Enemy of the State

Tosca, presented by Opera Santa Barbara. At the Lobero Theatre, Saturday, February 18. Shows through March 4.

A security official, desperate to find an insurgent, tortures his accomplice, an artist, in front of the artist’s girlfriend. Anguished and broken, she finally gives up the insurgent’s location, but the lovers face still more torture and sexual humiliation, until murder, execution, and suicide end their pain. Abu Ghraib? Guantanamo Bay? No — Rome in 1800, and Puccini’s Tosca has never seemed more real and more horrifying. Glorious arias, duets, and chorales cannot hide the vivid — and almost too real — portrait of bureaucratic cruelty. Nor does this production want to hide anything — under James Marvel’s brilliant direction and Valéry Ryvkin’s skilled baton; Amy Johnson, as Floria Tosca, the tormented diva; Michael Hayes, as Mario Cavaradossi, the principled artist; and Todd Thomas, as Baron Scarpia, the vicious bureaucrat, lay it all out for us. Even the remarkably complex and realistic set, designed by Jean-François Revon, exposes their gaping wounds. As Tosca, weeping in Scarpia’s office, hears Cavarodossi’s cries, a painting on the wall behind her gradually becomes transparent. Originally a portrait of a man holding his enemy’s severed head, it becomes a window into the next room, where her lover is being tortured. Great art makes human suffering and brutality visible again, and just in time. But what has become of beauty in such an ugly situation? Puccini received some of the harshest criticism of his career when Tosca premiered in 1900, mainly because of its many undeniably shocking moments, including a corrupt official singing of lust and murder in counterpoint to a church choir, and a diva stabbing a man several times and damning his soul to Hell, just to name two. Still, the violence isn’t what shocks us most — it’s the bluntness of the opera’s demands on its creators and even on its audience. Puccini places Cavaradossi and Tosca, two creative artists, in an impossible position, torn between the ideals of honor, loyalty, and principle they embody in their art and the realities of survival in a corrupt state. Meanwhile, the pious bourgeoisie of Rome wander into the chapel to express their piety, blind to the viciousness they endorse in their tacit support of Scarpia, leaving us to wonder exactly what measures we will tolerate in the name of security. Still, beauty is the real point of it all — the beauty of love that transcends despair, and even death. Beauty gives us hope, and Opera Santa Barbara’s production gives us real beauty, even as we weep for poor Tosca — and our souls.

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