Even the threat of an anarchist bombing the theater couldn’t stop the 1900 opening Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” in Rome.
At the time of the opera’s premiere, Italy had experienced years of political and social unrest, and the start of the Holy Year in December 1899 attracted both the devout and those critical of the church to Rome. The threat of an anarchist bombing at the Teatro Costanzi caused a day’s delay of the opera’s opening and police to instruct the conductor that he was supposed to play the Italian national anthem in the event of an emergency.
But with Queen Margherita and the prime minister of Italy in the audience Jan. 14, 1900, the show was a success, receiving numerous encores. Today, it’s one of the most frequently performed operas in the canon.
This weekend, Virginia Opera’s period production of this violent, dramatic work comes to town.
“It’s a fast-paced story of love, betrayal and a lot of passion,” says Adam Turner, Virginia Opera’s artistic director. “It’s in the top 10 [of performed operas] for a reason. It has amazing arias in each act, it has thrilling singing, it has all the pomp and circumstance you would want to see in a grand opera.”
Set in 1800, “Tosca” tells the story of a deadly love triangle during similarly tumultuous times in Rome. Floria Tosca, a celebrated opera singer, is in love with Mario Cavaradossi, a painter who harbors an escaped political prisoner. Seeking both the prisoner and Tosca for himself, the corrupt chief of police Baron Scarpia aims to play the two lovers off each other to get what he wants.
Turner says “Tosca” shows Puccini at the height of his abilities as a composer.
“He had just triumphed with ‘La Boheme,’ and ‘Madama Butterfly’ would be the next opera after this one,” says Turner, who serves as conductor for the show. “In some ways, ‘Tosca’ is nestled right in between the trio of three of the greatest operas of all time.”
Musically, Turner says “Tosca” features “lush, romantic orchestra music that paints the opera like a motion picture the whole way through. It’s one of those spectacular operas that has it all.”
Ewa Plonka, who plays Tosca in the show, also compares the opera to a movie for its uninterrupted action.
“It’s just one big roller coaster of emotions and quick reactions to whatever is happening in the moment,” Plonka says.
As for her portrayal of the fiery diva, Plonka says Tosca is a woman who sticks to her guns.
“She has her own moral compass, which she follows in her life,” she says. “She believes in God, in love, and in beauty, and in art, and she tries to protect that at all costs, even if that would mean committing suicide.”
As if performing such an emotive role weren’t difficult enough, Tosca will be Plonka’s first as a soprano after a career spent singing mezzosoprano.
“I’m not going to pretend this was not challenging, but somehow the role fit like a glove,” says Plonka, adding that she’s onstage for nearly the entire show. “There’s no chance for me to even rest, so pacing myself in that role is something I had to incorporate.”
Kyle Albertson, who plays Scarpia, says that he’s often cast as the heavy because of his vocal range as a bass-baritone. In playing bad guys, Albertson says he tries to get away from one-dimensional performances.
“My model for portraying evil characters is that even evil people think they’re right,” Albertson says. “I don’t believe Scarpia is an exception to that rule. He is the chief of police. He’s trying to deal with an escaped prisoner, he has questionable methods, but in the end, he’s just a man trying to do his job.”
Albertson says that the nature of “Tosca” makes it a natural fit for first-time operagoers.
“There’s glorious violence,” he explains. “It’s a great way to start your journey into opera.”
As for the relevance of performing a work that’s set more than 200 years ago, Turner says the parallels of abuses of power and the corrupt nature of a political state carry through.
“It feels like it all could be ripped from today’s headlines,” he says. “It’s all right there.”
Virginia Opera’s “Tosca” plays Oct. 18 at 20 at the Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.