San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, home to the San Francisco Opera, is a superb setting for performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” – an opera intertwined with the War Memorial’s history. The opera house opened with “Tosca” 89 years ago in 1932. After the company spent a season out of the opera house when it closed for earthquake repair, “Tosca” was chosen to celebrate the War Memorial’s re-opening in 1997.
More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic required cancellation of all the San Francisco Opera performances scheduled for the opera house in 2020 and the first half of 2021. Two weeks ago, over 20 months after the company last performed at the War Memorial, “Tosca” opened the company’s 99th season.
Ailyn Pérez‘ Floria Tosca
Illinois soprano Ailyn Pérez, in her fifth performance of her role debut in Tosca, triumphed in one of the supreme roles of Italian verismo opera. Pérez’ showed mastery of the role’s requisites – lyrical beauty for Tosca’s introspective second act aria Vissi d’arte and for her passionate exchanges with Tosca’s lover, Mario Cavaradossi.
[Below: Tosca (Ailyn Pérez) reflects on her commitment to her art; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Pérez showed vocal power for the intensely dramatic scene of her resistance to the sexual appetites of the villainous police chief who controls her lover’s life. Pérez vividly displayed the terror of the opera’s final moments.
[Below: Tosca (Ailyn Pérez) murders the Baron Scarpia (Alfred Walker, on floor); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Pérez is a graduate of Philadelphia’s Academy of the Vocal Arts [AVA], one of the most important centers for training North American artists in the skills they should possess to become successful opera singers. For “Tosca”, she shares the stage with another of AVA’s renown success stories, tenor Michael Fabiano.
[Below: Tosca (Ailyn Pérez, left) visits her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi (Michael Fabiano, right) at the church where he is working; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have followed Pérez’ career over the past dozen years, during which she has excelled in iconic lyric and lyric-coloratura roles of French and Italian opera (see Review: Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last – Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011 and Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016 and Review: Benjamin Bernheim Leads Superb “Faust” Cast – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 12, 2018.)
Michael Fabiano’s Mario Cavaradossi
New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano displayed lyrical beauty for the great showpiece arias Recondita armonia and E Lucevan le stelle, and commanding spinto power in his defiant exclamation Vittoria! vittoria!!, celebrating Napoleon’s defeat of reactionary Rome and its allies. Throughout his performance, Fabiano produced the full-throated sound that the War Memorial’s friendly acoustics caress.
Fabiano’s Cavaradossi exhibited at all times the dignity and self-assurance of a noble-born Revolutionary Roman patriot determined to be on the right side of history.
[Below: The Cavalier Mario Cavaradossi (Michael Fabiano, front center) is outraged that he has been arrested; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Fabiano’s debut at the San Francisco Opera a decade ago as Gennaro in a Donizetti masterpiece [Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011] was recorded for posterity [see DVD Review: Dramatically, Visually Exciting EuroArts DVD of San Francisco Opera Performance of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”].
In an interview I later conducted with Fabiano [Rising Stars: An Interview with Michael Fabiano], he said he regarded the personal artistic mentorship he derived from the “Lucrezia Borgia” superstar Renée Fleming and the great success of that production as putting “a stamp of approval” on his career.
[Below: Cavaradossi (Michael Fabiano), having survived torture, is awaiting execution; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Subsequently at the War Memorial, Fabiano has explored lyric tenor roles of Puccini [Review: Michael Fabiano, Alexia Voulgaridou are Vocally Splendid in John Caird’s Cleverly Conceived “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 14, 2014], Verdi [Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015] and Massenet [Review: An Exquisitely Sung “Manon” with Ellie Dehn and Michael Fabiano – San Francisco Opera, November 4, 2017].
[Below: Tosca (Ailyn Pérez, left) counsels Cavaradossi (Michael Fabiano, second from left) on how to fall in what she believes is to be a fake firing squad; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Although Fabiano has continued to sing iconic lyric roles [Review: A “Rigoletto” Surprise in Paris: Ludovic Tézier Subs in Title Role in Claus Guth’s Production with Fabiano, Peretyatko, Luisotti – May 5, 2016 and Review: World Class Singing in Classic “Faust” – Fabiano, Martinez, Pisaroni, Hopkins at Houston Grand Opera, October 28, 2016], his accession to the role of Cavaradossi suggests that the spinto tenor roles of late Verdi and verismo operas (including other Puccini roles) may become part of his operatic repertory.
