Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca at the San Francisco Opera

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Although we don’t get to the opera as much as we’d like, it’s always such a moving experience that we always leave saying: why don’t we make an effort to do this more often? When I lived in Europe, I went to musicals in London’s West End and the opera often — the latter extended to my time in Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin. With Covid shutting the world down for the last year and a half, I was thrilled to learn that the San Francisco Opera was open again for live performances — with proof of vaccine and ID as is the policy within San Francisco’s walls at the moment for restaurants and establishments.
We had the opportunity to attend the final performance of Giacomo Puccini’s TOSCA which ran from August 21 to September 5. San Francisco Opera inaugurates its 99th season and first under the baton of Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim and TOSCA was the first opera staged in the War Memorial Opera House since the pandemic shutdown.

The Company’s first new staging of TOSCA was created by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in 1972 to honor the Company’s 50th anniversary. The original 1932 TOSCA was recreated in 1997 for an archival production by Thierry Bosquet which commemorated the Company’s 75th anniversary season and reopening of the Opera. As you’d expect, it was sung in Italian with English supertitles, with a few Latin phrases thrown in, noted by Anthony who speaks both Latin and Italian.

The dramatic final scene of TOSCA before she takes her life. Ailyn Pérez as the title role in Puccini’s “Tosca.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

What Makes TOSCA Unique?

Like all operas, there’s no shortage of tragedy, but TOSCA gets to them quickly. The reason we opted to see TOSCA is because of our connection to all things Italian and ancient Rome, where this opera was set in the 1800’s. The backdrop for the first scene is in a church, where painter Mario Cavaradossi is working on a portrait of Mary Magdalene. The backdrop is dramatic and stunning, especially for lovers of Italian literature, art and culture like us. Famous opera singer Floria Tosca makes an entrance early on where we get a glimpse of her jealous proclivities which naturally play out in song.

The Church Scene in Act 1. Michael Fabiano as Cavaradossi and Ailyn Pérez as the title role in Puccini’s “Tosca.” Photo: Drew Altizer Photography

Cavaradossi’s friend Cesare Angelotti, who was a political prisoner and former leader of the Napoleon resistance, escapes from prison and heads to the church to hide. Cavaradossi says that it isn’t safe for him there but agrees to bring him to his villa, where there is a special passageway from the church, insisting that Angelotti won’t be found there.

Soloman Howard as Angelotti in Puccini’s “Tosca.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Tosca’s jealousy rears its head again before the end of Act 1 but the ever so romantic Cavaradossi ensures her of his dedication and commitment as they sing to one another against the church stage backdrop.

Ailyn Pérez as Tosca and Michael Fabiano as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Dale Travis as the Sacristan and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Puccini’s “Tosca.”. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Below, you get an idea of the dramatic personality and appearance of Scarpia who Cavaradossi and Tosca both abhor.

Alfred Walker as Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Of course Scarpia has a plan which he hopes will lead him to the escaped prisoner, convinced that Cavaradossi is involved. Not surprisingly, he uses Tosca’s jealousy and has three footmen follow her as the scene winds down to the crescendo of the Te Deum Hymn. Dramatic and beautiful, you’re left feeling sorry that Act 1 has come to an end.

Act II is no less dramatic because the suspense builds as Scarpia and his men continue to hunt down Angelotti and Cavaradossi, only to find the painter alone in his villa. To Tosca’s dismay and agony, they end up arresting her lover and despite torturing him, she pleads ignorance throughout. Scarpia’s corruption rears its ugly head as he makes a bargain with Tosca — in exchange for a passionate escapade with him, he agrees to release her lover from prison, telling her that there will be a mock execution to save face with the outside world. He also agrees to write a ‘safe-conduct’ pass however disgusted by the chain of events, she finds a dagger which she uses to kill him.

Like I said, the second act’s drama keeps you on the edge of your seat. Knowing how women were treated in Roman times in the 1800’s, you can’t help but feel a bit of excitement for her strength as she takes charge.

