Victorien Sardou created his 1887 French play “La Tosca” as a vehicle for one of the most renowned stage actors of all time, the “divine” Sarah Bernhardt — an artist who, according to legend, was so committed to her art that upon realizing that stagehands had not positioned the net for her leap from the castle’s parapet, jumped anyway.
Giacomo Puccini saw Bernhardt’s touring production, had his publisher buy the rights immediately, and, after a bit of intrigue, premiered his opera in 1900. Since that time, Floria Tosca has come to occupy a central position in the pantheon of operatic heroines. At first driven by her foibles, she ultimately drives the plot to its climax and resolution. Tosca epitomizes the Puccini heroine, a dramatic complex of emotion and motivation depicted in gorgeous arias and shocking actions.
Soprano Emily Langford Johnson delivers a magnificent Tosca in Opera Roanoke’s new production. Johnson’s lustrous voice turns swiftly from joy to jealousy, her instrument shifting its colors, as needed. Most importantly for the story, Johnson (clothed brilliantly in Christopher Metzger’s costumes) commands the stage as Rome’s diva La Tosca, a woman caught up in political machinations, which at first only baffle her. Johnson transforms her Tosca from target to weapon without ever losing control of her voice’s thrilling sound — a truly moving rendering of one of Italian opera’s most riveting creations.
Tosca’s lover, Mario Cavaradossi, must embody the magnetic attraction Tosca feels for him. Tenor Dinyar Vania gives us a Cavaradossi of power and passion. He projects a heroic presence worthy of our Tosca, and tames the score’s famous B-flats with elegance and warmth. The lovers’ nemesis, the Baron Scarpia — arguably opera’s most loathsome villain — is played with irony and aggression by baritone Thomas Cannon. Cannon subtly projects the perfidy of a tyrant whose evil power can destroy men and violate women.
The opera’s first act moves swiftly with the fine work of bass singers Gregory Parker (Cesare Angelotti) and Donald Hartmann (Sacristan), who stir up events with respective notes of adventure and comedy. The act is also anchored by the excellent work of the Opera Roanoke Chorus (Taylor Baldwin, chorus master), featuring the Roanoke Valley Children’s Chorus (Kimberly Ruse Davidson, director). Scarpia’s henchmen, played by Adam McAllister (Spoletta) and Jack Chandler (Sciarrone), nicely reinforce the banality of evil housed in Scarpia’s world. Ryan Huddleston’s excellent Shepherd Boy opens the final act, which continues with Robb Zahm’s convincing Jailer.
Jimmy Ray Ward’s set designs realize each act’s distinctive space (church, palace, castle) with economy and depth, while Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann’s lighting adds feeling and nuance. In this new production, director Brynn Scozzari has guided the cast in a staging at once faithful and inventive, direction that persuades us with its insights. The opera “Tosca” is tied directly to the orchestra: the score, arguably one of the finest orchestrations in all of opera, receives a fresh and exciting performance by members of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra conducted by Scott Williamson (Opera Roanoke’s artistic director).
In 1957, George Marek suggested that the melodramatic elements of “Tosca” — torture, murder, blood, attempted rape, execution, suicide — cannot retain their over-the-top impact once we know the opera well. Perhaps. But the music is so beautiful, the orchestral writing so masterful, the range of feeling so vivid, that we never tire of time spent in Tosca’s world.
The final performance of “Tosca” is Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Shaftman Performance Hall at Jefferson Center. The 42nd season of Opera Roanoke, a year of Puccini, continues in the spring with “La Boheme,” scheduled for April 6 and 8.
Gordon Marsh is a professor of fine arts at Roanoke College.