The end of opera season always competes with outdoor activities that can feel more appealing as the winter gray finally gives way to summer weather. And as we emerge from pandemic restrictions, a June opera stream is a particularly hard sell. Even so, it’s worth blocking out two hours to watch Seattle Opera’s “Tosca,” streaming June 25-27.
Why stay inside for ‘Tosca’?
You’ve probably never seen an opera like this, and you may not get another chance to. Seattle Opera converted into a film studio during the pandemic to produce streaming performances. “Tosca” is Seattle Opera’s second site-specific opera film (after “Flight,” filmed at the Museum of Flight), and possibly its last; the company returns to live, in-person performances at McCaw Hall in the fall.
There have been “Tosca” movies before — one made-for-TV “Tosca” was even filmed where the story takes place. Seattle Opera didn’t go to Rome, but you might believe they did. Painted wooden sets are replaced by on-site filming at St. James Cathedral on First Hill. (To avoid disturbing worshippers, they filmed at night after the church closed, moving all the equipment in and out of the building each day.) To ensure high sound quality, they recorded the audio at Benaroya Hall.
Plus, you should never miss a chance to see “Tosca.”
‘Tosca’: the opera
Puccini’s “Tosca” is everything we want from opera: outsized passions, violence and death, a great diva, an unredeemable villain, and music as heartbreakingly beautiful as the story is intense.
In the story, irrationally jealous opera singer Tosca is manipulated by corrupt Baron Scarpia into betraying her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, who has helped a political prisoner escape. When Cavaradossi is sentenced to death, Scarpia offers Tosca an indecent proposal for her lover’s life, striking a deal neither of them intends to keep. Nearly everyone dies. On paper it’s pretty sordid, but Puccini’s gorgeous music elevates the experience to something sublime.
‘Tosca’: the movie
“Tosca” works on film. The recurring musical motifs and themes support the storytelling like a good soundtrack should. The arias don’t halt the progression of the story. Instead, they propel the plot with movie pacing.
Film can never create the same feeling as a live performance, so it’s best to lean into the medium’s strengths. Stage director Dan Wallace Miller (who directed “Il Trovatore” in 2019) has a degree in film and draws inspiration from Italian giallo, lurid ’60s-era thrillers exemplified in a camera shot of blood pooling around Tosca’s abandoned gold crucifix. His use of shadows may be due to COVID-19 protocols but creates an unusual sense of spying on the action that you’d never get in a theater. And only film can deliver Miller’s version of the powerful final scene.
“Tosca” is a vehicle for the soprano portraying the title character, who delivers one of the most famous lines of music ever sung. Alexandra LoBianco’s “I lived for art, I lived for love” gives all the feels; so much emotion is packed into that simple line. Film is inherently more visual than live theater, though, so singers must be equally good actors. LoBianco (Aida in 2018 and Stantuzza in “Cavalleria Rusticana” earlier this season) knows to act for the camera while still singing big for the soundtrack.
In contrast to Tosca’s pure heart, Scarpia is pure appetite. Melodramatic Scarpia could easily become a cartoon character. Yet, in baritone Michael Chioldi’s Seattle debut, his sadism wrapped in performative piousness is eerily familiar. Because Chioldi makes him real, Scarpia is genuinely terrifying plotting rape during Mass — “Tosca you make me forget God!”
Unlike the other two, Cavaradossi, especially in tenor Dominick Chenes’ hands, tempers his passions with rationality. He reads Voltaire. He knows that Scarpia cannot be trusted. Chenes’ (previously Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly”) final duet is all the more poignant because we know he’s humoring Tosca for the last time.
Debuting in Seattle as the Sacristan, Matthew Burns’ dignified bass-baritone, in counterpoint to his less-than-holy behavior, provides much-needed comic relief. Andrew Stenson as the thug Spoletta is almost unrecognizable as the same performer who gave us the goofy, infatuated Nemorino in “The Elixir of Love.”
The last note
A live performance is ephemeral. In theory, a film lasts forever. But “Tosca” is only available for streaming through June 27. If you miss it, there will be other “Toscas,” but you may never get another chance to see this rare moment in opera history.