Sondra Radvanovsky: Searching for Floria Tosca

Classic Arts Features   Sondra Radvanovsky: Searching for Floria Tosca
Since first appearing on the Met stage as a winner of the National Council Auditions in 1995, Sondra Radvanovsky has sung 20 different roles with the company. This month, she adds her 21st: the title heroine of Puccini's Tosca. She discusses the role's many challenges.


You sang your first Tosca in Denver last season. How does it feel to be bringing this classic role to the Met?

I'm extremely excited about singing Floria again, but I'm approaching it with a bit of trepidation. Met audiences have only known me in Verdi and some lighter works, so this will mark the first time they'll hear me in a heavier role. And it's so steeped in tradition, with all the great divas of the past who have performed this role here. But I have an amazing cast, conductor, director, and orchestra to support me!

What are the challenges of the role: vocally and dramatically?

It's tricky in a few ways. The obvious thing is the acting: Tosca is supposed to be a youngish country girl who discovered she had a talent for singing. Portraying this girlish aspect is quite difficult because she is notoriously played as a grand diva, which I really don't think she is. Yes, she's famous, but she's still a young girl in love with Mario. And in her music, you can feel all the emotions that a girl in love feels: jealousy, anger, hatred, fear. So finding a balance between this young woman in Act I and the woman in Act II who is dealing with heightened emotions for the first time in her life is quite difficult. The other aspect that can be challenging is the music and the singing itself. Puccini often doubles the vocal lines in the orchestra, so it's important to ride over it at those moments, which is not easy in a house the size of the Met. For me, the good thing about Tosca vocally is that it doesn't lie as low as, say, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. I feel my voice "speaks" better at the top of my range. Also, most of the dramatic climaxes happen on high notes, like the high C's in Act II in the scenes with Scarpia.

You mentioned the size of the Met auditorium. How do you adapt your performance from a smaller theater to the Met stage?

I'm lucky to have sung quite a few performances here, so I'm accustomed to the acoustics in the house. It can be very dangerous to push the voice because you run the risk of cracking, as well as sacrificing vocal beauty and vocal health! I think the difference between my performance in, say, Denver and at the Met is that I do think a bit more about technique and supporting my sound with air, what the Italians call "sul fiato," so that I'm always in control of my voice: not it controlling me. Also, nuances that you use in a smaller house, both dramatically and vocally, often get lost on a bigger stage. Singing pianissimo at the Met is on a different scale, so I adjust a bit.

Like so many operatic heroines, Tosca ends up a victim at the end of the night, but she's much more courageous than most. Which parts of the character are you trying to bring out?

I try to play her as human, not this greater-than-life diva. She's having the worst day of her life, but she is experiencing all these emotions in real time: not in Verdi aria time. Opera often suspends time so that a character can sing a solo about how they're feeling, and everything stops for a few minutes. This really never happens in Tosca. It's true she's a victim, but I don't think she wallows in her emotions or feels sorry for herself. She's a changed woman by the end of the opera because of the journey she has taken on this one horrific day. She's stronger and more determined in what she wants, and that is to run away with the man she loves. So I try to start the opera as this young, fresh girl who laughs and is in love. As the piece goes along, she tries to understand why this is all happening to her. This leads into her big aria, "Vissi d'arte," which really is a prayer to God. After that she sees no way out of her situation until suddenly, when she notices the knife, she realizes that she must take charge of her life and stand up to Scarpia. I can't even imagine what killing a human being must feel like, but this is what's important to me when I play Tosca: finding the human side of her.

Is that what attracts you to Puccini: as someone who's primarily known as a Verdi singer?

I think the attraction to Puccini is two-fold. First, the music and melodies are divine. Singing an aria like "Senza Mamma" in Suor Angelica cuts right to the heart of the audience and the performer. Puccini's music is hummable and you leave the theater with any one of the melodies in your head. Verdi is quite recognizable too, but not in the same way. I'm also drawn to Puccini for the drama, the verismo style of acting. Many of his operas happen in real time, and I love to keep the action moving. And of course all those heightened feelings are a way for me to become someone else for a few hours and to purge my soul, in a way, of any sadness I'm feeling. That's very cathartic for a performer!

You're reuniting with your Trovatore co-star Marcelo êlvarez for these performances. Tell us about working with him.

Marcelo really is an inspiring singing actor. When you're on stage with Marcelo, you're the only person in his world at that moment. No audience exists for him. He has made me cry more than once during a performance: which is good and bad. It's good because you know that he is touching the hearts of the audience. But then I have to sing!


Tosca opens January 10.

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