San Diego Opera’s ‘Tosca’ to feature a returning soprano and a famed tenor’s house debut
Michelle Bradley, who starred here as Aida here in 2019, and Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente, will lead Puccini’s Roman tragedy
When San Diego Opera opens Giacomo Puccini’s beloved romantic opera “Tosca” on March 25, soprano Michelle Bradley will be performing the role of Tosca for only the second time in her professional career. But Marcelo Puente, the tenor playing her lover, Cavaradossi, will be nearing his 80th performance in the role.
Yet for both singers, returning to these roles is a joy that will never get old. The two opera stars love their characters, they adore the music of Puccini, and they relish the challenge of taking their characters on the emotional journey in this story.
In separate interviews last month— Bradley was in Tulsa starring in “Aida” and Puente was in Hamburg, Germany, for another “Tosca” — they both talked about their characters, their post-pandemic lives and their dream roles.
Puccini’s “Tosca” premiered on Jan. 14, 1900, in Rome, where the story is set. Although critics initially panned the piece, it has become one of the most popular operas in the canon, thanks to its spectacular arias, melodic score and dramatic storyline.
Set in 1800, it’s the story of the fiery and jealous Roman opera singer Floria Tosca and her lover, Mario Cavaradossi. The cruel and corrupt local police chief, Baron Scarpia, lusts after Tosca and sees an opportunity to have his way with her when Cavaradossi is caught sheltering an escaped revolutionary fighter. Scarpia imprisons the painter in Rome’s famous Castel Sant’Angelo prison and promises to release him only if Tosca will sleep with him. But Tosca takes the law into her own hands with unexpected consequences for all.
San Diego Opera’s production will feature bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s return in the role of Scarpia. It will be directed by Alan E. Hicks, who directed Bradley in “Aida” here in 2019, and Valerio Galli, who helmed San Diego Opera’s 2018’s “Turandot,” will conduct the San Diego Symphony in four performances at the San Diego Civic Theatre.
Puente, who is making his San Diego Opera debut with “Tosca,” first sang the role of Cavaradossi in 2007. At the time, he was just six years into his opera career, after giving up medical school at 21 and leaving his native Argentina for an opportunity to join the young artists program at the Opera House Düsseldorf in Germany. Puente said he was still developing his technique and his voice when the role of a lifetime, Cavaradossi, came his way.
“I was really young and remember that from the first moment I studied this opera I thought it was written for me,” he said. “I can wake up at 10 in the morning and sing this role easily. I grew up with him. It’s my favorite role, and I never get tired of doing it.
“If you look at the score for Cavaradossi, it’s so well written for the voice. He starts really romantic, really lyrical. Then in the second act, he becomes heroic. Then Puccini give a gift to the tenor in the third act,” Puente said, referring to Cavaradossi’s famous aria, the heartbreaking moonlit solo “e lucevan le stelle” (“ ... and the stars were shining”).
“Every time I hear that music, it expresses so many things that for me it’s like hearing it for the first time again,” Puente said. “In Puccini, you have to be really careful not to put all your emotions in your voice because it’s really difficult to sing that way. Puccini is really precise in how he wrote the score. If you’re really honest with the score, you will find it’s really easy to sing.”
Bradley, a native of Versailles, Ky., made her debut as Tosca early last year at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Although her favorite role is Verdi’s Aida — which she debuted at San Diego Opera in 2019 and performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in December— Tosca also has a big piece of her heart. As a Black artist, Bradley said she never thought an opportunity to play the 19th century character would come her way, so she’s thrilled to add it to her repertoire.
“Tosca has stretched me,” Bradley said. “Aida has made me a singer, but Tosca has made me an actress. I hope to keep them both in my repertoire for a very long time.
