By Nikita Gourski, Strategic Advisor and Artistic Associate
Romance, war, murder. Tosca is an operatic thriller set to one of opera's most lush and memorable scores. Do you need to brush up on your Tosca knowledge or simply want to learn more about our production? Here are 9 Things About Tosca!
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) was a master at composing for the stage, blending accessible yet highly evocative music with fast-moving narrative to create operas of immense popular appeal. Some critics have taken issue with Puccini’s melodramatic tendencies—American musicologist Joseph Kerman, for example, famously dismissed Tosca as a “shabby little shocker.” Yet despite such perennial complaints, Puccini’s work continues to resonate with audiences in a genuine, moving way, and operas such as La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca remain some of the most popular in the canon for a reason.
Tosca is set in Rome in 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars. The action has a sense of realism and urgency, with references to actual military battles (Battle of Marengo), city landmarks (Castel Sant’Angelo), and a story that unfolds almost in real-time. Indeed, Tosca’s suspenseful plotting and quick pace has been compared to a Hitchcock film. Additionally Puccini wanted to incorporate real-life sounds into his score—church bells, canon fire, rifle shots, etc.—to expand the musical fabric of the orchestra into the life of the street. (At the time, this was viewed as a radical innovating by some critics, and earned disapproval for being mere noise as opposed to music.)
Tosca premiered in 1900 in Rome, the same city as its setting. And though the Napoleonic Wars were long over, Italy was going through a period of political turbulence and social unrest, which amplified the opera’s sensational subject matter. The atmosphere of political instability almost compromised the premiere, as the theatre dealt with a bomb threat, while the cast and producers received menacing letters from those who objected to an out-of-towner composing about Rome. Despite these obstacles, the opera had its premiere to great audience acclaim, though music critics were more divided.
The plot centres on Floria Tosca, a famous opera singer who is ensnared in political intrigue when her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, is imprisoned by a repressive regime. The sadistic chief of police Scarpia (likely the most hate-able villain in all of opera) then propositions Tosca by allowing Cavaradossi to live if she agrees to meet his sexual demands.
5. Puccini hit list
With Tosca, Puccini created some of his most memorable music, including arias like Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia,” sung as the painter is working on his portrait of Mary Magdalene and Tosca’s famous “Vissi d’arte,” in which the heroine reflects on her devotion to art as she faces the ethical challenge posed by Scarpia’s lascivious offer. The opera is also notable for being through-composed—with the music unfolding in one more or less uninterrupted wave of sustained flow. This continuously advancing quality of the music is a natural fit for the action-driven plot of the opera.
Puccini uses leitmotifs extensively in Tosca; these are recurring musical phrases that signify the appearance of certain characters or even reference individuals who might be absent but discussed by others (the Star Wars franchise is a good example of this practice—think of the music that accompanies Darth Vader’s entrances). One of the defining motifs in Tosca is the sinister, jagged music line associated with Scarpia, a theme that serves as the opening of the opera and recurs frequently to underscore the ubiquitous reach of a nefarious state power. Contrast this with the bright woodwinds and high, expressive strings that accompany Tosca, first as she appears in the church in Act I and then throughout the opera. This musical contrast builds dramatic tension and reinforces the clash of wills at the heart of the story.
Our lavish production was created by the award-winning Scottish director Paul Curran, with sumptuous costumes and stunning sets of chapels, palaces, and fortresses of 19th-century Rome by designer Kevin Knight, and atmospheric lighting design by David Martin Jacques. When this production premiered in 2008, Curran noted, “There are similar stories to Tosca in theatre and on film but nothing quite has the same effect as the melodic and dramatic invention of Puccini in the opera house. It never fails to amaze me.”
Sharing the title role are Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and American soprano Keri Alkema. Pieczonka is returning to the role of Tosca at the COC after delivering a “luminous performance” (The Globe and Mail) with the company in 2012. For Alkema, this is her first Tosca with the COC, but comes on the heels of her appearance in the role with the English National Opera last fall, in which her performance was lavishly praised: “compelling… Passionate, teasing, vulnerable, full of love, stirred to vengeful rage and desperate measures, Alkema gets to the heart of Tosca” (The Times).
Conducting the COC Orchestra and Chorus is Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson. A regular guest conductor at leading international opera companies and orchestras, Wilson makes her COC debut with Tosca. When she appeared with English National Opera in 2014, conducting another Puccini work, she was hailed as “unquestionably one of the stars of the evening” (The Guardian).
Our production of Tosca is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from April 30 to May 20. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.