Ailyn Pérez as Tosca and Alfred Walker as Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The third act is somewhat dreary and the backdrop too is dark but it’s still beautiful albeit eerily so with the dimly lit Castel Sant’Angelo as the setting. In his final moments, Cavaradossi bribes his ‘watcher’ by giving him his last (and only ring) in exchange for delivering a letter to Tosca. Before the letter is finished, Tosca enters the stage and after a dramatic embrace, she explains that they not only  have a ‘safe-conduct’ pass but that she has murdered Scarpia. As her story continues, Cavaradossi learns of the fake execution after which they can safely leave Rome together.

Why Tosca trusts that Scarpia’s henchmen will follow orders especially after his murder is beyond me but it is Puccini after all and we all know that Italians love tragedy. It’s agonizing to watch the final scene for you know it’s not going to end well. After she realizes the execution isn’t faked after all, she runs to Cavaradossi’s side exclaiming  the words: “it can’t end like this.”

Michael Fabiano as Cavaradossi and Ailyn Pérez as Tosca in the final act of Puccini’s “Tosca” where her lover is killed by gunfire. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

It isn’t long before soldiers run onto the stage to take Tosca into custody for Scarpia’s death. Emotionally distraught and defeated, she runs to the fortress parapet and in the final scene, she commits suicide by lunging to her death.

Ailyn Pérez as the title role in Puccini’s “Tosca” in the very final scene as she climbs the parapet to lunge to her death after witnessing Cavaradossi’s execution. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Puccini’s Italian thriller has enough suspense to keep you glued to your seat through all three acts despite knowing the inevitable outcome. After Tosca’s suicide on top of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the cast naturally comes out on stage to bow and acknowledge conductor Eun Sun Kim, Director Shawna Lucey and the orchestra. No one expects what happens next and fortunately, tragedy isn’t part of it.

Soloman Howard who played Angelotti kneels down on the stage facing Ailyn Pérez, who plays Tosca and proposes. Does it get more romantic than that? Atypical at a traditional opera house, many raised their phones to capture the beautiful scene for when romance takes over the hearts of everyone in the audience, who can deny such a special moment? After all, romance is at the heart of Italian culture so it was indeed a perfect way to end the final performance at the San Francisco Opera.

Above and below, Howard courageously and beautifully proposes to Perez as the cast happily looks on.

Other performances are coming up later this fall, so be sure to check out their latest schedule which includes links to purchase tickets.

About Eun Sun Kim

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Eun Sun Kim began her career in Europe then had her 2017 American debut in Houston followed by subsequent triumphs on American opera house and concert hall stages. She returned to American concerts this past summer at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago and former Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein said of her conducting Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony: “She had the orchestra relaxing into the lyricism but also had them whipping up firmly dramatic climaxes” (Chicago Classical Review).
This was her second time conducting Puccini’s 1900 score since leading performances in the composer’s native Italy at the Macerata Festival in 2014. Kim’s inaugural season as San Francisco Opera’s music director also included Live and In Concert: The Homecoming with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra a new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, which was simulcast for free to Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants on September 10.

The cast takes a bow at the end of the performance.

Tosca’s lover, the painter Cavaradossi, was portrayed by Michael Fabiano in his first performances of the role in North America.  Bass-baritone Alfred Walker returns to San Francisco Opera as one of opera’s greatest villains, Rome’s corrupt chief of police, Scarpia. Other roles included veteran bass-baritone Dale Travis who played Sacristan, tenor Joel Sorensen played Spoletta, bass Soloman Howard played Angelotti and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows baritone Timothy Murray played Sciarrone. There was also bass Stefan Egerstrom as the Jailer and soprano Elisa Sunshine as a Shepherd Boy.

Anthony and I after the performance against a beautiful tapestry adorning one of the walls in the lobby.

We were thrilled to see TOSCA (our first and only viewing of this particular opera) and the re-opening of the San Francisco Opera House. Thankfully, the opera is once again open to the public in one of America’s favorite cities. Truth be told, we can’t wait to see the upcoming announcements later this fall and what 2022 has in store for us as well.

Anthony and I outside the opera house before the performance started. Luckily, it was one of those rare sunny days in San Francisco where you didn’t need a jacket.

Be sure to visit their website for more information including their policies around Covid. You can park on the street if you’re lucky enough to find a spot (Sunday matinee performances are a little easier) or in one of the three nearby garages.


San Francisco Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102-4509
(415) 864-3330
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