By David Dixon
Giacomo Puccini’s dark achievement, “Tosca,” features brutal deceit, immoral behavior, and a cunning villain that represents pure evil.
In other words, it’s just another night at the opera.
For a very limited engagement, San Diego Opera brings Puccini’s popular work to the San Diego Civic Theatre. Adapted from the Victorien Sardou play, “La Tosca,” the music-filled epic has resonated with audiences since the very early 1900s.
Those that have never seen a production of “Tosca” before should know that the plot involves an Italian singer, Fiona Tosca (Alexia Voulgaridou), living in early-19th century Rome. Although she has a romantic relationship with a passionate painter, Mario Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones), Fiona is an easily jealous woman who does not always trust her boyfriend.
Their lives become gloomier when the villainous chief of police, Baron Scarpia (Greer Grimsley) searches for an escaped prisoner. His quest to find the fugitive ultimately puts Fiona and Mario’s lives in danger.
The events take place on June 14, 1800.
Director Lesley Koenig (the current managing director at Weston Playhouse Theatre Company in Vermont) knows a lot about the historical context of “Tosca” and the events have increased her appreciation of the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
“Almost every action that happens on that day to the protagonists is because of the Battle of Marengo between French forces and Austrian forces,” she said. “Looking at the political context of ‘Tosca’ doesn’t change how the characters act on stage. However, it helps the audience understand the importance of the day.”
Even though “Tosca” has not been modernized, there are still aspects of this interpretation that have modern relevance. Grimsley, a bass-baritone, feels that Scarpia remains a haunting antagonist, even today.
“In present-day situations, there are still abuses of power and privilege,” he said. “The character is not so unbelievable, because we have seen a heinous abuse of that sort of power in the past century.”
The singer respects Puccini’s ability to express the emotions of each character through music.
“He is able to describe musically what the characters are feeling,” Grimsley said. “You completely understand the state of mind every person is experiencing.”
Like Grimsley, Koenig appreciates the deeply layered roles throughout Puccini’s major accomplishments.
“His pieces are so complex and the characters are so real,” she said. “There are many dimensions to them.”
According to Koenig, plot and music weave together perfectly in operas by Puccini.
“He knows how to tell a story and within three notes can make audiences cry,” Koenig said. “Puccini is just masterful at storytelling.”
Koenig wants to honor the beloved music, while also breathing new life into the drama.
“I think the production will be respectful of the composer/librettist, but a fresh look,” she said. “It’s going to be really good theater.”
For people who have never been to the opera before, Grimsley highly recommends “Tosca.”
The rest of the 2015–16 season will give Puccini aficionados their money’s worth. San Diegans have the opportunity to see “Tosca” and another classic from the composer, “Madama Butterfly,” which comes to town in April. Bring the tissues and get ready to listen to timelessly beautiful music.
—A fan of film and theater from a very young age, David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. You can reach him at email@example.com.