Opera Club: ‘Tosca’ and ‘Rodrigo’
For our weekend edition of Opera Club, we would like to recommend a much-revered production of Puccini’s Tosca at the Vienna State Opera, and rarely-performed Handel opera Rodrigo, directed by Northern Ireland Opera’s artistic director Walter Sutcliffe at the Göttingen Händel Festspiele in 2019.
Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca combines one of opera history’s most interesting female characters (and musically varied soprano roles) with one of opera history’s most sinister baddie: a truly explosive mix! After the success of his La Bohème, Puccini revisited an earlier idea to set to music Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca. He had seen the notorious Sarah Bernhardt in the title role in Paris, and convinced his publisher Ricordi to secure the rights. Since its eagerly-awaited premiere in January 1900, Tosca has been a firm audience favourite, even if it didn’t initially receive the critical praise that Puccini might have expected. Some of the reasons for the opera’s persistence in the repertoire arguably match those brought forward by critics: Tosca is unashamedly melodramatic, sometimes blunt, certainly overt in its depiction of violence and lust. While scenes of on-stage assassination, attempted rape, and torture have caused some to condemn Tosca as vulgar and brutalist, audiences have experienced it as real, unveiled drama, with characters that possess psychological depths and grit. Floria Tosca – a celebrated prima donna (much like Sarah Bernhardt) – is simultaneously portrayed as vain, passionate, devoted, brave, and ultimately naïve. Her attempts to psychologically out-manipulate sadistic villain Scarpia to save her lover Cavaradossi in Act II are spine-tinglingly gripping and the outcome of this effort truly touching. Musically, the opera has much to offer in ways of what Germans call “earworms” – catchy melodies worked into some of the repertoire’s favourite arias (for example Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte”; Scarpia’s “Te Deum”, or Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle”). Puccini very consciously used musical themes to characterise the opera’s protagonists, and wrote recurring Leitmotifs for some of the libretto’s most significant symbols and ideas; the knife, for example. The libretto, written by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, introduces political fugitive Angelotti, who seeks shelter in the church where painter Cavaradossi works on a fresco. Cavaradossi vows to help Angelotti, but is disturbed by the arrival of his lover, Floria Tosca. Later, Chief of Police Scarpia arrives and suspects Cavaradossi to be involved in Angelotti’s escape. He arouses Tosca’s jealousy, with tragic consequences…
Musical director of this revival production at Vienna State Opera is Marco Armiliato, director is Margarethe Wallmann. You will hear and see Karine Babajanyan as Tosca, Piotr Beczała as Cavaradossi and Carlos Álvarez as Scarpia.
Georg Friedrich Handel
Libretto anonymously adapted from Francesco Silvani’s Il duello d’Amore e di Vendetta
Händel Festspiele Göttingen (2019)
Georg Friedrich Handel’s Rodrigo was the composer’s first opera for Italy (premiered in 1707), and despite much revived interest in Handel’s operas, remains relatively obscure and is only seldom performed. Until 1974, the opera was believed to be lost, and in 1983 some more parts were discovered. In May 2019, the Händel Festspiele in Göttingen (mid-East Germany) tackled a reconstructed version of the score under the musical leadership of early music specialist and the festival’s artistic director Lawrence Cummings. A great asset of this recent production is the historically-informed performance practice with a very fine festival orchestra and a fantastic cast, including Erica Eloff as Rodrigo, Fflur Wyn as Esilena, Silvia Fragato as Florinda and Jorge Navarro Colorado as Giuliano, amongst others.
Rodrigo is very loosely based on the Visigothic rule in Spain, around AD 710. The character of Rodrigo refers to the historic figure of the Duke of Baetica – the last Visigothic king. At least three of the other characters have also historical counterparts. Rather than following the king’s political career in detail, the opera revolves around his personal, or shall we say intimate, affairs. We do learn that Rodrigo killed the rightful ruler Vitizza to claim the throne, and is facing rebellion led by the young man Evanco. The narrative proper, however, begins with the accusations of Rodrigo’s lover Florinda: after impregnating her, Rodrigo had broken his promise to repudiate his wife Esilena. When Florinda’s brother Giuliano learns of the betrayal, Rodrigo’s choices in private life begin to have consequences for his role as king.
The production by Northern Ireland Opera’s artistic director Walter Sutcliffe and designer Dorota Karolczak highlights Rodrigo’s hedonistic lifestyle, and capture the internal and external ruin of a once lavish kingdom at the verge of collapse. Karolczak’s set and costumes are playing with the grotesque, are full of details, sinister and comical at once. Handel’s music (he was only 22 when completing the opera) is already leading very clearly to his later, flourishing Italianate style. The score boasts several beautiful arias, the most attractive perhaps Esilena’s “Par dar pregio all’amor mio”, with its stunning obligato violin accompaniment.
Last week’s Online Opera Club recommendations: Carmen and Spring Storms ‘https://www.niopera.com/2020/03/23/opera-club-carmen-and-spring-storms/