Photo credits (top - bottom): Adrianne Pieczonka in Tosca (COC, 2012), photo by Michael Cooper; Mark Delavan and Adrianne Pieczonka in Tosca (COC, 2012), photo by Michael Cooper; Carlo Ventre and Adrianne Pieczonka in Tosca (COC, 2012), photo by Gary Beechey
Posted by Tanner Davies / in Tosca / comments (0) / permalink
By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
It was just one year ago that Louis Riel’s portrait was finally hung alongside those of Manitoba’s other premiers in the halls of Winnipeg’s Legislative Buildings. Although never premier, as President of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia he helped pave the way for Manitoba to enter Confederation—ironic given his subsequent execution for treason by the same Ottawa government determined to unite Canada at any cost. Manitoba’s small but significant acknowledgement of Riel’s key role was long overdue, but is the type of historical realignment that also informs director Peter Hinton’s new COC production of Louis Riel.
Like any form of artistic production, Louis Riel is an historical artifact, influenced by the perspectives of its authors, in this case two white men (composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore), and by its time period, those heady days of Centennial celebration in 1967, and as such, carries a certain degree of cultural baggage. Hinton’s production does not apologize for that, nor does it propose to be the definitive telling of Riel’s story. In comparison with the COC’s original 1967 staging, this 2017 rendition will represent a very carefully considered effort to “de-emphasize colonial biases [inherent in the piece] as much as we can”. To that end, Hinton has secured the involvement of a remarkable group of Métis and First Nations artists who will lend their perspective to Somers’ and Moore’s interpretation of history, retaining the integrity of the original piece but also bringing it into contemporary, inclusive practice.
When the opera begins, Cole Alvis, former executive director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, will greet audiences with a territorial land acknowledgement and introduction that places the opera in a contemporary context. As The Activist, he will also be a member of the Land Assembly, the chorus of Indigenous women and men who silently challenge and retaliate, standing for the people and groups fighting for representation by Riel. The first music to be heard, the Folksinger’s unaccompanied song “Riel sits in his chamber o’ state”, will be sung by Métis performer Jani Lauzon in a contemporary non-operatic style—just one of the ways Hinton’s production introduces other cultural perspectives to an art form so steeped in its Western European roots. Other Métis and Indigenous performers include the young soprano Joanna Burt as Riel’s sister, Sara, bass-baritone Everett Morrison as Wandering Spirit, and celebrated dancer Justin Many Fingers (Mii-sum-ma-nis-kim) as Buffalo Dancer.
Hinton is adamant that his staging honour the opera’s iconic status while still leaving room to correct the historical inaccuracies and cultural insensitivities inherent in a piece conceived 50 years ago in a very different social/historical context. For example, according to the opera’s version of history, three men visit Riel in Montana and encourage his return to Manitoba to lead the Métis cause: Métis leader, Gabriel Dumont; Cree chief Poundmaker; and James Isbister, the lone Anglo-Métis delegate. In actual fact, a fourth man was part of the group, the European settler Louis Schmidt who has been re-included in this production. He will sing lines originally given to Poundmaker, allowing for a more nuanced, culturally sensitive portrayal of the great chief by Cree actor Billy Merasty.
One of the main challenges of re-staging Louis Riel is dealing with its complex conflation of languages. As Hinton points out, language itself defines much of the opera’s main content. Characters manipulate each other simply by speaking in a language the other cannot understand (for example French versus English) in order to make their political points. The original libretto was in English, French and Cree but for the first time with this production, Michif, the official Métis language colonized out of practice but now experiencing a revival, will form part of the sung and spoken text, in addition to being projected on stage alongside a new Cree translation.
From the earliest stages of his production’s development, Hinton has recognized that if the opera were written today “there would be more Indigenous participation and involvement in its creation and its expression.” While no staging can be definitive, Hinton’s aim has been to question suppositions the opera makes about the historical Riel; to provide a thoughtful, multi-faceted examination of what it commemorates; to question why we need to keep re-telling our history; and, to offer some perspective on what that history might mean today. Most importantly, it will give voice to Métis and First Nations perspectives that have not been brought to bear on this opera before and as such, contribute to Canada’s ongoing efforts to reach meaningful reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples.
Louis Riel is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until May 13, 2017. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.
Photo credits (top - bottom): Scenes from Louis Riel (COC, 2012), photos by Michael Cooper.
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By Kristin McKinnon, Publicist and Publications Co-ordinator
Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson has impressed audiences and critics alike with her nuanced and expressive performances while leading some of the most prestigious orchestras around the world. This spring she comes home to make her Canadian Opera Company debut conducting Puccini’s Tosca. With such success, it’s hard to believe that an international conducting career was not always part of her plans.
Growing up in Winnipeg, Wilson knew her future career would involve music. You could say it is in her blood. “I grew up in this very musical family,” she says. “My grandmother taught me piano and my father (conductor, educator and violinist Carlisle Wilson) taught me violin.” She was also an accomplished flautist, playing in the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra which her father conducted. “Playing in the orchestra was the most memorable part of my childhood. I lived for the weekly Saturday afternoon youth orchestra rehearsals.” These experiences sparked an early fascination with conducting. “I knew at some point that I wanted to conduct but I didn’t know how seriously I would actually pursue it,” says Wilson. “I would have never imagined that I would have ended up having the career I have.”
