Based on a fin de siècle tragedy of thwarted lovers, Tosca is a stirring opera about revenge and sacrifice. The forces of clericism and Bonapartism clash with each other. It is Puccini's most political opera, his Fidelio. In fact, its theme featuring a rebel as the hero clashing with an arch villain who's an avid churchgoer made both Puccini and his audience uneasy on opening night in 1900. Italy was in turmoil following the king's assassination and a terrorist bombing. Staging the opera was comparable to the Boston performance of John Adam's The Death of Klinghoffer shortly after September 11. But all went well and Tosca has deservedly soared into the repertoire, far surpassing Manon Lescaut and La Fanciulla del West.
This 26-year old film is both vocally enthralling and visually stunning. Director Gianfranco de Bosio uses a transparent style that doesn't draw attention to itself with cute affects. Even the Act III opening scene featuring the shepherd boy's song is well-blocked, complete with goats and a boy soprano whose peasant-like voice doesn't crack. As Mario Cavaradossi, Plácido Domingo is as convincing as he is as Pinkerton in the recently re-released Madama Butterfly. Listen to his gloating cry of victory when he hears of the Bonapartist victory and the intense and brief trio that follows. They will shoot through you like arrows. His "E lucevan le stele" is so desolate and sad, it could bring tears to even a neophyte listener. As Tosca, Raina Kabaivanska has never been lovelier and more animated. While not as earthy as Maria Callas or as volatile as Angela Gheorghiu, (whose Tosca DVD I eagerly await), she infuses the famous – although misplaced – "Vissi d'arte" with the right balance of confusion and anguish. Her transformation from a woman plagued by jealousy and religiosity to a fiery warrior exhilarates and astounds. When she stabs Scarpia and screams "Mori!" you should feel like cheering. While not the angriest Tosca (her fist-shaking is unconvincing), her deep-throated "die in damnation" line rivals that of Callas. Sherrill Milnes is a venal Scarpia, leering while sipping on his Spanish wine and sings well, but never seems dissipated enough. Perhaps La Scala's opera museum should have lent him Tito Gobbi's white whig.
Copyright © 2002, Peter Bates