising as I could have hoped.
Once all had been said and done, all three characters were certifiably dead, and we had finally gotten a chance to catch our own breaths, the world's hardest-working social butterfly that is my friend Vittorio suggested that we took a selfie of our international box, which ended up being so challenging that a parquet audience member kindly volunteered to take a couple of pictures for posterity. Contact information was eventually exchanged with high hopes for another similar experience in the future, and we all went our separate ways into the still young Neapolitan night.