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Ensemble

Amazing Clarity

Greer Grimsley sings Scarpia
in 'Tosca' from San Diego,
experienced by MARIA NOCKIN

 

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was already a well-known composer when he wrote Tosca. He had already written Manon Lescaut in 1893 and La bohème in 1896 with librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. In 1887, he had seen Victorien Sardou's melodramatic play, La Tosca, in Milan with superstar Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. He immediately asked his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to secure the rights for an opera. Nothing came of this effort, however, and in 1893 those rights were given to Alberto Franchetti.

Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Greer Grimsley as Scarpia in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Greer Grimsley as Scarpia in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

In October 1894, Franchetti, Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Illica met with Sardou. Verdi would have composed the opera if Sardou had agreed to change the ending, but Sardou would not hear of it. Franchetti continued to work on it, admitting a few months later that he had run out of musical ideas. Ricordi then asked Puccini to compose it, but Puccini did not want to be second choice. After he finished La bohème, however, he did agree to start work on Tosca with the same librettists that had written his previous two operas.

Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

The three men, who had argued vehemently over Manon Lescaut and La bohème, continued to do so when writing Tosca. That was the way they worked, and thus it took them three years to finish the opera. In October 1899, it was ready for the stage, though, and they agreed that it should be premièred in Rome. It was a monumental success when it was given there on 14 January 1900 at the Teatro Costanzi, with gorgeous turn-of-the-century soprano sensation, Hariclea Darclée.

Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi, with Greer Grimsley as Scarpia looking on, in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi, with Greer Grimsley as Scarpia looking on, in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

On 24 January 2009, San Diego Opera opened its season with the dramatic Puccini work. Australian stage director Andrew Sinclair moved the characters in a traditional and realistic manner. The sets, designed decades ago by the late Jean-Pierre Ponelle, were every bit as effective this year. Their detailed attention to period and place was something we do not always see today. Suzanne Mess's costumes were equally well made and placed the characters securely in Sardou's turbulent time frame.

Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi and Jamie Offenbach as Angelotti in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi and Jamie Offenbach as Angelotti in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Stunning French soprano, Sylvie Valayre, played Tosca as an impetuous eighteen-year-old girl. She has a dark soprano voice that fit the role well. She showed her vulnerability in the aria 'Vissi d'arte' but she steeled herself, and perhaps broached the boundaries of sanity, when she grabbed a table knife to stab Scarpia. As Cavaradossi, Marcus Haddock was an attractive lover with a virile voice. His rendition of the 'Victoria' in Act II was riveting, and for 'E lucevan le stelle' he had a tearful Italianate sound in his voice.

Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca and Marcus Haddock as Mario Cavaradossi in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

The real star of this performance, however, was Greer Grimsley as Baron Scarpia. From the moment he entered the church in Act I to his death in Act II, you could not take your eyes off him. He was both vocally and physically imposing. His character seemed the personification of evil, occasionally modified with a bit of upper class charm. Few interpreters of the part can be heard over the full chorus and orchestra singing the 'Te Deum' at the end of the first act, but his resonant tones came through with amazing clarity.

Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Sylvie Valayre as Floria Tosca in San Diego Opera's production of 'Tosca'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Scott Sikon, the possessor of a burnished bass-baritone voice, was a blustering, small minded Sacristan who brought a bit of comic relief to the first act. Although still a young artist, he has sung twenty roles at San Diego Opera. Jamie Offenbach was a frightened Angelotti and an officious Sciarrone, while Joseph Hu was sadistic Spoletta. Samuel Spade made a bronze-toned début as the Jailer and clear voiced Laura Portune was a proper Shepherd.

Italian conductor, Edoardo Müller, has led some thirty productions in San Diego and, as always, he allowed his singers to shine while drawing accurate, passionate playing from his musicians. On this occasion, his tempi were brisk and he brought out many fine details of this opera's colourful orchestration. This performance, which received thunderous applause and quite a few 'bravos', was an excellent opening for the excellent San Diego Opera Company.

Copyright © 15 February 2009 Maria Nockin, Arizona USA

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