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Tale of intrigue and love in classic opera

(China Daily) |Updated : 2023-06-08


Italian soprano Monica Zanettin and baritone Ambrogio Maestri rehearse for the opera Tosca at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on May 29. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"She is passionate, devoted, feisty and jealous. She is a lot of different women," said Monica Zanettin, an Italian soprano.

She was describing the role she plays in Tosca, an opera in three acts by master Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. The role is that of Floria Tosca, a Roman opera star. It will be Zanettin's debut performance at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

From Tuesday to June 18, the opera will feature Chinese and Italian performers at the NCPA.

"Any woman can see herself in the role. And every soprano can bring a part or parts of herself to the role," she said recently at the performing arts center.

With a combination of love, lust and murder, Puccini's Tosca, which premiered in Rome in 1900, is one of the world's most loved and most performed operas.

It tells the story of opera singer Tosca, who is deeply in love with an artist, Mario Cavaradossi. The artist hides an escaped political prisoner named Angelotti. When they are arrested, Scarpia, the chief of police, wants to execute Cavaradossi and the escapee he has hidden.

Tosca makes a deal with Scarpia to give herself to him to save her lover. After Scarpia promises to conduct a fake execution, Tosca stabs him before he can claim his part of the deal. However, Cavaradossi is actually executed. Scarpia has intended to trick her all along. In despair, Tosca takes her own life.


Zanettin shares a humorous moment at a news conference at the NCPA. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Zanettin, who was born in Treviso, Italy, and now lives in Venice, has played the role of Tosca many times. "It's a tragedy but very romantic," she said, calling the role one of her favorites and "a dream role for every soprano".

"It's not just about the pursuit of voice but also about acting, since she is a very complicated woman," Zanettin said.

The opera is also a longtime favorite thanks to its stunning arias, such as Vissi d'arte (I Lived for Art), sung by Tosca at a heartbreaking moment when Scarpia, with Cavaradossi as his hostage, poses his ultimatum to her. Also impressive is E lucevan le stelle (And the Stars Were Shining), when Cavaradossi is told that he has an hour left to live and the only thing on his mind is Tosca, so he writes a letter to her and sings the aria.

Alessandra Panzavolta, the opera's director, said in a video greeting to Chinese opera aficionados that the presentation, lighting and props by set designer William Orlandi will help make the version of the classic opera more updated and recognizable than the usual presentations, which rely on historical scenes mirroring June 1800, shortly after the French Revolution.

Soprano Sun Xiuwei also will take to the stage to play the role of Tosca. In 2011, when the NCPA produced its own version of Tosca, she took on the role, Sun said, adding that she has played in 15 opera productions by the NCPA.

"Through working with Panzavolta, who is a female director, I have gained a detailed understanding about the role. Panzavolta brought a woman's perspective to the opera, which is much deeper and sensitive," Sun said. "The character herself is an opera singer, just like me, allowing me to get closer to her and be myself in some parts."


Maestri shares a humorous moment at a news conference at the NCPA. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Baritone Ambrogio Maestri will play the role of Scarpia. He has portrayed that character many times, such as at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

"I am very happy to be an Italian appearing in an Italian opera in China. Though I have performed at many theaters in Europe and the United States, this is the first time that I will perform at the NCPA," Maestri said.


Chinese tenor Han Peng, who plays the role of Cavaradossi in the opera, during rehearsal with Zanettin. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Chinese tenors Han Peng and Wang Cong will also play the role of Cavaradossi and baritone Zhang Yang will also play Scarpia, making the production a joint effort between Italian and Chinese performers.

The China NCPA Orchestra and China NCPA Chorus will perform under the baton of conductor Xu Zhong, who is the director of Shanghai Opera House.

The presentation of Tosca has been a cooperative effort of the NCPA, Shanghai Opera House and Shaanxi Opera House, according to Zhao Tiechun, vice-president of the NCPA. The opera was streamed online in December 2022 by the NCPA as part of the celebration of the venue's 15th birthday and was viewed over 20 million times.

From Feb 24 to 26, the opera premiered at Shanghai Opera House, and in July, it will be presented at Shaanxi Opera House in Xi'an.

"Our collaborations with art institutions from home and abroad have never stopped, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. We started to prepare for Tosca over three years ago," Zhao said. "Collaborations between multiple art institutions are very important and have become a new trend for Chinese artists. We share resources and make the best use of them. It also benefits the audiences of different parts of the country."


Conductor Xu Zhong speaks at the news conference. [Photo provided to China Daily]