Monday, May 21, 2007

Puccini's Tosca

Tosca was the first Puccini opera that I fell in love with and as a junior in college I would listen to it everyday after classes. The score explores a vast array of human emotions although the story line is deceptively simple. It is about how two young lovers, Mario and Tosca, are destroyed by the lust and cunning of the ultramontane Baron Scarpia. The underlying theme of the opera can be summed up by the old sacristan, who mutters, while the artist Mario is singing about his love for Tosca in church, "Do not mix the sacred with the profane."

All the characters seem to mix the sacred with the profane in varying degrees. Act I unfolds entirely in a church where jealousy, passion, anger, vengeance and lust all come into play, culminating in the magnificent Te Deum scene. Then, while the praise of God is sung, the evil Scarpia fantasizes about Tosca, exclaiming, "Tosca, you make me forget God!" His profane musings border on blasphemy; he is an example of how lust and cruelty so often go hand-in-hand.

Scarpia is a villain among villains, for there is no villain worse than an ostentatiously pious one. In Act II he tortures Mario in order to get Tosca to sleep with him; Tosca, driven to the edge of reason by Mario's cries, agrees. But when Scarpia tries to embrace her, she stabs him, crying: "This is Tosca's kiss!" Yet she does not flee all at once, but pauses to place candles around the body with a crucifix, as if at a wake. The funereal aspect combined with the frantic, broken mind of the heroine makes it one of the most powerful scenes in any opera.

Act III occurs on the top of the Castel Sant'Angelo amid the rising dawn. But the gleam of hope quickly turns to tragedy, as Scarpia betrays the lovers from beyond the grave. Mario is killed and Tosca, chased by the Scarpia's minion's, leaps over the side of the tower, exclaiming; "Scarpia, we will meet before God!"

Tosca debuted in 1900 but the action is set in 1800, during the Napoleonic wars. Puccini wanted everything as historically accurate as possible. As one article says:

Puccini looked at even the smallest details in order to achieve a near perfect correspondence between stage action and historic reality. For Bohème he needed to set his subject in the past because he wanted realism. Tosca, with its escapes, tortures and executions, needed an exact definition of the historical time in order to concentrate attention on the personal dramas of the characters. The surrounding events have no degree of freedom.

We have seen that every reference to historic figures, places and events such as General Mélas and the Battle of Marengo is exact. That was not enough. Puccini researched the liturgical practices at Rome for the Te Deum of the first finale. The morning bells of Act 3 required a list of all the churches surrounding Castel Sant'Angelo and their bells, including the respective pitches.

The search for accuracy continued during the preparation of the premiere. Puccini insisted that the costume designs (particularly the sacred vestments) be based on research of historical documentation. The designs for the scenes were made by Adolfo Hohenstein, the leading artist at the publishing house of Ricordi (he designed the scenery for all important premieres of Ricordi's scores in the period from Falstaff to Madama Butterfly). The drawings (see pictures page) were made from photos of the actual settings provided by Puccini. The authors' attention to realistic detail requires a similar attitude in the staging of Tosca. Even minor license (like having the Cardinal conduct the service from the painter's scaffolding) is simply unacceptable.

Puccini's melodies are woven to create an intense psychological tapestry, in which the characters struggle with their consciences and with each other. The harsh manipulations of Scarpia, the agent of a supposedly conservative and Christian government, make people such as Mario turn to revolutionary dictators like Napoleon, who promise liberty and freedom. How history repeats itself over and over again. Share


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Elena for that review. Yes, Tosca is a sublime opera. As my very wise daughter once said.... "Most music speaks to one's heart, but opera speaks to one's soul."

Anonymous said...

Funny. Todays crossword puzzle in the local newspaper had a question about an o[pera by Puccini. Amazing. The answer was of course "Tosca"