“Tosca” Galvanizes with Love and Liberty

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca and Ambrogio Maestri as Scarpia in LA Opera's 2017 production of "Tosca." Photo courtesy of Ken Howard

The following review is based on the performance from April 27th.

While nobody is perfect, many of us try our best to fit into society, doing what is expected of us in order to reap the happiness that we all desire. Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, which is based on Victorien Sardou’s play, “La Tosca,” focuses on a good person at heart who ultimately takes charge of the terrible events that befall her. Her name is Floria Tosca — a passionate opera singer who is in love with a painter (Mario Cavaradossi) – and whose fiery disposition becomes the driving force of her liberty, even in death.

Russell Thomas as Cavaradossi in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “Tosca.” Photo credit: Ken Howard

We observe in LA Opera’s production of “Tosca,” which runs through May 13th, and is delicately directed by John Caird and fervently conducted by James Conlon (Grant Gerson will conduct the last performance), a principled woman who is pushed by wicked extremes. But, this isn’t your average virtuous woman; Tosca just happens to have traits ( being controlling, jealous, incited to rage) that would be disadvantages in any other, but in her case, are the ingredients she independently harnesses to fuel her freedom from the terror that darkens the horizon of her hopes and dreams. Most of all, Tosca channels her spirit in a courageous show of empowerment that is ruminated upon long after the show has ended.

Pushing the suspenseful plot forward is a political battle at stake between those who want a secular republic, led by Napoleon, and those who are fiercely allegiant to the Church. Tosca, Cavaradossi, and political prisoner-escapee, Cesare Angelotti (played by talented bass Nicholas Brownlee), whom Cavaradossi assists, are on the side of the republic, whereas the Sacristan (played by the accomplished Philip Cokorinos) and police chief Baron Scarpia are for the status-quo. That said, appearances are not always what they seem, as those who often claim to be the most righteous are overcompensating for a stark hypocrisy that lies waiting like a cobra. This is the modus operandi of the profoundly evil antagonist, Scarpia, who plays to Tosca’s false suspicions about her lover that Cavaradossi may be unfaithful, planting poisonous seeds of doubt so that he (Scarpia) could nefariously “nest in [ her] heart.” When Cavaradossi is captured and tortured about Angelotti’s whereabouts in Act II, this is when the urgency of the opera goes into a blood-soaked overdrive that ceases to yield, holding our rapt attention as we go along for the thrilling ride that makes “Tosca” so gripping.

This pivotal point in Act II ignites the rest of the story and works as well as it does because of the three main players of its cast. The amazing Sondra Radvanovsky plays Tosca with not only a sense of devotion, but a riveting keenness and conscientiousness in the face of adversity. After a tense back-and-forth where she is needled by Scarpia (Ambrogio Maestri), Tosca is forced to divulge Angelotti’s hiding spot so her Cavaradossi (portrayed by Russell Thomas) is no longer tortured. However, when Cavaradossi is nevertheless sent to his execution, which can only be prevented if Tosca agrees to give her body to Scarpia (Tosca also negotiates a safe passage for her and her beloved, who is to be executed in mock fashion), we bear witness to a survival switch that goes off in the protagonist. Suffice it to say, Radvanovsky is wonderful at communicating her character’s distress and the injustice of her ordeal, particularly when she laments it during “Vissi D’Arte” (“I Lived For Art, I Lived for Love”). Entreatingly on her knees during this aria, as Tosca pleads heart-wrenchingly about the unspeakable thing she must do to save her lover, Radvanovsky’s soprano voice rings out with an overwhelming poignancy. It is such a transcendent performance that the audience gives her an extended applause.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca and Ambrogio Maestri as Scarpia in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “Tosca.” Photo by Ken Howard

Maestri, as Scarpia, wears his trench coat with overbearing sin, as the epitome of debauchery and self-contradiction (“Tosca, you make me forget God”). Maestri utilizes his baritone cadence to maximum effect, like a gargantuan monster stomping through a town after his prey (e.g., “Già, Mi Dicon Venal” or “Yes, They Say That I Am Venal”). Maestri’s expressions are also on point, warped and twisted, as his character relishes in the thought of taking the innocent Tosca into his arms violently and indulgently. When Tosca catches sight of the knife on Scarpia’s table (at his apartment), and convinces herself to use it, we are transfixed by Radvanovsky’s meticulousness in allowing for the audience to catch up with her persona’s intentions. And, as justice materializes in the form of Scarpia’s comeuppance, we are spellbound by the revenge that Tosca takes into her hands, seemingly in slow motion for the impact it has on us, as she stabs Scarpia a few times before slitting his throat. Maestri conveys his character’s cowardice in his final moments as he whimpers more like a mouse than a monster, falling helplessly to the floor as Radvanovsky seizes the moment of her role, aflame with vengeance, as she screams out, “die and be damned!” With Scarpia dead and drops of blood on her hands, Tosca returns to a state of brief innocence. Though there is no going back, for what happened had to be justly done, we are asked to ponder the shock of it all, as an eerie silence closes out Act II.

Russell Thomas as Cavaradossi and Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca and Ambrogio Maestri as Scarpia in LA Opera’s 2017 production of “Tosca.” Photo credit: Ken Howard

Russell Thomas, who is blessed with an immensely powerful tenor voice, outstandingly inhabits the part of Mario Cavaradossi with a superb likability. While we become familiarized with his integrity and ebullience as an impassioned man loyal to the arts as he is to tenderness – just like his lover Tosca is – it is in Act III when Thomas emotes his character’s abiding and intense love. On the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo after Angelotti has been hung, Thomas, in his character’s blood-soaked white shirt, sings with every fiber of his being, each syllable rife with sentimentality and sadness, especially when he says “I have never loved so much” during the aria “E Lucevan La Stelle” (“And the Stars Shone”). This is only topped by “Amaro Sol Per Te M’Era Il Morire” (“Only for You Did Death Taste Bitter for Me”) – an emotionally heartbreaking duet where Thomas and Radvanovsky combine their stellar voices to create a poetically compelling and moving union of sound.

When Cavaradossi is informed by Tosca that the bullets meant for his execution will be blanks, we react bitter-sweetly as Tosca theatrically and charmingly explains how to fall to the floor and feign death. However, when the mock execution turns out to be very real, and Tosca is cornered by the authorities, Radvanovsky pauses ever so slightly before liberating her character from this inequitable predicament, who takes ownership of her own destiny by defiantly committing suicide. It is the perfect conclusion to an opera that is uncompromisingly faithful to its characters and their motivations. Tosca proves to be unrelenting in her convictions until her last breath, choosing to be free by the hand of her own demise than to allow the opposition to cause her further suffering. To make this decision on her own terms, and of her own volition, is Tosca’s way of preserving her humanity; and, while tragic, it is the utmost declaration of her self-determination.

For more information about LA Opera’s “Tosca,” please visit

Additional Notes: Melody Moore will play Tosca on May 13th, Greer Grimsley will play Scarpia between May 2nd and 7th, and Kihun Yoon will play Scarpia on May 13th.


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