Is Puccini’s Tosca a Verismo Gem? A Potboiler? Or a “Shabby Little Shocker,” as coined by the (in)famous Professor Joseph Kerman in his book, Opera as Drama (1952)?
The answer depends on one’s taste in opera, to be sure. But one thing is certain — Tosca is one of the most popular operas of all time. Currently it is 5th in the world in the number of professional performances, at 13,347 in 2,800 productions, according to statistics kept by Operabase. Given that there are approximately 30,000 operas ever written, of which 3,000 are performed with regularity, Tosca is incredibly popular by any measure.
Underscoring its popularity, the Canadian Opera Company’s run of Tosca this spring is its fourth in 15 years. This production first premiered in 2008 and was subsequently brought back in 2012 and 2017. To do it justice, a great singing actress in the title role is absolutely essential. COC audiences have been fortunate to have experienced a series of great Toscas — Hungarian Ezster Sümegi, Canadian Adrianne Pieczonka, American Keri Alkema, and now Irish soprano Sinead Campbell-Wallace, sharing the role with Alkema who’s returning for an encore.
A tale of love, lust, attempted rape, murder, and suicide, not to mention a supremely inspired score, Tosca represents Puccini at his melodramatic best. If the past is any indication, this Tosca with the Scottish stage director Paul Curran at the helm promises to be a thrilling evening at the opera. Toronto opera fans remember fondly his Otello, and of course his sensational Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the COC, both highly acclaimed by critics and audiences.
In preparation for the interview, I contacted soprano Keri Alkema to get her take about working with Curran. Her enthusiasm was unbridled. “I adore working with Paul. Even though I had sung a concert version and a production at the English National Opera before coming to Toronto in 2017, Paul was my first true director for her. He was so patient and kind with me and really took the time to help me put her on her feet. I have taken that information and run with it over the years with other productions of Tosca. I am so excited to see and work with him again, and to see where we can take her from here. She’s one of those characters that is always evolving.”
I caught up with Paul Curran in between rehearsals at the COC headquarters for a chat, to get his thoughts on directing this Puccini opera, and his philosophy on directing in general.
LvT: Welcome back to Toronto! In an interview you gave during the pandemic, you talked about how COVID has affected the arts and live theatre. How does it feel to be back doing live theatre again?
PC: It’s fantastic to be back. I personally lost 20 contracts and a huge amount of my income during the pandemic. I had to adapt by doing things online. At the time, everything was being streamed, a good solution at the time, but it was a temporary solution. Opera is a live, visceral experience — nothing else can replace it! I am very happy to be back.
LvT: This is the fourth time you’re doing this production at the COC. Can you give us your thoughts on this piece?
PC: When [the late COC General Director] Richard Bradshaw first asked me to do Tosca, he said, “I want a classic Tosca. Above all I don’t want it to be boring.” It’s very easy to do a Tosca in modern dress, with people running around in their underwear. It’s much harder to do it in the 18th or 19th century setting and make the characters believable. This Tosca is very much based on the performers. The last time we did it in 2017 with Adrianne Pieczonka and Marcelo Puente, it won a Dora Award — that was quite remarkable.
LvT: Have you worked with the new Tosca in this revival, Sinead Campbell-Wallace?
PC: No, I haven’t. She’s absolutely fantastic and a joy to work with.
LvT: I’m curious — have your ideas about directing Tosca changed over the years?
PC: I pretty much think about it the same way. What does change is we have a different set of artists, so it’ll naturally adapt to their talents. When we did it twice with Adrianne Pieczonka, there were five years in between (2012 & 2017). She was different the second time, with more depth which I loved. It’s a joy when you meet artists who know the roles inside out, because then your discovery is about “the jewels in the cave”— what nuggets of gold can you get out of it that will help the audience…
LvT: Tosca is such a diva (and divo) vehicle, attracting many big stars. I’m curious — what is it like directing famous stars in Tosca? Is it a problem?
PC: No, it’s never a problem. Honestly, if you know what you are doing and you’re clear to them, they’ll trust that you are guiding them. Directing is guiding, it’s not puppetry. It’s not just telling them to do this and do that. It has to be a mutual respect, and you get much better result. Singers come with intelligence and experience. I’ve worked with Joyce DiDonato — an absolute joy. Maria Guleghina, Vladimir Galouzine, Jose Cura — I did Otello and Pagliacci with him — I never had problems with any of them.
LvT: For a popular piece like Tosca — a typical opera fan may well have seen it multiple times — how do you as a stage director bring something new to it?
PC: Here’s the thing with Tosca, or La boheme or any of the pieces that are done a lot — what can I add to the genius of Puccini? You can’t reinvent Tosca; you can tell the story, you can find more angles, more details, little moments in the piece. I just tell the story. Sometimes it means updating the story to modern times, to make it more meaningful to the audience. A director is essentially a creative and interpretive artist.
LvT: Updating of time and place is okay with you?