She went on to study at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, pursuing both a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in flute, with the intention of becoming a professional orchestral musician. But in her final year, she hit a crossroads. “I became bored with flute,” she recalls. “I was taking all sorts of other courses, like conducting courses and various opera courses… I wanted to broaden my horizons in every way.” It was after observing one of these conducting classes that she came to a sudden realization. “Somebody said to me, ‘Are you intending on taking the audition at Juilliard for conducting?’ And I said ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m just fascinated with watching the conducting.’ When I walked home that night through Central Park, I thought ‘Why don’t I take the conducting audition?’ So I made the overnight decision (to audition).” It was a choice that changed her life.
After undergoing a grueling audition process, where the inexperienced Wilson had less than six months to prepare challenging repertoire, including The Rite of Spring, for her colleagues in the Juilliard orchestra, she was accepted into the conducting program. She studied under German-American conductor Otto-Werner Mueller, who became a major formative influence. Like Wilson, Mueller’s early career started in Canada where he was a pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor for CBC. He then moved to the United States, joining the faculties of Juilliard, the Yale School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music over the course of his career, and became one of the country’s most eminent educators and conductors. “He was from the German school and had a very thorough way of teaching orchestral repertoire,” says Wilson, and he had way with teaching young conductors.
Another important mentor was Claudio Abbado, one of the most celebrated conductors of the 20th century. During her time off from Juilliard, he allowed Ms. Wilson to watch his rehearsals with the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic orchestras and she even assisted him at the Salzburg Festival one summer. “He was a huge influence because he represented the spontaneous and fantastic, yet emotional, approach to conducting. The artistry of Claudio Abbado is an inspiration.” He contrasted with Mueller’s more analytical approach but their dual influence proved to be a “perfect complement” for Wilson as she embarked on her own professional career.
After graduating from Juilliard, Wilson spent four years at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Initially a purely symphonic conductor, she leapt at the chance to “enter the lion’s den” and conduct her first opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, in Verona. The resulting success opened doors to companies across Italy and she established herself as a specialist in Italian opera early in her career. These days, her repertoire has become more varied. She has a special passion for Russian music and a desire to conduct more Wagner, and she performs with symphonies and opera companies around the world, including recent appearances with the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres, English National Opera and Bayerische Staatsoper. While she prefers to keep a “perfectly balanced season” of symphonic and operatic music, she enjoys the intellectual challenge of conducting opera. “Symphonic is pure music… however, opera is embracing of so much–the music, the story, the passion, the libretto, the history... I love that.”
The COC’s Tosca marks a return to Wilson’s conducting roots. It was the first Puccini opera she ever conducted and despite revisiting it many times since—including at the “magical” Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago where she received Puccini’s granddaughter’s seal of approval—it continues to captivate her. “It’s always fresh to come back to because I love it so much for its passion, its dramatic energy, its power, its beauty and its intensity.” Audiences around the world agree, with Tosca continuing to be one of the most performed works in the operatic canon since its premiere in 1900. “I’ve performed Puccini all over the world and it’s never any different – audiences just love Puccini,” says Ms. Wilson. “It connects immediately to your emotional being. It gives anyone shivers… It’s just so fantastic.”
Her passion and respect for the music comes through when she’s at the podium. “When I conduct Tosca, I feel it through my entire body. It’s so easy to communicate because I really feel it. It’s an incredible emotional journey.” She finds Act II particularly moving and a testament to Puccini’s perfection. “It’s the most thrilling to conduct because it feels like you’re becoming Scarpia or becoming Tosca. Right from the beginning, it is one big dramatic force of passionate beauty and intensity.”
Wilson has travelled the world as a sought-after maestra and has conducted Tosca numerous times, but with a fresh cast and production, the experience is always new. She’s particularly looking forward to the COC’s cast, most of whom she’s never worked with before. “It’s fantastic seeing how one Tosca is different from the next… It’s a journey, a discovery.” And returning to the country of her birth, where she maintains close ties and got her musical start, gives her COC debut added meaning. “When I’m in Europe, I proudly say I’m Canadian,” she says. “I’m really excited to come back.”
Keri-Lynn Wilson is generously sponsored by Robert Sherrin.
See Keri-Lynn Wilson conduct our production of Puccini's Tosca from April 30 to May 20, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo credits (top - bottom): Keri-Lynn Wilson, photos by Daria Stravs Tisu and E. Moreno Esquibel
Posted by COC Staff / in Tosca / comments (0) / permalink
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001