The abuse of political power is at the heart of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, the Knoxville Opera Company’s Rossini Festival production set for April 18 and 20 at the Tennessee Theatre. Add to that story a little torture and a little jealousy and you have a verismo opera with gripping human emotion that has fascinated audiences since its premiere in Rome in 1900.
Puccini and his librettists based their work on the 1887 play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, who wrote the piece expressly for the talents of actress Sarah Bernhardt. While Sardou’s plays were often criticized for their melodrama (George Bernard Shaw called them “Sardoodledom”), Puccini irritated his Tosca critics with the opera’s passion, sex, and violence. As late as the 1950s, American musicologist Joseph Kerman dubbed Tosca “a shabby little shocker.” But it is Puccini’s dramatic musical eloquence that has been the attraction of the opera since its premiere, not Sardou’s characters or plot.
As befitting a realist drama, the time and place of the opera is very specific: Rome in June of 1800. Napoleon’s army has just met the Austrian army at Marengo, a fact that is background for Tosca’s political intrigue. Floria Tosca is a beautiful but jealous opera singer loved by the painter Cavaradossi, who has agreed to hide his friend and escaped revolutionary ally, Cesare Angelotti, from the police. Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Angelotti all fear the Roman police captain, Baron Scarpia, who is searching for revolutionaries—and who also lusts for Tosca.
Tosca, in a manner somewhat similar to La Bohème before and Madama Butterfly afterward, is a musical tapestry of short motifs or themes, not unlike the leitmotifs of Richard Wagner. The Act I curtain rises on the first of these, the ominous Scarpia theme that is repeated throughout whenever the evil police chief appears. Such a construction may be completely transparent to the audience, though, for it blends almost seamlessly with the continuous melodic and dramatic inventions for both the voice and the orchestra.
It isn’t surprising that the role of Tosca has attracted a century’s worth of the world’s great sopranos. Along with divas such as Zinka Milanov and Renata Tibaldi, Maria Callas comes to mind as much for her great dramatic performance as for her voice. Tosca’s Act II aria “Vissi d’arte,” for which Ms. Callas was particularly known, is an example of why great Toscas must also be great actresses. Accepting the daunting task of Tosca in the Knoxville Opera production will be Jennifer Harris, who will be making her KOC debut. Also making his debut in Knoxville will be baritone Daniel Sumegi in the role of the evil Scarpia. The role of Cavaradossi will be sung by tenor Thomas Studebaker, who appeared previously in KOC’s 2007 Three Tenors concert. The role of Angelotti will be taken by a face (and voice) familiar to Knoxvillians, bass Daniel T. Berry.
Just down Gay Street from Tosca at the Tennessee is another part of the Rossini Festival weekend—the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata at the Bijou Theatre. Based fairly faithfully on the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas fils, Verdi’s La Traviata suffered many of the same criticisms from 1850s morality watchers as had been visited upon the novel. Along with two other Verdi operas, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, also produced between 1851-1853, La Traviata was called “lewd and licentious” by conservative critics, one of whom remarked that “no respectable member of the fair sex could patronize [the operas] without then and there sacrificing both taste and modesty.”
Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, retained the novel’s Paris setting, but changed the character’s names—Dumas’s courtesan Marguerite Gautier became Violetta Valéry and Armand Duval became Alfredo. Both novel and opera comment on the hypocrisy of mid-19th-century society, in which gambling and prostitution were publicly condemned but privately enjoyed. While courtesans like Violetta were shunned by polite society, it was fully expected that rich, married men should keep one as a mistress. La Traviata, like the Dumas novel, makes the point that, despite the labels that society places, the greatest human quality is a good heart and soul.
Although the story of a doomed courtesan with a heart of gold is charming and intriguing, it is, unquestionably, Verdi’s non-stop flow of tuneful melodies that has been responsible for the opera’s immense popularity. Some of the tunes are so well-known that they are ingrained in popular consciousness, mostly from their use in films and commercials. In Act I alone, there are at least three or four, including the familiar “Drinking Song” in which Alfredo toasts love, Violetta sings of pleasure, and the chorus of party-goers just wants another drink. Violetta’s Act I aria “Ah! Fors’e lui” is one of the most famous soprano arias in the repertoire.
Many critics have missed the point in disparaging Verdi’s orchestration as lacking color. Verdi uses the orchestra to establish the drama of a scene, provide hints to what is coming, and illuminate the characters’ emotions and personalities. The Prelude to Act I, for example, uses soft strings and a haunting melody that paint an image of love beset by illness that no words could convey. That theme is repeated as prelude to Act IV (and Act III in some productions) as Violetta’s consumptive end is near.
The orchestra in this UT production will be conducted by James Fellenbaum. Fellenbaum, who is director of orchestras at the university, has just this winter been named resident conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. The stage director will be UT Opera Theatre Artistic Director Carroll Freeman, who is also artistic director of the Knoxville Opera Studio. The principals in this all-student cast will be split among the four performances. For Violetta: Teresa Alzadon, Catherine Greer, Mieke Rickert, Katherine Cardin, Leslee Poole-Adams, and Desiree Lulay. For Alfredo: Jorge Alzadon, Jonathan Subia, and Cody Boling. Alfredo’s father, Germont, will be sung by John Arnold