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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tosca's Kisses (on Puccini's opera Tosca)



Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Ciacosa (libretto), based on a play by Victorien Sardou, Giacomo Puccini (music) Tosca / premiere at Teatro Costanzi, Rome, January 14, 1900 / the production I saw was from The Metropolitan Opera's HD production of October 10, 2009 (the encore production I witnessed was on October 29, 2009)

By coincidence, soon after seeing a filmed version of Puccini's La Bohème (see below), Howard and I attended the High Definition film production of The Metropolitan Opera's October 10, 2009 performance of Puccini's Tosca.

Both Howard and I had watched Tosca on film and, together, witnessed the Berlin Opera's production at the Kennedy Center in 1975-1976. Howard saw the same production in Berlin the next year.

Accordingly, we felt we knew the opera quite well, and perhaps I do not need to repeat the entire plot for most readers, although it is easily summarized.

The painter, Mario Cavaradossi (brilliantly sung by Marcelo Álvarez) is at work on a painting of the Madonna in the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Rome when he discovers a friend, Cesare Angelotti (former Consul of the Roman Republic) hiding in a family crypt nearby. Angelotti has just escaped from prison, and Cavardossi offers him a hiding place in his nearby villa.

Enter the noted opera singer Floria Tosca (Karita Matilla), Cavaradossi's lover, who immediately becomes suspicious that her beloved is seeing another woman, having overheard Cavaradossi whispering to someone. He assures her that he is in love with only her, but when she notices the painting on which he has been working, she recognizes the face of the Marchesa Attavanti (Angelotti's sister), who Cavaradossi has observed praying at the church. Her jealousy returns, as she demands Cavaradossi change the blue eyes of the painting to her own darkly-colored eyes.

A cannon is shot from the prison; they have detected the escape of Angelotti, and Cavaradossi promises his help to his friend. Enter the Chief of Police, the evil Baron Scarpia (George Gagnidze), who, upon discovering the Marchessa's fan in the crypt, successfully stirs up Tosca's jealousy once again. He himself would like to become Tosca's lover, and, as he sings of his evil machinations, the priests, chorus boys, and attending parishioners march forward in the Te Deum, which, in total hypocrisy, he finally joins.

Later that night, Scarpia awaits Tosca in his home in the Farnese Palace. His henchman have discovered and arrested Cavaradossi in his home, suspecting him having hidden Angelotti. As Tosca arrives, Scarpia orders Cavaradossi to be tortured in the next room. He demands Tosca tell him what she knows about Angelotti, but she claims to have no knowledge and refuses his demands. As the torture continues, however, she wavers, and finally unable to bear her lover's cries, confesses that Angelotti is hiding in a well near Cavaradossi's hut. The artist is released, taken off to prison to be hung.

Tosca now pleads with Scarpia to save Cavaradossi, but he is unwilling to do anything unless she give herself over to his sexual desires. In what is perhaps the most dramatic scene of the opera, Tosca hatefully gives herself up, but only if Cavaradossi's life is spared and they, together, are given a letter of free passage out of the country. Scarpia orders his henchmen to perform a mock-shooting of the artist and writes out the letter. As he moves to Tosca for his reward, she stabs him in the stomach, proclaiming the knife to be "Tosca's kiss."

The final act is a short one, as Cavaradossi awaits to be killed. Tosca arrives, quietly telling him the news that she has killed Scarpia and the artist's life has been spared. All he has to do is dramatically fall as the soldiers pretend to shoot, and when they leave she will tell when it is permissible to "return to life." Liberty is at hand!

But even in death Scarpia has extended his control over them. The guns are filled with real ammunition and Cavaradossi is murdered. The dark irony of their love is dramatized by Tosca's continued warnings to the artist to wait just a little longer, just a little longer, as the soldiers march away; finally, she commands him to stand, but as she rushes over to help him, she discovers the reality that he is dead. As the policemen arrive, having discovered Scarpia's corpse, she rushes to the parapets of the fortress, screaming "O Scarpia, we shall meet before God!" before jumping to her death.

