By Ellis Nassour
Acclaimed soprano Sondra Radvanovsky made quite a splash last night at the Met as Floria in Puccini’s drama-filled, romantic Tosca., It was a glorious, passionate occasion – a much more celebrated occasion than her Leonora in Il Trovatore. The night had more of its share of the unexpected.
First, Radvanovsky’s Floria: you might still hear echoes of thunderous applause, shouts of bravas, and stomping on the floor during the nearly 10 curtain bows. However, it became evident early on that this was a soprano who could act as well as sing. Her Act II prayer questioning why God has put her in her circumstances, "Vissi d’arte"[I lived for art, I lived for love], brought down the house.
There were several minutes of acclamation from the audience. It was an emotionally-wrenching moment for Radvanovsky. She was in tears. It may have been the beauty of the aria, or the fact that she was simply thrilled to get through it.
The Met appearance is the prelude to Radvanovsky repeating the role at La Scala next month. Before heading over, she’ll perform Tosca at the Met this Friday, Monday, January 21, January 25, and the matinee of January 29. Tosca will be broadcast on the Toll Brothers-Met Opera International Radio Network on January 29.
Celebrated tenor Marcelo Álvarez was schedule to co-star as the pro-Rome Republic painter Cavaradossi. He was sidelined with a cold and didn’t make the dress. There were high hopes that he’d be recovered for the first performance. However, Met GM Peter Gelb stepped onstage to announce that he was indesposed and that the equally-celebrated tenor Robert Alagna would take his place. The news was met with equal disappointment and excitement.
Though Alagna has played Cavaradossi many times, this would be his first at the Met. He was in a taxi on his way to a lunch meeting in Little Italy when Gelb was able to reach him. There was only time for a one hour Act One blocking session. He and Radvanovsky did their vocal warmups right onstage prior to curtain. Gelb joked that the Met wardrobe department worked a miracle in very little time and that Alagna would be wearing the boots he wore as Don Jose Saturday night in Carmen.
Radvanovsky was probably already a bundle of nerves, none of this could have helped. Luckily, they know each other and have sung together in a London Trovatore. They were a powerhouse duo. Before the Act One set could be struck, Met photographer Marty Sohl rushed the stars onstage for a series of photos.
Tosca is set against the stark beauty of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Farnese palace, and Castel Sant’Angelo [sort of Rome’s Tower of London]. The time is 1800 and the city is in turmoil as the citizenry await news of the Battle of Marengo in the north. The painter Cavaradossi, somewhat of a revolutionary, is at work on a canvas of Mary Magdalene when escaped prisoner Angelotti, former consul of the Roman Republic, arrives to hide in his family’s private chapel. Brutal police chief Scarpia is on the hunt, and Cavaradossi agrees to hide Angelotti.
Their plot is interrupted by the arrival of the beautiful singer/actress Floria Tosca, who thinks her lover is rendezvousing with another woman and bursts with jealously. He protests his innocence. In his obsession to capture Angelotti, Scarpia uses Floria’s jealousy to ensnare her love. As Cavaradossi is tortured, Scarpia attempts to seduce Floria. If she agrees, Cavaradossi can go free. Reluctantly, she agrees; but she discovers a knife and as Scarpia prepares to have his way with her, she kills him. This leads to a reunion of the lovers, but tragedy and unhappy endings for all.
The audience was rooting for Alagna, but nothing prepared them for the beauty of his Act One "Recondita armonia" [secret harmony]. He brought the house down.
Alagna rose tremdously to the occasion, especially since he hadn’t sung the role in a while. When he came onstage for his bow, the handsome French tenor of Sicilian descent, immediately ran to the prompter’s box and enthusiastically shook hands.
Directing is the Paris-based Swiss Luc Bondy, who says, "One of opera’s best roles is that of the lecherous villian, police chief Scarpia." Like Les Miz’s police chief Javert, he’s a man you love to hate. But embodied by German bass baritone Falk Struckmann, it’s difficult to hate someone who sings so beautifully.
