They didn’t change the ending but that’s the best I’ve felt coming out of a Tosca performance in a very long time. You wouldn’t normally think of an opera where all three of the principals die as a feel-good opera.
(haha I almost typed “fell-good” which is apt for
an entirely different reason…!
But I won’t be a spoiler)
Tosca is one of the operas I have seen so many times, played, coached, sung parts, that I literally know every note at least of the piano vocal score, and I will always proclaim it to be one of the best operas ever written. It’s indestructible. It still works whether the hero and heroine are handsome or chubby, young or old, the villainous Scarpia blatantly scary or subtly gnarled. And wonderful as my experience was today I’m happily looking forward to hearing & seeing it again from a different part of the theatre.
Today was the first turn for the #2 cast in the Canadian Opera Company’s current production of Tosca, singing the first of their five of the 12 performances in the run, and who can likely be forgiven for exemplifying that old motto of Avis Rent-a-Car. The slogan for the #2 car rental company was “we try harder” and so it seemed at the Four Seasons Centre today, as they wanted us to notice them too.
Keri Alkema as Tosca gradually won me over more and more. While I enjoyed her work in the first two acts, including the big aria, it was the last act that left me all verklempt and teary-eyed at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tosca who persuaded me that she is a different person at the end, at least until now. She seems shaken at what she’s done –the pious innocent who has killed Scarpia—and now is a very dark and troubled woman in that last scene. The other Toscas I’ve seen usually play optimism and hope, setting you up for the disappointment of the fake execution and pursuit. For whatever reason, Alkema made me believe she truly did feel sorry, after the lines in Act II “È morto!
Or gli perdono!” (“he’s dead. Now I forgive him”). In some productions these lines make me giggle because they are so difficult to do without seeming ridiculous, absurd.
But that’s the thing. Alkema doesn’t do so much of the grinning one sees in the last act of a Tosca. For whatever reason –partly due to her chemistry with her Cavaradossi, Kamen Chanev—she is not there to cheer up her despairing painter. Once he sees her, he is the smiling and adoring one, while she seems ashamed, profoundly upset with herself. When Chanev sang “oh dolci mani” it was the first time I really got this aria, really understood what the opera is doing at this moment, possibly because at this moment Cavaradossi is trying to console her, to remind her who she is (a good person?) in the face of her horror at what she’s done. Who thought that after so many productions, they’d show me something new?
This was the most moving “Trionfal” I’ve ever seen. Most moving? Perhaps it’s the first time I have ever seen this moment really work! If you know the opera, you know that Act III opens with an epic utterance from the horn section, a magnificent uplifting tune capturing the spirit of hope that might come to fruition if the plot turns out the way Floria Tosca hopes it shall. This mysterious melody comes back, in the bold declaration by Tosca & Cavaradossi just before the mock execution (that is actually a real one due to double-cross), the boldest singing as they stare down-stage at us, defying us to doubt their resolve, daring us to tell them that they will not succeed. It works as a tragedy if the characters have been properly developed, more than two-dimensional cartoon cut-outs. And yes Chanev and Alkema sing this passage beautifully. We dare to hope for a different outcome, believing it might end differently this time.
I know. It’s not rational.
But wait, there’s quite a bit more to come and hahahah I won’t tell you too much because I don’t want to steal the tears out of your eyes, should you perchance come see it. I will say that Alkema is the most convincing Tosca I’ve ever seen in her moment of heart-break, when she goes from “let’s go Mario” (to run away for the happy ending) to “let’s go Mario” (body language and face telling us what she takes in, that he’s not okay, …will never be okay). And the rest? Yes there’s more that’s very good. I couldn’t make a sound for quite awhile, although I did manage to recover in time to offer my applause.
I may have been messed up in advance, seeing the result of the French election on social media between the first and second acts, primed for Cavaradossi’s adolescent outburst of “Vittoria”, believing for a moment that there is an answer to tyranny and fascism. Director Paul Curran gives us a Tosca full of well-thought moments, details & objects used mindfully. We were staked to a great start with the revolutionary gravitas of Musa Ngqungwana as Angelotti followed by the delightful Donato Di Stefano (so brilliant in the Cenerentola a few years ago), the latter, one of a vanishing breed of singer with some understanding of the buffo tradition, making the Sacristan the focus whenever he was onstage.
Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson gave us a beautiful performance, and please let me explain. Yes the COC orchestra and chorus played what sounded like a flawless fluff-free performance, possibly because of the give and take at the podium. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such stunning cello playing (Paul Widner?) to begin Act III.
[NB, I was subsequently told in a comment shown below that the cellist in question was Alastair Eng]
And I’ve heard performances that were more inexorable in Act II – when we might want the conductor to be as much of a fascist as Scarpia, driving the orchestra relentlessly—but if the suspense is accomplished in a wild ride that leaves the singers behind? Then I’d rather not do it that way. Conducting Puccini is hard. I recall someone long ago telling me when I was very young that this is the hardest music to conduct: if you’re doing it right. There must be give and take, otherwise the singers get sacrificed on the altar of brisk tempi. There are arias in this opera that require mindful leadership. And so Wilson didn’t disingenuously press on at the end of “Recondita armonia” but instead stopped decisively for the applause, that conductors don’t always allow us. A good conductor can be like a safety net or like a cattle prod, either making the singers more comfortable about the risks they are taking, or terrorizing them. And I feel I should add that in a production where there seemed to be no concessions –no attempts to cast someone based on their nationality, as Canadians or as ensemble studio members –it must be observed that Keri-Lynn Wilson is there on merit, not because she’s Canadian or a woman. What I saw and felt and what erupted out of my eyes was Wilson’s doing, in a production that was very musical, stunningly beautiful from beginning to end.
Craig Colclough was a strong-voiced Scarpia, at times underplaying the usual loud readings for something subtler, for example as in the moment when he commands Spoletta to go get Angelotti, (catching Tosca in a huge lie).
Meanwhile, there are two casts singing this opera of pure gold until the closing performance on May 20th. I know I’ll see it at least one more time. You should consider it.