Thirteen years after Victorien Sardou’s 1887 play La Tosca appeared, Giacomo Puccini’s opera debuted at Il Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Countless performances have been heard since. Famous Toscas—Scacciati, Callas and Tebaldi. . . Famous Scarpias—Scotti, Gobbi, and Milnes. . . Famous Cavaradossis—di Stefano, Corelli and Pavarotti. All this, a hard act to follow.
But opera-goers still love Puccini’s colorful opera, even if it does, as Anthony Tommasini recounts in his book of opera recording recommendations Essential Library of Opera, contain “. . . a manipulative melodrama, with religious pageantry, sadism, torture, an attempted rape, a murder, an execution, and two suicides in just over one hundred minutes of music.”
Boston Lyric Opera will be presenting its version of Tosca in six performances beginning on November 5, at the Shubert Theater. Tosca is Jill Gardner, seen in previous BLO performances in 2007 as Mimi in La bohème. Cavaradossi is Diego Torre and Scarpia is Bradley Garvin, both making their BLO debuts.
In charge of it all is Esther Nelson, general and artistic director, now at the beginning of her third season. Before a hiatus of sorts as a management consultant in New York, she had a long career in management of opera companies in Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Orleans, before taking on that position at Glimmerglass, the annual summer opera festival in Cooperstown, NY, where she arrived in 1996. During her six seasons there, the company expanded its artistic growth, dramatically increased ticket revenue, fundraising, special events and education outreach, and nearly doubled its annual budget. Along with the popular operas of Verdi, Mozart, and Puccini, Nelson oversaw a catholic selection of operas by composers such as Carlyle Floyd, Virgil Thomson, Benjamin Britten, and Mark Adamo.
Asked if she carried on that philosophy after she arrived here, with an opera company that had been losing audience reportedly because of its less imaginative repertory, she was quick to respond. “We felt very strongly, the board and I, that we wanted to do more diverse repertory — and also to have in place a good staff experienced in the field of opera. We were able to expand the season, in spite of the economic downturn just when I came. My timing was definitely off, though!”
Nelson has drawn on artists with whom she worked at Glimmerglass. Those on the staff at BLO include Artistic Advisor John Conklin and Director of Artistic Operations Nicholas G. Russell. So is Director of Production Dan Duro, although he started at BLO a month before Nelson arrived. David Angus is one also, but his connection with Glimmerglass is a coincidence, Nelson explained. “He was appointed there after my time,” adding, “but of the pool of applicants for the position, he stood out, so we are fortunate that he accepted.”
In the 1998 summer season, while Nelson was there, Glimmerglass put on a Tosca. Will this one draw on that?
“Not at all. The production from Scottish Opera was shipped over here. They updated the concept to the Mussolini era, but we are altering it slightly — putting a Boston stamp on it. We have improved elements of scenic design and costumes, when necessary. It is still set recognizably in Chiesa Sant’Adrea delle Valle, Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo. Our stage is much different, so we altered it to fit.”
This production’s Tosca, Jill Gardner, also had a Glimmerglass presence. Two of her major roles to her repertoire came through cover assignments: the tour-de-force role of Elle in Poulenc’s La Voix humaine and the title role of Jenufa. She also sang Euridice in Orpheus in the Underworld. Her biggest role, she feels, was in the world premiere of Stephen Hartke’s The Greater Good.
“The biggest role was Madame Louiseau,” she said “and then the new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.” This is her third Tosca. First was a concert performance in Binghamton NY, the second a stage production with the Rochester Opera, now this one in Boston. “The bread-and-butter of my career has been Puccini. I have sung Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Liu in Turandot, and both Mimi and Musetta in La bohème, … As well, I look forward to doing my first Manon Lescaut later this season. The main thing I want to do next is Fanciulla del West and Trittico; that would complete my Puccini repertoire. … I love Puccini heroines. So much vocal writing is not just about the voice — it is beautiful in its vocal lyricism — but it is perfectly aligned with the dramatic intentions.”
Don’t look for a candle to end the famous second act.
“It was preset that the opera is taking place in the Fascist 1940s, so rather than being traditional time, Republicans versus the State, we are now dealing with the Fascist government and the rebels leaning toward French Resistance,” Gardner said. The audience will see “how we transpose certain key elements as the Fascist empire is being taken down. Several slight twists in how it happens. At the end of the third act as well, Tosca makes a very interesting choice in how I die. The costumes freely allow me to be a freedom fighter, a member of the Resistance.” (“The libretto doesn’t tell the director how to stage it. Frequently, what people don’t realize is that the instructions for staging did not come from composer or librettist, but the first stage production….,” Nelson explained earlier.)
How about “Mario! Mario!” at the end?
“At that point what’s so wonderful is it truly comes out of the dramatic situation,” Gardner said.
Nelson had auditioned “quite a number of potential Toscas” before hiring Gardner. “A singer’s instrument is in their body, so it changes. So you want to keep hearing them. And Gardner is so right now for this role. She’s right there, we realized, as soon as she auditioned. You don’t only want someone you can sing but can act the role. She is one of the performers who pulls you in.”
The Cavaradossi, Diego Torre, who’s from Mexico, was relatively new and unknown in the US when BLO auditioned him. “He has taken off since we hired him, Nelson said. “Locking them in before they have made an international reputation is a nice feeling, when you can find that young person on the cusp of taking off. It’s also nice for our audience to see people later whom they have seen in their hometown.”
The Metropolitan Opera later tapped Torre to play the Messenger in Aida and Federico in Stiffelio in the 2009-2010 season. Future engagements include Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor for Savonlinna; covering for Plácido Domingo in the title role of Il Postino at Los Angeles Opera; and Don José in Carmen (in concert) at the Santo Domingo Music Festival in 2011.
“I LOVE Mario!” Gardner burst out about Torre.
Baron Scarpia, Bradley Garvin, also making his BLO debut, is known for his commanding stage presence and his powerful, full voice. He has sung the title role in Der fliegende Holländer with the Madison Opera, Jochanaan in Salome at the Toledo Opera, Monterone in Rigoletto at the Houston Grand Opera, the King of Egypt in Aida at the Bregenz Festival, and the Prince Arjuna in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera. He also has performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Bach’s St Matthew Passion and with the National Chorale in Bach’s B minor Mass, the Philharmonia Virtuosi in Haydn’s Creation, the Bach Consort of Washington in the St John Passion and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Honegger’s Cantate de Noel. According to Nelson, he recently published a book on Tosca.
She is happy with the cast. “The balance is very important to us,” she told the Intelligencer.