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Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca and Markus Marquardt as Scarpia in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca.

Michael Cooper

Title
Tosca
Company
The Canadian Opera Company
Venue
Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto
Review Date
Sunday, April 30, 2017

The movie business was in its infancy when Giacomo Puccini wrote Tosca in 1900, so if Tosca resembles a well-plotted action flick, it's because the movies copied Puccini, not the other way around. And Tosca is extremely cinematic in its beautiful musical construction. Small fragments of theme and music follow one another at about the speed of a movie edit, that is to say, very rapidly. The action moves along at a breathless clip, with only the occasional rest for an aria or two – but very famous ones, at that. Like a film, the overall effect, when all is presented well, is very powerful and enjoyable.

And the current Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, which opened Sunday afternoon in Toronto, is very well-presented indeed. With great voices on stage, and expert music-making in the orchestra pit – Keri-Lynn Wilson leading the COC Orchestra – this Tosca basically delivers full value to the dramatic spills and chills the score promises.

It may be odd to say that one enjoys Tosca, since the plot, "a shabby little shocker" according to critic Joseph Kerman, is pretty much over the top, full of revenge, lust, hatred, violence, with a little religion thrown in for good measure. All three of the opera's principal characters – Tosca, her lover Cavaradossi and her would-be lover and villainous police chief, Scarpia – are dead by the end of act three. (Four out of four if you include the revolutionary Angelotti). Act two includes scenes of torture, an attempted rape and a murder. Act three, a mock execution (which turns real) and a suicide. It's a hoot. We love it all.

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And we love Tosca for the same reason we love a good action picture. Despite all the mayhem and chases and cliff-hanging moments, we never for a moment feel uncomfortable in one of those films, never feel that frightening rush of feeling and emotion that accompanies moments of great art, when the world is displaced for an instant and everything is new for the first time. Sometimes, one dearly wishes Puccini hadn't been quite so expert in his dramatic, always one-step-ahead-of-us craftsmanship. He was capable of more, as one hears often in his early La Bohème, and occasionally here as well. The finale of act one is such an example, set in a church, as the repulsive Scarpia plots his murderous and lustful plans just as a Te Deum is sung, and the two musical strains combine and interact perfectly, creating a moment of ambiguity and correspondence that only music can achieve.

But those moments are rare in Tosca, so an audience basks in the beautiful vocal accomplishment on stage, as well as all the drama, and the Four Seasons Centre audience was not disappointed on Sunday. Adrianne Pieczonka, who has sung the role all over the world, and was Tosca here in 2012, was glorious, with a fine, nuanced soprano that could overpower when necessary, or modulate down to a more moderate size, as she did with aplomb in her famous act-two aria, Vissi d'arte. Some see Tosca as something of a feminist hero, because she takes fate in her own hands and kills her would-be rapist, Scarpia, in act two, and then kills herself rather than be taken prisoner in act three (a famous jump from the parapets). Tosca reacts more than acts, which makes her difficult to play, but Pieczonka's vocal performance was very complex and layered.

She had a great partner in Marcelo Puente as her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, who was a Latin tenor right out of central casting (he's from Argentina) – tall, handsome, with an exquisite voice that shimmered and soared throughout the Four Seasons Centre, captivating and ravishing. His big aria, the stuff of Three Tenor and Four Tenor and Five Tenor Concerts the world over, E lucevan le stelle, was gorgeous in its understatement and clever pacing. Puente made Cavaradossi a focal point every time he was on stage.

The third member of Tosca's desperate triumvirate was Markus Marquardt as the evil Scarpia, one of the least likeable characters in all of opera, the man who tortures Cavaradossi to get Tosca to sleep with him, then betrays them both by pretending Cavaradossi's real execution will be faked. Scarpia is a tough assignment, because the entire opera revolves around his appetites and desires. Marquardt has a fine, big, voice, but his Scarpia was not quite as malevolent as one would like, less a coiled, terrifying serpent always ready to uncoil, and more a demonstrative, explosive natural force. But all three were very effective in their vocal portrayals.

If there was a flaw in Paul Curran's stage direction, it was a common flaw in Tosca productions – there is so much drama perfectly woven into the score, it's easy to forget to amp it up on stage as well. But, for Tosca, the more the merrier.

As is often the case with COC productions, the COC Orchestra was, in some ways, the most varied and complete musical personality in the hall. Conductor Wilson told me before the performance that she tries to avoid the vulgar in Puccini, and she did so with great style and skill. Tempos were brisk, musical moments were allowed to speak for themselves without undue embellishment and there was a respect for the beauty of the score allied to a real passion in its performance. It was a joy to witness.

When you present Tosca, you start with a very winning musical formula – one of the great, dramatically Romantic scores in the repertoire. But it's easy to underplay the power of the piece, not to get full value from it. A weak vocal performance can do it, or a done-it-a-million-times orchestral reading. But this COC Tosca does the opposite – to the underlying musical scaffolding it adds performances and music-making of great beauty and confidence. Full value achieved.

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Tosca runs through May 20 (coc.ca).

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