Alfred Walker’s Baron Scarpia
Louisiana bass-baritone Alfred Walker was elegantly costumed as the venal and sexually deviant Baron Scarpia. He made a strong impression through a robust vocal performance and persuasive acting, most notably in his second act scenes in which he has Cavaradossi tortured to advance his attempted seduction of Tosca.
[Below: the Baron Scarpia (Alfred Walker) is distracted by his lustful thoughts from the Catholic mass in process; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Interestingly, Walker appeared in the December 2019 performances Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel”, the most recent opera to be performed at the War Memorial before this season’s “Tosca”.
[Below: the Baron Scarpia (Alfred Walker) sets out a meal he will never finish; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Walker’s most memorable San Francisco Opera assignment to date was as Elektra’s vengeance-driven brother Orest four years’ earlier [See Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” – Goerke, Pieczonka in a Gory, Gloriously Sung Night at the Museum – September 9, 2017.]
Soloman Howard’s Angelotti
As the Revolutionary Angelotti, District of Columbia bass Soloman Howard, not only sang gloriously, but was convincing as a wary prison escapee, having arrived at the church to gather clothing and supplies hidden by his sister as part of his escape plan. A chance meeting with Cavaradossi appears to further his chances of success. This being an Italian verismo opera, things will not go well for either Angelotti or Cavaradossi.
[Below: Soloman Howard as Angelotti; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
This was Howard’s second operatic assignment at the War Memorial, previously performing the role of Timur in San Francisco Opera’s David Hockney production of Puccini’s “Turandot” [Review: San Francisco Opera’s Treasured “Turandot” – Stemme, Crocetto, Howard Join Cast, November 18, 2017.]
I have admired Howard’s vocal and dramatic contributions in both principal and comprimario roles in operatic venues across the country, including Washington DC [Review: A New Force of Destiny – Adina Aaron, Monsalve, Delavan Shine in Zambello’s Remake of Verdi’s “Forza” – Washington National Opera, October 12, 2013], Glimmerglass, New York [Review: Gripping Portraits by Eric Owens, Melody Moore in Anne Bogart’s Staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 17, 2015], Santa Fe [Review: Okulitch, Ketelsen Star in Santa Fe Opera’s New “Don Giovanni”, July 2, 2016] and Los Angeles [Review: An All-Star “Don Carlo” from Plácido Domingo and Friends – Los Angeles Opera, September 29, 2018].
Joel Sorensen’s Spoletta, Dale Travis’ Sacristan and other Cast Members
“Tosca”, besides three principals and Angelotti, has five other roles. Two (Spoletta and the Sacristan) are conssidered “character roles”, often assigned to artists that specialize in creating memorable portraits of these smaller, but dramatically significant, roles. Two roles (Sciarrone and the Jailer) are often cast with young singers at the beginning of their career. The final role is the offstage voice of a Young Shepherd.
Baron Scarpia’s sinister police force operative, Spoletta, was performed by Ohio character tenor Joel Sorensen, who by virtue of singing the role in the San Francisco Opera “Tosca” mountings of 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2021, has secured a place in the company’s history as a definitive exemplar of the role.
[Below: Joel Sorensen as Spoletta; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Similarly, Pennsylvania baritone (and 1988-89 San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow) Dale Travis has taken on the role of the acerbic Sacristan in the season of 1992, and, like Sorensen, in each of the “Tosca” years since 2008.
[Below: Dale Travis (center, front) as the Sacristan; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
This season the two smaller men’s roles were performed by current Adler Fellows making their San Francisco Opera debuts. Spoletta’s fellow operative, Sciarrone, was sung by Wisconsin baritone Timothy Murray, who had impressed me in the role of Paul in the Merola Opera Program’s world premiere of a new Jake Heggie opera [World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Faustian Fantasy “If I Were You” – Merola Opera Program, San Francisco, August 1, 2019]. The Jailer was performed by Minnesota bass Stefan Egerstrom.
California soprano Elisa Sunshine, a 2019 alumna of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program (and, like Murray, as member of the “If I Were You” cast), performed the offstage role of the Shepherd Boy.
Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
In her first season as San Francisco Opera’s music director (succeeding Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti) South Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim, presided over an impassioned “Tosca” performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. One of the world’s great opera orchestras, its brilliant performance of Puccini’s highly dramatic orchestration reconfirmed once again that the War Memorial Opera House can fairly be called the “House of Puccini”.
[Below: Maestra Eun Sun Kim; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have admired Meastra Kim’s conducting, having experienced her performances of Verdi in Houston [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s “La Traviata” with Shagimuratova, Pittas, Petean – October 28, 2017] of Donizetti in Los Angeles [Review: Los Angeles Opera – Angela Meade Joins Vargas, Kelsey and Dixon in Impressive “Roberto Devereux”, February 22, 2020], and, most impressively, of Dvorak at the War Memorial [Review: “Rusalka”- Beautiful Singing, Insightful Drama – An Opera “Not to be Missed” – San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2019.]
The San Francisco Opera Chorus was under the direction of retiring Scottish Chorus Master Ian Robertson. Its members populated the clergy and congregation of the Mass that ends Act I, displaying their well-honed acting skills that matched their vocal strengths.
Shawna Lucey’s Direction
Over the past half-century or so, there have been four basic San Francisco Opera productions of “Tosca”. The first three were comprised of a vintage production from the early 20th century; then a controversial, although visually interesting production from French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, created in 1972 as a vehicle for tenor Placido Domingo; to be followed by a neo-vintage Lotfi Mansouri “anti-Ponnelle” production with Thierry Bosquet sets based on historic set designs.
The most vividly colorful and theatrically effective of these four productions and their scenic designs are from the 2018 Shawna Lucey “Tosca”, whose sets were created by British designer Robert Innes Hopkins.
[Below: Director Shawna Lucey; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The 2021 revival of the Lucey/Hopkins 2018 production proved to be an extraordinary performance, with a stellar cast, staged by Shawna Lucey in a way that demonstrated the opera’s innate dramatic power.
[Below: the ‘Te Deum’ is sung as part of the “victory” mass taking place in the First Act of the San Francisco Opera’s 2021 performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” (set design by Robert Innes Hopkins); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Robert innes Hopkins’ Scenic Design
“Tosca” was the fourth Hopkins production seen at the San Francisco Opera, but only the first created for the company.
[Below: British Director Robert Innes Hopkins; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Hopkins’ previous San Francisco Opera assignments included importations of Hopkins’ sets for the impressive “Italiana” production created by Edward Hastings for the Santa Fe Opera [Review: San Francisco Opera – Santa Fe’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”, September 30, 2005] and the Daniel Slater “Lohengrin” production created for the Grand Théâtre de Genève [Review: Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012.]
“Tosca” and the War Memorial Opera Hous
“Tosca” has been performed in 30 of the 89 San Francisco Opera seasons since the War Memorial Opera House opened. I have had the fortune to have experienced many of the memorable San Francisco Opera “Tosca” performances of the past 58 years.
I was present at the War Memorial in 1970, when the audience was surprised to be witness to a post-opera spectacle, the awarding of the first San Francisco Medal in its history to one of the company’s greatest Toscas, Dorothy Kirsten. This year, an enthusiastic standing ovation at this year’s opera’s “Tosca’s” end was interrupted by another memorable event.
Post-Finale Curtain Calls: Angelotti proposes marriage, Tosca accepts
At the curtain call, the audience unanimously awarded standing ovations to tenor Michael Fabiano as Mario Cavaradossi, Ailyn Pérez as Tosca and Maestra Eun Sun Kim. With the audience still on its feet, bass-baritone Soloman Howard, who admirably performed the role of Angelotti, stepped forward to announce that he had received the permission of Ailyn Pérez’s father to ask for the hand of his daughter.
[Below: Soloman Howard, left, prepares to ask Ailyn Pérez right, for her hand in marriage in the presence of the entire San Francisco Opera audience at the end of the October 5th final performance of Puccini’s “Tosca”; edited image, based on a Nancy Burnett photograph.]
With both Pérez’ and Howard’s families present in the audience, Pérez accepted Howard’s proposal, with the sold-out audience of 3000 persons, the “Tosca” cast, and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and backstage crew as witnesses!
Another great “Tosca” experience in the “House of Puccini”!