These days, it’s easy to see intersections between sex and politics, although truthfully, it hasn’t been difficult in the past either.
So when the Puccini opera “Tosca” takes the stage this weekend to open the Hawaii Opera Theatre season, expect a visceral reaction to the story of the romantic, emotional, heroic and ultimately tragic woman put in a compromising position by competing forces, all set to some of Giacomo Puccini’s most powerful and endearing music.
“Now, this piece seems alarmingly relevant,” said guest director Omer Ben Seadia, who is making her debut with HOT. “We, and our audiences, are watching and listening to it a lot a differently. Even though I’ve done it and I know it so well, I’ve had to sort of put into question a lot of things, because my perspective is different and it resonates differently with me.
“Tosca” is one of the world’s most popular operas, and one of the most challenging to follow. It requires viewers to pay close attention to every line of the libretto and the action on stage, almost like a “CSI” television show where every clue and every utterance helps propel the story.
Set during the tumultuous Napoleonic invasions of Rome, it has the title character Floria Tosca, a renowned singer of the day, in love with an artist, the painter Cavaradossi. He is secretly trying to help his friend, the political prisoner Angelotti, escape the clutches of Scarpia, a cruel and lascivious local magistrate who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. And what Scarpia wants is a lot: not just the vanquishing of his political enemies, but Tosca herself.
It is in the area of Scarpia’s relationship with Tosca, Seadia said, where our perspectives have changed.
“I used to hear this opera described as a ‘love triangle,’ and that makes me nauseous, because it’s not,” she said. “We have a couple, who’s very loving, and then we have a deranged man who is so overcome with power that he uses it to extort sex. That’s very different from the way we used to tell the story.”
Seadia sees Tosca as a “woke” artist — “someone who is becoming and awake and aware,” who initially is absorbed with her own needs and desires but is forced by circumstances to become aware of larger, political issues. “She becomes not just a victim but an activist,” Seadia said.
SOPRANO ROCHELLE Bard, who is making her HOT debut in the title role, identifies with many aspects of Tosca.
“She has a complicated love life, she’s an opera singer and she’s being oppressed by this important man,” Bard said. “Nothing bad like that has happened to me fortunately, but I get it. I get complicated relationships.”
This is only Bard’s second time performing “Tosca,” and what is unusual for her is that she did not “cover” it — understudied, in opera parlance — so she has not been overly influenced by learning the role from someone else. “We have really taken (the role) apart, especially Act Two, which is so intense and violent. It feels like we’ve filled every moment with honesty and integrity,” she said. “Everything feels exactly how I think we’re supposed to make you feel.”
Part of the challenge in that is in portraying Tosca’s relationship with Cavaradossi as true love. Tosca is, in fact, first introduced to the audience as a “jealous woman,” and much of her opening scenes are of her suspiciously complaining to Cavaradossi about a woman that he has painted in a mural.
Such a possessiveness might be considered off-putting to an audience, but in this production, Bard sees Tosca’s complaints as a kind of “playful banter.” “It doesn’t need to be so bitchy, for lack of a better word,” she said.
Vocally, that allows Bard more flexibility. She can find more “tender moments” in the role, singing more of the high notes softly rather than belting them out.
The opera has one particularly famous aria for the soprano, “Vissi d’Arte” (“I live for art”) in Act II, but Bard said the role is filled with “angry low notes, and angry really high notes, and then there are some really beautiful pianissimo high notes. The colors really tell the story. It shows off my voice really nicely.”
TOSCA’S LOVER in the drama, Cavaradossi, will be performed by tenor Alex Boyer, who, like Bard, is making his HOT debut and is performing in “Tosca” for the second time. He enjoys the role for a variety of reasons.
“The best operas for a singer are the ones they get to die in,” he said with a laugh. “Those are always the most fun. The only thing better is killing someone else.”
He sees his character as a “naive and idealistic young man, drawn to Tosca because they’re both artists,” but someone who is politically minded as well, siding with Napoleon, who at the time was seen as a liberator of tyranny in Rome.
At the same time, he admires Cavaradossi’s courage when he is captured by Scarpia, who in this production will be portrayed by Aleksey Bogdanov. “(Cavaradossi) is naive, but he does know that he’s going to get tortured, but he doesn’t break when he gets tortured,” Boyer said.
Boyer will have one particularly famous aria, “E lucevan le stelle” (“the stars were shining”), a lovely aria sung in Act III, which he calls “a joy” to sing. “It’s emotionally intense, but vocally it’s not terribly demanding, which is very nice of Puccini to stick it at the end,” he said.
“I have to check in on myself during the intermissions, because I do a lot of ‘not’ singing. I sing a lot in the first half of Act I, and then I sing very little in Act II.”
Musically, HOT fans can begin familiarizing themselves with the work of maestro Emmanuel Plasson, who is now the opera company’s principal conductor and artistic director. He has conducted “Il Trovatore” and “Romeo and Juliet” for HOT in recent years, and felt that “everything fell right into place” for him to establish permanent ties with HOT.
He considers “Tosca” to be an “intimate” and “concise” work, featuring “perfect lovers and the perfect villain.”
“You feel there’s not one note too many,” Plasson said. “Everything is really well-designed — the length of the scenes, the potency of the scenes, and of course the orchestration is gorgeous. It’s always a challenge because we tend to get carried because it’s such a beautiful orchestration. I have to protect the singers from too much sound.”
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre
>> Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
>> When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
>> Cost: $34-$135
>> Info: 596-7858, hawaiiopera.org