By Michelle F. Solomon
There are at least five good reasons Florida Grand Opera has performed Puccini’s Tosca almost a dozen times in 50 years, even featuring tenor Luciano Pavarotti in one of the roles in 1981.
“To me, it’s everything that people think opera should be: It has a villain, great romance, revenge, it’s epic with a big chorus, period costumes, and gorgeous sets, and lush, sweeping music that, while it may not be in commercials, audiences will recognize it,” says Susan T. Danis, FGO’s general director and chief executive officer, who adds that FGO first presented Tosca in 1950.
“What’s not to love about Tosca?,” says former Metropolitan Opera Assistant Conductor Gregory Buchalter, who is conducting FGO’s production, which will be performed in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center Saturday, March 18, Sunday, March 19 and Tuesday, March 21, and in Fort Lauderdale at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, April 13 and Saturday, April 15.
Buchalter says this is the opera for people who haven’t been to an opera. “Even if you don’t know much about opera, it’s like going to a movie. There’s so much drama and action going on.”
A tragic story of passion and jealousy, it tells the story of opera singer Floria Tosca, as she fights to save her artist-lover Cavaradossi from the sadistic police chief Scarpia, who lusts for Tosca. Scarpia proclaims that Cavaradossi assisted an escaped political prisoner and imprisons him in order to get his grips into Tosca. He tells Tosca that she can either give herself to him or he will have her lover killed.
Baritone Todd Thomas has performed Vitellio Scarpia for decades, a role that has the reputation of being the evilest villain from an opera ever.
“This may just be my year for Scarpia,” says Thomas, who will be singing the role for Florida Grand Opera’s production, and who, last November, was Scarpia in Lynchburg, Va., at Opera on the James, in January portrayed the same character at Opera Memphis, and in July, will return to Virginia for Tosca at Charlottesville Opera.
“I performed the role first in Germany in 1996,” Thomas recalls. “I was looking at my (musical) score the other day, and it says 1993, so it’s been in my library for a while.”
He’s no stranger to Florida Grand Opera, including appearing as Scarpia in his FGO debut in Tosca in 2014, and that same year in Madama Butterfly. In 2017, he returned to FGO to perform in Verdi’s A Masked Ball and last season sang the title role in the opera company’s Rigoletto.
Thomas says performing Tosca with FGO is the place he’ll get to flex his opera muscles. “Not to disparage the other companies where I’ve performed the role recently and upcoming, but with this being FGO’s 81st year, they have a huge history to call upon — the fact that Pavarotti sang here, well the history is immense.”
Having the opportunity to be part of what he calls “a cast that’s talent across the board,” to sing with a full orchestra and in large concert halls such as the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House and Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Au-Rene Theater makes a difference, too, he says. “There is a full-size orchestra in the pit, between 50 and 60 musicians and the person conducting the orchestra (Gregory Buchalter) has been with the Metropolitan Opera for 30 years,” he says. He’s also worked with director Jeffrey Marc Buchman before, who was previously a professional operatic baritone.
“He knows where the singers live and their comfort level unlike perhaps a theater director coming into the opera without that knowledge,” he says of Buchman. Thomas reveals that in a recent production of Tosca, where he was performing Scarpia, the director chose to heighten the violence. “The fight coordinator was busier than the stage director,” he recalls. “But Jeffrey isn’t choosing that – he keeps the integrity of the music and it’s more of a cerebral power play. That’s interesting,” Thomas says.
Danis says she’s thrilled about the entire cast and especially two singers in leading roles. Playing Mario Cavaradossi is Arturo Chacón-Cruz. “He is going to blow people away, a Mexican-American tenor that sings throughout the world from Salzburg to San Francisco but lives here in Aventura,” Danis says. As Tosca, Toni Marie Palmertree makes her FGO debut. “Toni Marie made her Metropolitan Opera debut last fall, and she is on an upward trajectory. She has such beautiful color in her voice.”
But it might have been that no company or singer ever uttered a note of Tosca because it almost didn’t get made. Giacomo Puccini used French playwright Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, as the source for his opera. Sardou had written his play in 1887 as a star vehicle for famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. “Puccini saw the play twice and immediately wanted to turn it into an opera. But Sardou disliked Puccini’s music and wanted it to be assigned to a better-known composer, and preferably a French one,” explains Cindy Sadler, a professional mezzo-soprano opera singer and the marketing-communications manager at FGO.
Puccini’s publisher eventually obtained the rights. On Jan. 14, 1990, Tosca premiered in Rome, where the story is set.
“ Tosca could be a Netflix series today,” says Buchalter, “and we could drag it out for six seasons. Audience members who have never been to an opera will get hooked . . . they’ll be on the edge of their seats.”
Florida Grand Opera’s Tosca is performed Saturday, March 18, Sunday, March 19 and Tuesday, March 21, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, and Thursday, April 13 and Saturday, April 15 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org