Conducting the 76-piece strong Met orchestra is Marco Armiliato, in his first Met performance of Tosca. There’s hope that Alvarez will be able to perform on Friday in this co-production of the Met, La Scala, and Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper.
Radvanovsky had nothing but high praise for Alagna. However, having performed with Argentina’s Álvarez in the opera in Denver, she was delighted to be working with him again. Soon, she will have her wish.
"Marcelo is an inspiring singing actor," she states. "When you’re on stage with him, he makes you feel as if you’re the only person in his world. The audience doesn’t exist for him. He’s made me cry more than once during a performance, which is good and bad. It’s good because you know that he’s touching the hearts of the audience. But the bad is that then I have to sing!"
Known for excelling in some of the most difficult soprano roles, the depth and color of Illinois- native Radvanovsky’s voice is well known at the Met and in opera circles. But last night, she reached a new plateau. There will be even greater expectations in April, when she returns from La Scala, to reprise her acclaimed Leonora in Il Trovatore, which will have a Live in HD transmission.
Radvanovsky’s La Scala debut was as Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac, opposite Placido Domingo in 2008. In a Toronto Aida, she was compared to the incomparable Leontyne Price. She’s performed in every major opera house in the world including Covent Garden, Paris, Vienna State, Chicago Lyric Opera, and SFO.
This is only Radvanovsky’s second time as Floria, after last season’s sensational Denver debut. Her debut CD is Verdi Arias [Delos Records], with Constantine Orbelian conducting the Philharmonia of Russia. NPR chose it for its Top 10 Classical Albums of 2010 and Top 50 Albums of 2010.
"It was truly exciting singing Floria again," she says, "I approached it with a bit of trepidation. Met audiences have only known me in Verdi and some lighter works, so this marks the first time they hear me in a heavier role. Floria is so steeped in tradition, especially with all the great divas who’ve performed it. I am so blessed to have this amazing cast, Marco conducting the suburb Met orchestra, and Luc as director. Could you ask for better support?"
Still, there are challenges. "Floria is a young country girl who discovers she has a talent for singing," Radvanovsky says. "Portraying the girlish aspect is a bit difficult because she’s also a grand diva who’s notoriously jealous and so madly in love. My goal is to play her as human, not this greater-than-life diva. In her music, you can feel all the emotions a woman in love feels — jealousy, anger, hatred, fear."
She sees Floria as a victim, but not one who wallows in her emotions or feels sorry for herself. "She’s a changed woman by the end of the opera because of the journey she’s taken."
Finding the balance as Floria undergoes those changes was the tricky part. Not that Puccini made it easy. "He doubles the vocal lines, so it’s important to ride over them. That’s difficult in a house the size of the Met. The good news is that it doesn’t lie as low as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera."
[On March 25, Violeta Urmana take over as Floria, in her house debut, opposite Salvatore Licitra’s Cavaradossi, and James Morris’s Scarpia.].
Having sung at the Met, she’s accustomed to the acoustics but reminds herself that there’s danger in pushing her voice. "You run the risk of cracking, as well as sacrificing vocal beauty," she explains. "It’s about technique and supporting my sound with air – what the Italians call ‘sul fiato,’ so I’m always in control."
She feels her voice "speaks" better at the top of her range. "Most of the dramatic climaxes happen on high notes, like the high C’s in Act II in the scenes with Scarpia. Floria’s stronger and more determined in what she wants, and that is to run away with the man she loves. So I try to start the opera as this young, fresh woman who laughs and is in love. What’s important is to find the human side of her."
As opera progresses, Floria goes to great lengths to prove Cavaradossi’s innocence. At the end, she feels caught with no way out and takes the action she takes.
Radvanovsky loves Verdi, but she’s finding herself attracted to Puccini. "His music is hummable and you can’t help but have the melodies in your head. I’m also drawn to Puccini for the drama, the verismo style of acting. Many of his operas happen in real time, and I love to keep the action moving. Best of all, and one of the greatest things about opera, are all the heightened feelings. It’s a way for me to become someone else for a few hours and to purge my soul of any sadness."