Scandal didn’t originate on ABC, at least not as a signature story element. Long before Kerry Washington’s popular television show transfixed audiences with political intrigue, Giacomo Puccini was tapping into audiences’ desires to be sensationalized.
Love, lust, jealousy and deceit will take center stage during Wichita Grand Opera’s production of “Tosca” on Saturday at Century II. The celebrated opera will transport audiences back to Rome circa 1800 for a saga that is as intense and beguiling as the complicated geo-politics that backdrop the work. While the story is set during the age of Napoleon, those involved with the production say the dramatic tale is especially relevant today.
“It’s been an audience pleaser ever since the first performance during Puccini’s career,” stage director Stanley M. Garner said. “It’s a melodrama. It deals with a lot of shocking elements of the human experience like betrayal, deception, murder and suicide. Even though we aren’t so easily shocked in today’s world, it’s a fantastic story to watch unfold to such glorious music.”
William Powers, the bass-baritone who plays the merciless Baron Scarpia, said Puccini was a master at taking poor people in bad situations and making their plights enticing drama. He noted that all of his operas involved women in bad straits, an element that is now often the cornerstone of modern storytelling.
“You can’t turn on the television to any channel and not get what is the essence to what makes ‘Tosca,’ ” Powers said. “It is the new wave of drama, starting in the year 1900 to the present – it’s where everything went. It’s the beginning of where we are now.”
Powers pointed out that reviews after “Tosca’s” 1900 debut in Rome bemoaned the wanton elements of its story.
“They were disgusted because it was so real,” he said. “There was manhandling and taking advantage of a poor woman. It was shocking for the time. A ‘tawdry little shocker’ is what one reviewer called it.”
Since it was first staged, audiences have found “Tosca” riveting. According to Wichita Grand Opera president Parvan Bakardiev, “Tosca” is the fifth most performed opera in the United States.
While this is the second time it has been performed by the company in Wichita, there are some new elements that will augment this year’s optics. This production will feature all new sets, designed by Stefan Pavlov, and new costumes designed by Michael Stennett. Some of the costumes are authentic garb obtained from the Diocese of Wichita. It’s an element that pays tribute to the political and social prominence of the Roman Catholic Church during the story’s time frame.
“There will be a great pageantry in this production, which is important for understanding the dynamics of the Catholic Church at that time,” Bakardiev said. “It’s a positive way for the church to be involved with us now. The affiliation is very appropriate.”
“Tosca’s” story is set in the aftermath of the French Revolution, as Napoleon’s army has invaded Rome and created a Roman Republic. The events take place in June 1800 after Roman forces deposed the Republican governor and restored papal rule. Baron Scarpia has risen to power as chief of police and has set out to crush all remaining Republican sympathizers. Artist Mario Cavaradossi is one of those sympathizers, and he takes into his refuge a former Republican consul who has escaped from prison.
Floria Tosca, his fiery and jealousy-prone lover, is a renowned opera star who finds her follies exploited by Scarpia when he learns of the prisoner’s whereabouts. Playing on her insecurities, Scarpia seeks to satisfy his lustful impulses by forcing her to choose between giving into his demands or watching her lover be executed for treason. It’s a predicament that leads to fatal decisions and one of the bloodiest endings in operatic history.
“Perhaps Scarpia is the worst villain in all of opera, at least any that I have ever seen,” Powers said. “It’s not just about being bad. This work is the ultimate melodrama. He is the archetypical bad guy, but the piece is so well written that it really comes off as real and very gripping.”
Garner said the themes weaved throughout the storyline are especially relevant today. “The very first person that you see in the opera is only in the first act. He’s an escaped political prisoner,” said Garner. “He ends up committing suicide rather than being taken alive by the police. It’s relevant now because of a lot of what is going on politically in the world centers on spying and trying to keep a lid on political situations. There’s also a scene that deals with torture in an attempt to extract a confession. We certainly know a lot about enhanced interrogation today.”
Zvetelina Vassileva returns to the Wichita Grand Opera stage after her most recent performance as Mathilde in “William Tell” to take on the title role of the diva Floria Tosca. Starring opposite as her rebellious lover Mario Cavaradossi is Hector Sandoval, who has starred in many European operas and returns to Wichita for the first time since his 2008 performance as Dr. Faust in “Faust.” For William Powers, the role of Baron Scarpia is a familiar persona, one that he has taken on in several past productions of “Tosca.”
Garner stressed that it’s the melodic nature of the music the story is set to that endears “Tosca” most to audiences. Edward Lada will guide the score as the conductor, his first time to lead from the podium since joining the company as an associate.
“It’s very opulent, romantic Puccini music,” Garner said. “The best tunes go to Tosca and her lover, Cavaradossi. The duet that they do together is just a beautiful, luscious medley. Whereas Scarpia doesn’t get the most beautiful music to sing, he gets great dramatic scenes to play.”