There have been numerous books and hundreds of essays written about this popular opera, and I have little of great originality that I could add. I would just reiterate the fact that, although this opera seems, in Puccinni's hands, to be centered upon emotional issues of love and passion, jealousy and hate, it is just as significantly motivated by the politics of the moment. Both drama and opera are set on a single day, June 17, 1800, a day in which, after having crossed the alps with his army, Napoleon Bonaparte met in the Battle of Marengo with the Austrians, led by General Mélas. The events of the play follow the historical reality. Early in the play we hear that Napoleon amazingly has been defeated by the Austrians, and Tosca's evening performance is given, in part, in celebration for that event. Later in the day, however, the truth is revealed: new troops joining Napoleon's army helped reverse the situation, and by evening, just as Tosca was performing in celebration for the French defeat, Napoleon's army crushed the Austrian forces. When the news reaches Scarpia's rooms, we observe Cavaradossi celebrating the fact before he is taken away to be tortured.

A little back history may explain the situation. Just two years earlier, in February 1798, French troops, headed by Napolean's general Louis Alexandre Berthier Louis Alexandre Berthier, occupied the Vatican State, proclaiming the establishment of the Roman Republic. The Pope, Pius VI, was forced to flee to Tuscany, and, ultimately, to France where he died. Cavaradossi's friend, Angelotti, was one of the Republican leaders, a consul.

The Bourbon king Ferdinando IV, King of Naples, attempted to rescue the Pope and restore the Vatican but was defeated. For a brief time in 1799, the Roman Republic was incorporated into the Napolean-supported Parthenopean Republic which included Naples, but by April of that year General Suvorov, heading the Austrian-Russian army crossed into northern Italy and defeated the French Republics. Soon after the Bourbon's were returned to power, which, under the orders of Maria Carolina of Austria, wife of Ferdinando IV, began a "cleansing" of former Republicans, liberals, artists, scientists and others who had supported or been sympathetic to French rule. Both Angelotti and Cavaradossi, accordingly, were in danger, Angelotti imprisoned for his political position and Cavaradossi under suspicion for his artistic avocation. Thousands of men and women were killed under the eye of the newly appointed Baron Sciarpa (upon whom Scarpia is said to based).

In reverse of Napolean's battle, what seems to have saved the day in Cavardossi's and Angelotti's lives ends in death.

Tosca's political position in this time of general turmoil is quite vague. She comes from the northern Italy, which clearly is attempting to defend themselves from Napoleon's advance, and her intense religiosity seems to suggest, as does her participation in the celebration of Napoleon's supposed defeat, that she has aligned herself, despite her lover's sympathies, with the Bourbons.*

In any event, we can observe in the very political context of these momentous times that all the characters of this opera are, as one observer has suggested, not what they seem to be. The artist is also a revolutionary, the diva and sexually attractive lover is also religiously devout, the outward devout chief of police is a lustful lecher and liar. Even Angelotti is ready to don a woman's dress to escape. If for no other reason, the shifting realities of these figures might justify director Luc Bondy's decision to remove the brilliant colors of Franco Zeffirelli's previous Metropolitan production, leaving the viewer with vast abstract spaces murkily lit. It may be a justification, but, in my estimation—and apparently in those of many other opera goers, who loudly booed the opening night production—it was not successful. At times it was simply difficult to "see" these brilliant singers, and one missed the elaborately artificial trappings in which they might have further hidden their identities.

My point in all this historicity (other than my feeling that, in part, it is the very basis of the My Year volumes, in which I am attempting to remember what is so easily forgotten), is that, politically speaking, the characters are at "war" with one another even before the curtain has been raised.

Floria Tosca is not only emotionally at war with both Cavaradossi and Scarpia because of her love and jealousies, but is spiritually at war with them, more pious than Cavaradossi's all too human depiction of the Madonna and Scarpia's hypocritical worship of the symbols of the church. She is, as Cavardossi's warns early in the opera, a natural confessor, telling her own confessor "everything." It is strange, accordingly, that he allows her to discover the circumstances surrounding Angelotti, for, inevitably, even if it is presumably to save Cavardossi's life, she betrays the cause.

Tosca's kisses, accordingly, are all inevitably lethal, not only to Scarpia, whom she kisses metaphorically with the knife, but to Cavardossi, whom she kisses passionately, only to condemn him, unintentionally, to death. In such a world, in short, no one is to be trusted, for it is a world in utter chaos, official rule changing nearly instant by instant. The Battle of Marengo allowed Napoleon easier access to Italy, and Rome would soon fall to his forces, his son given by birth the title, "His Majesty the King of Rome."

Los Angeles, October 30, 2009

*In Shirley Hazzard's 2008 book, Ancient Shore (see my essay in Rain Taxi), she describes a 20th century dinner conversation with friends, a couple fiercely debating still about the Bourbon reign of Italy. Apparently, Italians are still divided on the issues.

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