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PREVIEW: Tosca (Minnesota Opera)

A scenic design sculpture for Act 2 of Minnesota Opera’s 2016 production of Tosca. Design by Lorenzo Cutùli.

Tosca, which opens this Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, is one of the most lethal operas in the standard repertoire. Les Troyens‘ mass suicide of Trojan maidens kills off more characters in absolute terms, but by the time the curtain descends on Tosca only two of the six named characters are left alive – and the living are definitely more minor.  Of the characters who sing arias, only the nameless shepherd boy actually makes it through…saved, perhaps, by only singing from offstage. As things go, characters have a better chance of making it through an episode of The Walking Dead than surviving Tosca.

The cover of the original 1899 libretto of Tosca.

Composer Giacomo Puccini famously wrote that he was “busting his balls” writing Tosca and left the correspondence to prove it. He battled with the playwright whose work he was adapting, argued with his long-time publisher and producer, and had less than three weeks’ rehearsals to prepare the opera. To make matters even more stressful, the high-stakes production opened Rome in the middle of a massive pilgrimage, with threats of anarchist bombings and a legitimate fear that Puccini’s rivals would stage a riot at the premiere. None of these factors prevented the composer from writing one of his finest scores.

One of the most famous arias in Tosca, “Vissi d’arte” (“I have lived for art”), was almost cut from the opera – not because it didn’t work well, but because it worked too well. Puccini was worried that the aria would totally arrest the work’s dramatic flow, ruining the sense of drama and knocking the audience out of the moment with waves of applause.

  • Watch soprano Maria Callas sing “Vissi d’arte” in a 1964 production at Covent Garden:

Puccini’s instincts were not wrong – more than a few productions have been brought to a halt by thunderous applause at this juncture in Act 2 – but “Vissi d’arte” was retained and opera fans everywhere have been happy since. As the titular Tosca despairs and asks why God has abandoned her to the villain Scarpia, her helplessness heightens the sacrilegious tones of Scarpia’s earlier “Va, Tosca” – one of the greatest villain arias in opera.

  • Watch Ruggero Raimondi sing “Va, Tosca” in a 1992 production at St. Peter’s Basilica (the actual setting for this portion of the opera):

Lorenzo Cutùli's design for one of Tosca's gowns.
Lorenzo Cutùli’s design for one of Tosca’s gowns.

With an opera so beloved, it’s not surprising that producing and staging Tosca has taken on a life of its own. When the Metropolitan Opera changed management and decided to shakeup its production with a redesign, the outcry against the changes was so great that the company felt compelled to call a panel and organize a media tour to defend itself. (Spoiler: It didn’t work; adding prostitutes not mentioned in the libretto probably didn’t help. Eventually some elements of the classic staging were restored and additions toned down.)

Casting Floria Tosca is also a turbulent path. The character in the opera is a diva; some singers take this a little too close to heart – and, sometimes, stab Scarpia with a little too much gusto, drawing more than stage blood. As of last week, Minnesota Opera was set to open this Saturday with Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross in Cast A and Alexandra LoBianco in Cast B on Sunday. Today, MNOpera announced that Kelly Kaduce was replacing Boross. Several sources speaking on condition of anonymity cited backstage drama behind the swap; in a response to queries, MNOpera diplomatically stated, “Csilla withdrew from the production for personal reasons, and we are choosing to respect her privacy on the matter.”

Minnesota Opera’s production of Tosca opens this Saturday, March 12 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and plays through March 26.

Basil Considine