Tue, Apr

A Joyous Crowd Hugs & Fist Bumps After the Tosca Performance


GELFAND’S WORLD - So what's new when it comes to powerful men extorting sexual favors from attractive women?

The Harvey Weinstein trial is in the news. But how about a stage play later set to music a little over a hundred years ago? We're talking about Tosca, composed by Giacomo Puccini. Some popular shows keep coming back because people want to see them. When a composition keeps being performed for more than a hundred years, we can confidently say that it has met the test of time. Tosca continues to draw full houses well into its second century of existence. 

Why is that? First of all, it's that good. Second, the plot resonates universally. Women try to explain to men that they have to go through life wary of being physically attacked or otherwise harassed. The Weinstein case is just the tip of the iceberg, as your news feed has shown so extensively. But it's an old story. 

So, Tosca, as a representation of sexual extortion, brutality, and sadism sounds like it ought to be a downer, but the catch is that Puccini contributed three or four of the best songs ever to be performed. In opera lingo, they call them arias, but we're talking music like Vissi d'Arte or E lucevan Le Stelle

Puccini's Tosca is part of the canon, by which I don't mean a warlike device, but the collected masterpieces that get performed again and again over the years. I've seen it three times, but it took the performance by the Los Angeles Opera on Wednesday night to communicate to me why the piece is so beloved. 

As I've mentioned previously, I'm no musician but as a member of the opera audience, I feel competent to point out when a performance works as opposed to when it doesn't. By "works," I mean that you come out of the theater a little different than how you went in, that you had emotional or cathartic experiences while inside -- basically that there are moments when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or whatever cliched description you want to use for a really memorable experience. Some people come for a good cry, knowing that the musical experience will be glorious. 

Here's what an anonymous commentator said about a performance of a Tosca aria he chanced to hear while walking past an open air concert: 

"This was my first introduction to classical music. The concert was free. I was walking home from my first week in my first proper job, I was 21. It was cold and wet.... I heard Pavarotti sing and it raised all the hairs on my arms and neck. The first time any piece of music or voice had ever done that to me. I have been an avid opera fan ever since. I saw Pav more than six times after, but that concert will always be very special for me." 

Here's how well Tosca worked the other night: Total strangers were in that euphoric post-performance state where they were spontaneously chatting and making friends because they had experienced something meaningful together, in that shared space called the theater. Of the people I chatted with during intermissions and after the show, several were complete newcomers to opera. I suppose that most everyone has heard of Tosca, so it seems like a reasonable way to sample the genre. As the long-time opera-going crowd would have surmised, they were overwhelmed by the experience, which is nothing like anything else you are going to experience. One of these newcomers was talking to her friend (named Brittany), who turns out to be a Mozart aficionado. Brittany was eagerly trying to talk the newcomer into attending the upcoming performance of Marriage of Figaro. 

As we've discussed before, the L.A. Opera seems to be trying a grand experiment in which it uses mostly American born performers taking on the roles that originated in European opera houses (Italy mainly) and used to be dominated by European performers. Wednesday night's performance starred singers from Los Angeles (Angel Blue: Tosca), Kankakee, Illinois (Gregory Kunde: Cavaradossi), Los Angeles again (Ryan McKinny: Scarpia), New York City (Philip Cokerinos: the Sacristan), Riverside (Anthony Leon: Spoletta), Spring Hill, Florida (Zachary James: Sciarrone), and Arlington Heights, Illinois (Ryan Wolfe: the jailor). There was also one singer from Beijing (Wei Wu: Angelotti) and one from Alberta (Deepa Johnny: the shepherd). 

Even the conductor was home grown, being Louis Lohraseb from Rotterdam, New York, although I should point out that the director was from Oxford, England (John Caird). 

I mention these things because it signifies a remarkable switch from previous decades, and because it's working. This was by far the best performance of Tosca I've seen. Mind you, one was by a road company on what must have been an exhausted night, but the other was put on by a decent sized theater in Florence, Italy. 

It turns out that almost all of Wednesday night's singers have performed in prestigious opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, several German theaters, and in Rome. Perhaps this signifies that Los Angeles -- and many parts of the rest of the country -- have reached the stage of cultural significance with regard to classical development.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])