“I’ve found many similarities between myself and Tosca. She’s a full-grown, experienced woman and I have the experience to play her,” she said. “I know what pain is. I know what danger is. I know that there are evil people like Scarpia in the world. Tosca for me is not a hard sing at all, but I was wondering if I could act it. She is an actress, a dramatic performer. But I can be pretty dramatic, too. I’m a Leo, and if you talk to my family, they have stories.”
Like Puente, Bradley said she likes the journey Puccini takes her character on, both vocally and dramatically, during the course of the opera.
“She starts out this girlish, hopeful woman. She’s like a lion and Cavaradossi can turn her into his kitten when she’s around him. But Scarpia brings out this strength. He challenges her, and he threatens her and everything she’s know and loves, and as a strong woman, she will not stand for that, and she does what she has to do in order to protect it,” Bradley said.
Tosca delivers one of the most famous and wrenching arias in opera history, “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for my art”), where she pleads with Scarpia to spare Cavaradossi’s life. Bradley said she wondered if she could ever pull it off. Judging by her reviews in Chicago, she did.
“I found it challenging but happily challenging. Tosca shows your range vocally and it gets down into the deepest part of me. I was happy to prove to myself that I can do that.”
On life, post-pandemic
Both Puente and Bradley are happy to be busy again after spending much of the pandemic out of work, with all of their contracts canceled.
After leaving Argentina in 2001, Puente created a new life for himself in Europe. He lives in Madrid with his wife, Carmen, a voice teacher and now-retired zarzuela singer, and their French bulldog puppy, Coco.
In March 2020, he was performing in a run of Bellini’s “Norma” in Hamburg, Germany, when the lockdown began. But the loss of his future contracts in Vienna, London and Berlin was a small price to pay compared to the COVID-related deaths of several family members in Argentina, which he wasn’t able to visit again until last fall.
The work has returned, for which he’s grateful, but Puente said the experience of living through a pandemic changed him, most notably in helping him to recognize the value of not sweating the small stuff.
“You think a lot about what you want to do with your life. It was really a time for me to reflect,” he said. “I learned to put the right energy in the right places.”
Bradley had gone home to Kentucky to visit her family in February 2020 when, one by one, all of her opera production and concert engagements were canceled. She ended up staying for nine months. After years of living out of a suitcase with only brief stops in Kentucky for rest or family celebrations, Bradley settled in. She was around to welcome a baby niece, to spend Christmas with her family and to reconnect — virtually, at least — with the choir at her family’s longtime church.
Although the pandemic was devastating for her career, Bradley said the time she spent in Kentucky was good for her soul.
“I lost a lot of work and it was a very scary time for me, but I will say the best part is that I spent most of it with my family who I’m very close to. That gave me a lot of strength emotionally and personally,” she said. “I got to be an aunt and reconnect with my roots. It helped me and it gave me a new start.”
The two San Diego Opera recitals at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla will feature spirituals, gospel and art songs as singer explores her musical roots
On what’s next
When asked what other roles they would like to tackle in future years, Bradley and Puente have several dream parts, though both are happy to continue singing their signature roles — Cavaradossi for Puente and Aida for Bradley.
Puente said playing the title role in Verdi’s “Otello” is at the top of his wish list. He’s also now studying the role of Radames in Verdi’s “Aida” and hopes to add it to his repertoire soon. He would also love to play Dick Johnson in Puccini’s rarely performed “La Fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the Golden West”).
Bradley said she’d love to explore other Verdi heroines including Leonora in “La forza del destino” (“The force of destiny”), Amelia in “Un ballo in maschera” (“The masked ball)” and Desdemona in “Otello.” Eventually, she’d also like to pursue Wagnerian roles.
But for now, Aida is her central focus.
“Aida for me is the masterpiece of vocal singing. If I can conquer her I can do anything,” she said. “Aida is who I am. I sleep and wake with her.”
San Diego Opera’s ‘Tosca’
When: 7:30 p.m. March 25, 28 and 31. 2 p.m. April 2
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre 1100 Third Ave., San Diego
Tickets: $25 and up
Phone: (619) 533-7000
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