As much as opera may be perceived as a highbrow art form, two of the medium's favorite subjects are as base as can be: sex and violence.
With its fall offerings, Virginia Opera is embracing these perennially popular themes, first with Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" on Oct. 18 and 20, then with Daniel Catán's "Il Postino (The Postman)" on Nov. 22 and 24.
The first tells the stormy tale of Tosca, a diva living in Rome in 1800. After her lover Cavaradossi hides an escaped political prisoner, Baron Scarpia, the corrupt chief of police, tries to get Tosca to reveal the prisoner's hiding place while also trying to have Tosca for himself. Filled with jealousy, lust and betrayal, it's one of the most frequently performed works in the opera canon.
"'Tosca' is one of those where the drama is high-stakes [and] the music just catapults you into an emotional frenzy," says Adam Turner, Virginia Opera's artistic director. "Truly, our audience will be in for an aural and visual spectacle."
Turner says the production will be a traditional staging and feature Polish soprano Ewa Plonka's debut as Tosca, bass-baritone Kyle Albertson as Baron Scarpia, and tenor Matthew Vickers — who Richmond audiences may recall as Pinkerton from last year's "Madama Butterfly" — as Cavaradossi. He adds that the passionate score is a memorable one.
"[With] Puccini and Verdi, for me it's all about the singing, the exquisite vocal lines that these composers write," he says. "It's melodic, it's captivating, it tells a story, it's got really beautiful orchestral music."
With "Il Postino," Virginia Opera is presenting the first of its planned From Screen to Stage series, which will feature operatic works that are based on films. Like the 1994 Italian film it's inspired by, "Il Postino" tells a fictitious story involving the real-life Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in the 1950s. Virginia Opera is serving as the lead producer for this production, which will go on to see stagings in Chicago, [Albuquerque, New Mexico] and elsewhere.
"[Il Postino] was an Academy Award-winning film that people would have seen in art houses and indie theaters back in the '90s," says Turner, who will serve as conductor for both shows. "It's just such a beautiful story, a romantic story, an accessible story, and I love the way that it was adapted."
After Neruda is exiled to a small Italian island for political reasons, he befriends Mario, a new postman who has been assigned to deliver his fan mail. Mario falls under the sway of Neruda's influence, and decides that he wants to become a poet too.
"Neruda helps him find his voice. He empowers him with the ability to write poetry and to find love," he says. "[Mario] uses that poetry to write love poems to a woman that he so desperately wants."
Against a backdrop of political unrest, Mario uses his newfound talent with the spoken word to write activist poetry.
"That's where tragedy comes into play," Turner says. "It's really a beautiful story with so many themes that are resonant for today."
Turner's own fascination with the work began three summers ago while attending a production of "Il Postino" in Saratoga, New York.
"[I was] not prepared for the emotional roller coaster I would be taken on," says Turner, who spent the next three years trying to bring the work to Virginia Opera. "As I sat in the theater at the end of that performance, I was literally wiping away tears.
"It's really accessible, beautiful and fast-paced. Just like a movie, it's over in two hours."
Virginia Opera's "Tosca" runs Oct. 18 and 20, and "Il Postino" runs Nov. 22 and 24, at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.Back the the Fall Arts Preview