Women triumph in San Francisco Opera's Tosca

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San Francisco Opera production of Tosca — Photo by Cory Weaver
San Francisco Opera production of Tosca — Photo by Cory Weaver

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
August 29, 2021

The big news about San Francisco Opera's production of Tosca is not that the singing is marvelous (it is) or that the opera house has been refurbished and the seats are much more comfortable (it's great!). It isn't that the cast is young, formidable, and pitch-perfect (which they are) or that the costumes and set design succeed in transporting the audience to Rome in 1800 as Italy struggles to resist Napoleon's invasion. All these things are true, and they made for an unforgettable night at the opera.

The really big news about this production of Tosca is Eun Sun Kim, the SFO's new music director — one of only a handful of female conductors in the world in charge of an orchestra. Go to Wikipedia and type in "women conductors" and you'll get a list of maestros who have been invited to conduct an opera here and an opera there, but no one who's running the show.

Seattle Opera's own Christina Scheppelmann is a world-class arts administrator who makes sure great conductors come our way, and it's hard as heck to get her job — she's only one of two female arts administrators to run a major opera company worldwide (the other is Francesca Zambello, of Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass Opera).

But Scheppelmann and Zambello are not conductors — a job that's even harder to get. I don't know what combination of vision and zeitgeist brought Kim to the music directorship in San Francisco, but it's clear her that her scintillating talent qualifies her for any podium in the world.

Kim is young (just 40 years old) and slight of build, with a long ponytail and arms that alternately slice the air like sabers and paint the air like Berthe Morisot (a female impressionist — another neglected group of women artists). Kim's job at the podium is to inspire the orchestra to create a clear, dynamic, and compelling account of a complex score, and to direct the singers onstage who are both supported by the musicians in the pit and partners with them in the larger sound creation that is the opera itself.

Fortunately for the singers, the orchestra pit in the War Memorial Opera House is much higher than normal, so that the singers can look straight ahead to see the conductor rather than having to peer down or look at monitors.

On August 29, as the lights went down and Kim entered and took her place at the podium, the audience gave her a huge ovation, which she acknowledged gracefully before taking command of the evening, bringing the orchestra and the audience to deadly silence before giving the downbeat. At the first formidable notes of the "Scarpia" theme that opens Tosca, the audience knew it was going to be a great evening.

Scarpia is the chief of police in 1800 Rome and the evil force in the story, feared by men and women alike. By using his theme to open the opera — only three chords: Bb, Ab, E — Puccini rejected the tradition of an expansive overture that focuses the audience's attention while establishing a range of ideas that preview the story. Instead, he hurls the audience into the heart of the matter with three forceful chords that begin with the deep growl of a horn. It's as if a devil rose from beneath the orchestra pit and uttered a moan so profound that it rattles the chandeliers. Instantly we know that "something evil this way comes."

In the hands of a lesser conductor, this sequence of notes goes by so quickly that it barely registers before the agitated music that raises the curtain on a busy deacon and a political escapee who's seeking refuge in the church. In the hands of Eun Sun Kim, those opening notes — going from a loud bleat to a threatening pianissimo in a flash — sent a chill down the audience's collective spine.

As the curtain goes up, we find ourselves in the church of Sant' Andrea delle Valle, with its pews, candles, and icons. Cavaradossi, the young painter (sung with great charm by tenor Michael Fabiano) is in love with Floria Tosca, the diva sung by soprano Ailyn Perez. Cavaradossi has received a commission to paint an image of Mary Magdelene for the church and models it after a young aristocratic woman with blue eyes he sees praying there. This catapults Tosca, who has dark eyes, into a frenzy of jealousy. How he handles her feelings is critical to their love story and whether they can survive Scarpia's plot to condemn Cavaradossi for assisting the political prisoner and then to take Tosca for his sex object.

Director Shawna Lacey, along with stage designer Robert Innes Hopkins, brought the set to life, along with gorgeous costumes for the diva that were inspired by the period portrait paintings of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun — a welcome departure from the traditionally lavish costumes modeled after Maria Callas' iconic look from the 1950s.

In most versions of Tosca, we never see the "unknown beauty" who inspires the painting, but this is where the SFO's production, led by women, is more thoughtful about the plight of women in a male-dominated culture. First, we see the lovely young lady with blue eyes praying in the church, and then we see her mingle in the crowd that comes to mass. But quite unexpectedly, we see her again in at the opening of Act 2, sitting disheveled and distressed in Scarpia's office in the Castel Sant' Angelo. Clearly the powerful and brutal Scarpia saw her portrait when he came to the church for mass, and ordered her to see him later in his office. We can see her shame and fear as the act begins, and then we see Scarpia's henchmen drag her to the door and throw her out of his office.

This shocking little pantomime, worked seamlessly into the act, is a directorial interpolation, but it brings a strong dose of clarity to Tosca's dilemma. In Act 2 she has to try to save Cavadossi's life by agreeing to have sex with Scarpia, who promises to let the two of them go afterward. But the plight of the woman with blue eyes foreshadows the fact that Tosca will fail in the face of Scarpia's ruthlessness.

Alfred Walker, as Scarpia, was a refreshing change from the classic interpretation of a man in a baroque white wig, whose cold dignity strikes terror into everyone who crosses his path. This Scarpia is younger, a person of color, and a man who is feared and rejected at the same time. Walker's powerful voice matched the calculated menace of the character and brought an intimidating coldness to the role.

As the lovers, Fabbiano and Perez made a beautiful couple. This Tosca is younger than the somewhat daunting and controlling woman traditionally presented in this role, and her jealousy is clearly a matter for lovers' quarrels that are quickly made up. This slightly less diva-like behavior makes it all the more plausible that she will despair and become desperate when confronted with Scarpia's cold-hearted evil. Perez has a lovely and powerful voice, and she is an excellent actor. I've never seen a Tosca look so frightened of Scarpia, instead of acting haughty and scornful. By abandoning the conventional interpretation and embracing the idea that vulnerable women are frightened, no matter how famous they may be, we are haunted by the modern ghosts of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.

As opera houses around the country and the world begin to open their doors again, many opera lovers are eagerly coming back to their beloved auditoriums. Though the chance to see San Francisco Opera's Tosca is past, Mozart's hilarious Cosi fan tutte and Beethoven's majestic Fidelio are coming right up for remote viewing at the end of the month, so check out the website: https://sfopera.com/.