Monday, October 20, 2014
Tosca is Puccini at his very best. It also demonstrates his genius for the theatre. For all its many events and exciting developments, it is one of the few operas to conform to the 'Unity Of Time,' presenting a continuous flow of action from afternoon to evening to early morning of a specific date--June 17 to 18, 1800 during the years of the Napoleonic Wars. The whole complex piece is over in less than two hours.
The time setting is specific, but also the place: Rome. Indeed, this opera has become strongly associated with the city of Rome. Years before it became a fad, I spent a day in Rome walking from the Church of St Andrea Della Valle, a magnificent Baroque church, to the palazzo of the Farnese, which just happened to be open so I could go inside the palatial rooms. Then I went to the Castel St Angelo, an enormous tower with ramps spiraling upward built out of mountainous masonry on the banks of the Tiber, which was the fortress of Classical Rome. These are the impressive scenes of each of the acts. I hear there are now commercial tours following this trail, in Rome. (This shows the popularity of Tosca, by the way.) And not only are the time and setting drawn from reality, but the background story is drawn drawn from historical events. This could perfectly define the 'Verismo' concept of opera: a slice of real life. With music!
As a teenager, I had trouble getting into Puccini. He seemed so harmonically slithery and although he was using leading motives à la Wagner, there seemed to be too much welter of themes. I actually disliked Tosca til the "penny dropped." What did it for me was the realization that the big opening big black brass theme, with its descending chords and feeling of magnificent pervasive dominance, describes not only the villainous antagonist of the piece, Scarpia, but also his whole power, that of a corrupt police state, responsible for brutal repressions of dissidents, and political incarceration and murder. How topical, since we now discover such situations daily in our news, or worse. I have seen few productions of Tosca set in any radical design concept, such as in Las Vegas, or in a Siberian Gulag--where, come to think of it, it might work.
This is magnificent music and it invests the whole opera: at the end of the first act when the Te Deum is sounded for the victory celebration at St Andrea--a victory that turns out to to have been reversed later--and Scarpia's plans have been made to somehow capture and enmesh, and rape, Tosca, the chords come in victoriously under a Te Deum incorporating one of Puccini's own earlier youthful Church compositions. Meanwhile there has been a regular very slow occurrence of the cannon shots fired from Castel St Angelo warning of Angelotti's escape.
The cannon shots--usually rendered on the Bass Drum with a hard thwack--were disruptive, till now occurring seemingly at random and not heard as part of the music. Scarpia ends, exulting in his plans, filled with arrogance and power, as the music rises to climax at the end of the Te Deum, with the giant brass chords of power descending to the bottom-most thundering cadence. Then the cannon shot detonation coincides with the cadence with crushing power, suddenly revealing the ubiquity of Scarpia's power, which will, in the end--even after his murder by Tosca--be revealed still triumphant.
Karajan recorded this with actual cannon shots with John Culshaw, and this shuddering cadence was always one of my favourite moments in all opera recordings--still is.
Tosca is just packed with music and shows the effectiveness, once again, of the leading motives developing and defining specific characters. Puccini inserts several longer aria-like effusions of his characters, the longest being the early-morning soliloquy before his execution, of Cavaradossi. One of Puccini's most often sung 'arias', it is actually a rather painful and sad summary-of-life meditation with a very searching emotional exposition, ending on the final comfort of the memory of Tosca's kisses. The early-morning setting is unforgettably rendered in the music with the boy shepherd and the distant morning bells.
Tosca has only her one brief expostulation: the famous 'Vissi d'arte". It is often regretted that this is so short, but such a moment could only go by suddenly, like a momentary insight that flashes by.
Of course many provocative questions can be asked about Tosca. One might wonder, Is this the story of a very stupid woman? She does not necessarily display stupidity at her acceptance that Scarpia will afterward, honour his pledge, or the safe-conduct out of the country if she gives in to his sexual advances. It could be the very familiar denial we all go into at the prospect of insoluble problems. This is already helpless desperation and clutching at any straw. She peremptorily kills Scarpia but leaves the body, irrationally arranging the corpse with a cross and candles, clearly implicating herself. But she is in extremis and beyond rationality, and has just stabbed someone, she can only be understood to be 'blood simple'- which film title referred to the panic after committing a murder. I think the whole scenario is quite credible given the personalities and situations involved.
Much of the action seems terrifically salacious of violence and cruelty, but this only proves Puccini's theatre savvy. Nothing gets everyone's interest more quickly. That is why Tosca has been called 'a shabby little shocker'. But at the core here is one of Puccini's chief themes: sexual politics, and here we examine the problematic area of the imbalances of power around rape and extreme coercion, another Puccinian concern that has become a major 'women's issue'.
The torture scene in the second act, conceived with the discretion of having it actually happening in the separate chamber, does not reduce it's impact, but some productions show not only Cavaradossi with blood stains after, but show the whole process to some extent, and with lots of blood.
A dramaturgic problem remains, that Tosca expects that Scarpia's body will not be found in time to foil her escape with Mario, and that her safe-conduct will be honoured in any case by Scarpia's henchmen. It used to be unbelievable because Cavaradossi was shown to be joyful along with Tosca at the hope that they would both escape, but as soon as better directors showed him as clearly credulous, and hiding his hopelessness from her, only to preserve the illusion to Tosca, and knowing full well that the execution will be real, the overall credibility of the drama was enhanced. Indeed it seems to increase the sense of the tragedy at the end when she swings from her naive, perhaps obsessive hopefulness to realizing Mario shot to pieces in her arms, has really been killed, which leaves no further choice but suicide.
This is one of the most compelling, compact, and characteristic compositions of Puccini. It was poorly received by the critics at its premiere, but the opera loving public instantly and ever since, recognized one of the great masterpieces in the business.
Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.