Tosca delivers

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Paul Curran’s Tosca makes a perfect match with the new David McVicar Macbeth, both powerful explorations of the intersections of the personal with the political featuring terrific performances. I was struck by the similarities, that both operas feature baritones exploring the nature of evil, sopranos who in various ways tempt & challenge them, and a pair of composers exploring responses to oppression.

Tosca is the perfect first opera to answer any critiques about the supposed weaknesses of the medium. When people die in this opera it’s brutal and nasty. They sing about beauty, desire, remembered love and dreams of escape, just like the rest of us but (spoiler alert) it doesn’t end well.

There is often a drama within the drama in opera, observing performers handling the challenges of the medium. The role of Tosca began with Sardou’s well-made play in the 1880s created as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, and Puccini could do no less in creating a spectacular role for soprano that premiered at the dawn of the 20th century, requiring piety, love, jealousy, then murder and remorse. The history of the role is highlighted by performers such as Tebaldi or Callas, and collectors fondly compare different versions of scenes.

Last night was a lovely addition to my personal collection of memories of the role, as Keri Alkema undertook Tosca the day after her beloved dog died: or so I gather from social media, as she reported going home between performances. I was bracing myself to hear that she would cancel (who would blame her? If you’ve ever had a cat or dog, you’d understand that this is truly the death of a family member). But Keri not only showed up but gave us a very powerful, original performance. There was one place in particular that I want to mention, namely the big aria “vissi d’arte”, where Tosca confronts God about the meaning of her life. This was the most internalized, understated reading of the aria I’ve ever heard, sung more softly in places than usual. If you’ve ever been singing while feeling powerful emotion and had your voice quiver or break, you may wonder how one holds it together when one is powerfully moved. I don’t know, only that what I thought I heard was a totally personal reading of the aria, one that had me totally in tears for a few moments. This also features her brilliant approach to the last act (which I observed last time she undertook the role). If you have a chance to see and hear her in her remaining performance on May 13th you’ll get something very special.

Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) and Tosca (Keri Alkema) photo: Michael Cooper

The other two main characters don’t disappoint alongside Keri’s Tosca. There are many ways to play Scarpia, the villainous chief of police. Whether he’s physically grotesque or handsome his behaviour and his soul are ugly beyond anything you see short of a CNN town hall. Roland Wood is a delightfully hypocritical Scarpia, his piety seemingly genuine alongside his epicurean taste and insatiable lust, his vocalism secure and flawless.

Roland Wood as Scarpia (downstage, left) in the Te Deum climaxing Act One of Tosca (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Stefano La Colla as the painter Cavaradossi completes the love triangle, an intriguing contrast to Keri’s subtleties in his passionate attacks on high notes, sometimes verging a bit sharp but always fully committed to the moment.

Donato Di Stefano as the Sacristan is a genuine example of an old-school approach to the role, although he was given very little space to operate in his scenes, given the full-speed ahead tempi of conductor Giuliano Carella. The COC orchestra and chorus sounded great especially in the big Te Deum that closes the first act of the opera, one of Wood’s great moments as Scarpia.

Michael Colvin and Giles Tomkins were very effective as Spoletta and Sciarrone, two of the police working with Scarpia, giving their scenes a great deal of depth. Alex Halliday was a sympathetic jailer, impressive in the last act. Christian Pursell was an effective Angelotti in the opening scene.

Tosca continues until May 27th, with soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace singing all but one of the remaining performances.

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