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San Francisco Opera has had a long history with Puccini's "Tosca." The company premiere was in 1923, a performance opened the War Memorial opera House in 1932, and it was the first opera performed in the renovated War Memorial in 1997. San Francisco Opera has been presented it in 33 seasons. The current production by Lotfi Mansouri has Thierry Bosquet's set and costume designs based on the 1932 production. It opens in a beautiful Roman church with a Pieta on a back wall; a statue in a fountain like structure, surrounded by candles to the right and scaffolding for Cavaradossi's paintings at the left front.

Richard Leech's Mario heads a strong cast. He's suave and confident as he strides into the church to work on his painting. He banters with the Sacristan, teases, and laughs at him. He really loves Tosca, and when she flies into a jealous rage when she realizes the painting is of Marchesa Attavanti, he just sloughs it off. He loves her for her dark eyes and fiery passion, and his own easy going nature is the perfect compliment for it. When he discovers Angelotti, though, he shows his own fiery passion for freedom, justice, and political tolerance. Angelotti tells how he has been imprisoned by Scarpia, "that madman who uses religion to satisfy his lust, be it priest or hangman." That's when we see his passion as he risks all to help Angelotti escape. This production has a strong nod to the darker side of religion, as shown by fanatics and those who twist religious teachings to justify their own perverted actions.

Franz Grundheber's Scarpia is dark and sinister. He's a mustache twirler with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. When his men find Marchesa Attavanti's fan he says "What a handkerchief did for Iago, this will do for me," as he uses it to inflame Tosca's jealousy. He tells her Mario was with Attavanti, gives her the fan, and watches his poison work while he tells his men to follow her and find Cavaradossi. A procession marches through the church with staffs that look like medieval battle axes, banners, and the priest in a sedan chair. It's very solemn, with chorus and bells. The juxtaposition of Scarpia at the front with the church at the back gives it a dark, sinister effect, almost like something out of "Rosemary's Baby."

Scarpia's study in Act 2 is elegant, but lewd. There are simulated nude statues on the walls, extremely decadent. He says he savors violent conquest much more than sweet surrender, as he plots to get Tosca. After Cavaradossi is tortured, he has him dragged in and thrown at her feet. They drag him away after he rejoices at the news of Bonaparte's victory. Tosca cuts to the chase. How much do you want?" Scarpia says her look of hatred only heightens his desire. Eva Urbanova's a hard edged Tosca. There's a certain tenderness that's missing in "Vissi d'Arte" as she says how she lived for art and love, and never hurt a soul. There's nothing missing, though, as she thrusts the knife straight into his heart. It may just be who she's killing, but it's as natural as breathing. I can feel sadness for Alberich, Shylock, and any number of villains, but not a bit for Scarpia. He seems to do what he does for sport, like a little boy pulling the wings off flies. Tosca solemnly puts two tall candles on each side of his body, picks up a cross, softly kisses it, and drops it lightly on his chest. It's like she says, I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead. It's a solemn ritual that seems to worship the darker principle.

There's a beautiful star-studded sky outside the prison with a view of the Roman skyline of 1800. Cavaradossi is tender and passionate, and just radiates his love for Tosca. He frantically writes his note and pours his heart out in "Lucevan le Stella." When Tosca's brought in, she recounts the scene with Scarpia. She seems to have lost all of her grip on reality as she dreamily goes over the details of the mock execution. It's high drama as she discovers he's dead, then jumps from the wall as Scarpia's men storm in for her.

Paolo Carignani leads the orchestra in this outstanding production of Puccini's "Tosca" at The San Francisco Opera. Performances continue November 6, 8, and 11, then resume with a different cast in January.

 

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