The Minnesota Opera Company's new mounting of Tosca, Giacomo Puccini's iconic 1900 opera, is spectacularly effective. As everyone knows, the eponymous character, Floria Tosca, is herself a flamboyant opera singer. She loves a painter named Cavaradossi, the show's tenor whom we first meet painting an image of Mary Magdalen that is a composite of his temperamental girlfriend and a local courtesan, Attavanti. A political prisoner, Angelotti, takes refuge in the church, pursued by the sinister and sadistic, Baron Scarpia. Scarpia, who lusts after Tosca, takes advantage of the situation to impose himself on the diva -- he arrests the painter and tortures him in order to compel Tosca to submit to his embraces. She seems to comply but instead stabs Scarpia to death, shrieking the famous line: "This is Tosca's kiss" as she plunges the dagger into the Baron's heart. This doesn't avail either Tosca or Cavaradossi -- he's shot by a firing squad and Tosca commits suicide by hurling herself off the ramparts of the prison, the Castello San' Angelo in Rome. The opera has all the features that attract people to the form: there are majestic love duets, hugely impressive (if wholly gratuitous) choral numbers, and soliloquy-style arias of heartbreaking beauty. The characters are vivid, larger than life, torrentially passionate and each vested with a sort of intense tragic dignity. Cavaradossi, a freedom fighter, is fiercely defiant; Tosca's love is an incandescent kind of rage; Scarpia's sadism is freely expressed, a pure Nietzschean will-to-power -- he desires to seize, to conquer, and, then, to cast away and destroy that which pleases him. The second act of the opera, surely one of the most savage scenes of sexual harassment ever devised, is particularly suspenseful and, even, terrifying -- Scarpia seizes Tosca and, in this production, tries to rape her on his table set with brandy decanters and candelabra; in a cellar beneath the banqueting hall, Cavaradossi is being tortured by having his head crushed in a spiked vise -- the scene has been obsessively replayed in some of its aspects in Scorsese gangster movies, most particularly in Casino. And there is a certain horrific profundity in the action: Tosca, like all victims of torture, cries out that she has never done anything to inspire Scarpia's sadism and, then, she sings a moving aria accusing God of having forsaken her -- all her beauty, her virtue, her good deeds done in secret, all her love for Cavaradossi and her piety are meaningless when trapped in the embrace of the deadly, nihilistic Scarpia. It's a chilling moment and, as I grow older, Puccini's peculiar mixture of Roman sadism and lush voluptuous romanticism exerts an ever-more powerful hold on my imagination -- I can't quite shrug off these operas like I did twenty years ago. Like most great operas, described in terms of its plot, the show seems ridiculous -- but, in fact, Tosca achieves great emotional force, primarily through the oceanic tides of its music, and the simplicity of its plot.
In Act One, the Minnesota opera production features a vast halo of beaten gold, a hollow diadem the size of a flying saucer that is suspended half upright in the center of the stage. In the center of the halo, there is an alabaster bust of the Virgin Mary tilted on its side so that the Holy Mother seems to have a kind of crooked, leering expression on her lips. This huge emblem occupies most of the stage, flanked on one side by Cavaradossi's scaffolding and, on the other side, by ebony columns bound with gold rings at their bases. Overhead, there is a projection of a basilica that becomes a Tiepolo style tromp l'oeil ceiling, a cascade of falling putti and saints at the climax of Act One, an ecclesiastical procession with bishops and cardinals, hordes of altar boys and members of haute bourgeoisie, gilded crosses borne by monks, everyone singing a sacred Te Deum while Scarpia vows to seize and rape Tosca -- the priests and ecclesiastical officials march up and down in a vortex on thesteps surrounding the huge halo and Madonna and great hanging hooks slowly raise the halo into a semi-erect position as the cavalcade passes. The set director understands that in opera you just need picturesque places for the singers to stand (no one really needs to move except to get into positions) and so the sets are designed with huge symbolic figures at their center, most of the space occupied by these metaphoric images, with balconies and dais on which the singers can be displayed as they perform. The third act has a similarly majestic set -- a vast house-high image of St. Michael carved apparently from marble and foreshortened with his head twisted like a deadly viper as he raises an immense razor-sharp sword toward a sky full of stars. Under St. Michael, who hangs like a judgment in mid-air, there is a tall prison wall, an ugly escarpment made of naked, splintery looking wood ramparts knit together with metal hardware -- this is prison wall on which Caravadossi is shot by the fire squad and the platform from which Tosca launches herself in the last 30 seconds before the curtain falls. The image of the avenging St. Michael seems puzzling at first, but it responds to a very real aspect of the opera: in the end, the play is mostly about the duel of wills between the great diva and the great sadist Scarpia. Caravadossi, as the lover-boy, has slipped irrevocably to the edges of the action -- his death is, more or less, comical: he thinks the firing squad aiming its rifles at his breast has loaded their guns with "blanks" but, of course, very real bullets pierce his heart. More central, it seems, is the combat between Scarpia and Tosca: her kiss, administered with a dagger kills Scarpia, and, when she hurls herself off the ramparts of the prison, her final imprecation is a demand that she meet Scarpia again under the Throne of God -- it's jarring that her final desire is not for her lover but her torturer. In a twisted way, it seems that Tosca and Scarpia are the real, doomed lovers in the opera. Thus, the image of St. Michael suggests the aura of nemesis that hangs over the libretto -- the show is really about Beauty and the Beast, that is, Tosca and Scarpia, the real protagonists of the opera and the figures that convince the audience of the fundamental equation that underlies all grand opera: passion is death.