PC: Yes. For example, in the Tsar’s Bride [Curran’s acclaimed directorial debut at Covent Garden in 2011], I updated the story to the modern day, not set in the 16th Century. What would the London audience know about the Muscovites’ politics of the 16th Century? I barely understand that. But, I speak fluent Russian; I know the culture extremely well. How do I translate that to the culture I am telling the story to, to make it clearer?
LvT: Would you change the interpersonal relationships of the main characters, or will it stay the same?
PC: I don’t know. I can’t answer that. In Tosca, I’m just tell the story, not adding another layer to the story. I think it’ll get in the way. Then in rehearsals, you start to discover what the artists think about the relationships and then you start to suggest something. In directing, we should be magnifying the relationships.
LvT: I’m asking you this because I was thinking of the production of Carmen a few years ago at the Teatro di Maggio musicale Fiorentino, where at the end, instead of Don Jose stabbing Carmen to death, she shoots him dead! Then she sings his line — “you can arrest me now, I have killed her” — with the gender changed to him…
PC: I’ve got to tell you — number one, it’s not her line, it’s his. In “La commedia a finite” in I Pagliacci, it’s not Canio’s line, it’s Alfio’s. So things do change! I would give any director the full freedom to do what they like with any piece. Why? It’s an interpretation. You’re allowed to interpret something anyway you like. If you’re colour-blind, you’re going to see a painting differently from a non-colour-blind person. That’s okay. Whether it merits it, that’s a different question. But you see it a different way, you see Carmen gets her revenge — that’s a valid interpretation. It’s a valid interpretation for the director being asked to stage it. I am not saying it’s a valid solution — solution and interpretation are entirely different. I’m not saying this is the answer. That’s okay by me, but I don’t need to like it, or to agree with it.
LvT: I would have terrible trouble with Carmen shooting Jose, to be honest…
PC: I’m sure! But equally, I have terrible trouble with productions that I see in some parts of the world, like in the United States, with rented costumes and rented sets that are dramaturgically and directorially the laziest, the most pointless staging, barely skimming the surface. I think that’s equally offensive to me.
LvT: I confess that I’ve seen so many crazy productions, mostly in Europe, that’s hard for me to enjoy some of it…
PC: You’re not obliged to enjoy it. You want to enjoy it, but you’re not obliged to, absolutely. That’s the risky part when we go to live theatre. I get equally if not more offended at some dreary, ill-fitting costumes, horrible sets that have nothing to do with the concept the director has. It needs a lot more attention, a lot more of an eye how to light stuff like that, how to set it up, how to make the characters feel real, and not like they’ve just sprung out of a museum case. That I cannot stand. It’s pointless theatre to me.
LvT: I read that your first opera you ever saw was Wozzeck! Talk about baptism by fire…
PC: Not at all. I come from a housing estate in the east end of Glasgow, a slum area. Nobody told me it was difficult music; and nobody told me there’s this girl who has a baby out of wedlock, has a headcase boyfriend who’s taking drugs and being experimented on, who’s violent and eventually stabs her to death — that’s where I grew up!
LvT: Okay (laughs)…
PC: I thought, oh my God, that’s basically about where I grew up!
LvT: But you didn’t grow up with that kind of atonality of the musical language….
PC: Depends on how you listen to the people’s language. Language can be very violent and extremely edgy, because poverty always brings angst, violence, and edge. I never saw Wozzeck as being on the edge of tonality, but as the last Romantic opera ever written. There were six performances [of Wozzeck], I went to all of them.
LvT: If a young person who’s interesting in opera directing comes to you and asks for advice, what would you say to him or her?
PC: I’d ask why — what’s it about directing that attracts you? There are people who want to be directors, and there’re people what want to “direct,” who want all the power that comes with being the director — “I’m the director, I’m the boss…” Then there are others who wants to tell stories — that’s two different elements. I’d say if you just want to be the boss, look for something else! I taught directing for a couple of years in Verona, Italy, and that was always the question. Why do you want to direct? What’s the story you want to tell, your motivation for wanting to do it? What’s in your imagination to do this piece?
LvT: Aha! That makes me want to ask you — what qualities are you looking for in a student who wants to study directing?
PC: Great theatrical passion, intelligence, and above all, curiosity — and a bit of humility as well. You have to be curious about the world you’re creating. If you just want to just make an effect, or just want to be famous as a director by putting a naked body onstage or have somebody take off the underwear, or whatever.… okay, fine, big deal! You can do that in an art gallery. If you can justify that as part of the story, then you need to work hard to convince me that’s it’s exceptionally needed.
LvT: Great to have your ideas on the art of directing, thank you! Your comments will help me see the Tosca in a new light. One final question: what do you hope the COC audience with get out of seeing this revival of Tosca?
PC: I hope they’ll get a very vivid and exciting human story about love, loyalty, and humanity.
LvT: Bravo! Toi toi toi for opening night!
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