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Finding Meaning in Melodrama: TOSCA

Oct 5, 2017 8:47:59 AM
By Laura Stanfield Prichard

Giacomo Puccini w cigar.jpgComposer Giacomo Puccini based his Tosca on the 1889 play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou. He had seen a performance of it while working on Manon Lescaut (even Verdi was interested in it!), and was taken with the thriller. He began work in earnest in 1896, after asking his publisher Giulio Ricordi to wrangle the rights for Sardou’s play from Alberto Franchetti, another composer who worked with librettist Luigi Illica. A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Conductor James Levine has described it as “Puccini’s glorious musical inspiration [combined] with the melodramatic vitality of one of the great Hitchcock films.”

The creative team that Puccini and his publisher put together was superb: Luigi Illica created the scenario and Giuseppe Giacosa created the poetic language of the libretto. This trio had worked together on La Bohème, and in 1904, would later produce Madama Butterfly. Puccini was attracted to the ironic contrasts and reversals in the play: Cavaradossi is tortured, but doesn’t confess (Tosca does); “sweet and innocent hands” kill Scarpia; Angelotti survives by disguising himself; and some of the deaths we witness are meant to be faked. Over the course of three acts, the creators combined heartpounding tension and suspense with portraits of devotion and courage. We are presented with three questions: How far would you go to protect a friend? What would you do to save someone you love? Which would you choose when law and citizen responsibility collide?

Puccini visited Sardou twice in Paris (in April 1898 and January 1899) to discuss the adaptation and demanded two big changes to Act III. Sardou gave in on the first point and allowed Puccini to replace Cavaradossi’s (original) patriotic hymn with a love song. He did not acquiesce on the second matter—he wanted an abrupt, thundering finale, while Puccini preferred a more extended musical setting of Tosca’s death (think Mimì). The completed libretto takes a realistic approach to the passage of time and leans toward the verismo style: it includes scenes of physical and psychological torture, and most of the conflicts are between individuals (singing duets), rather than monumental forces.

In Bohème, the villain was fate (Mimì’s illness and death), and the characters progressed inexorably through their bohemian lives (devoted to art and love) toward the tragic conclusion. In Tosca, both villains and heroes struggle physically and mentally on stage, and you may expect a coup de théâtre at any moment. Puccini loved the operas of Richard Wagner and combined Wagner’s influence with his own style, shifting quickly between emotions and musical keys, with his own Leitmotifs for Baron Scarpia and the hidden well in Cavaradossi’s garden (a place of refuge).

Puccini grew up in Lucca, north of Rome, but wanted Tosca to sound as Roman as possible. He researched not only when church bells were likely to have rung, but also how the exact bells of all the churches surrounding the Castel Sant’Angelo sounded. We hear them in Act I to announce the Angelus, they continue under prayerful singing, and they even provide counterpoint to Scarpia’s main musical theme. In Act II, Puccini includes a distant drum roll, reminding us of the French invasion of Rome and threatening Cavaradossi’s execution. Act III begins with the sounds of distant bells from the countryside, eventually drowned out by Roman city bells signaling daybreak.

Tosca_(1899)-1.jpgThe title role is a celebrated opera singer, and Floria Tosca must be considered a height of any soprano’s career. Although female sopranos were banned in Rome around 1800, women did perform during Carnival and in private theatres. So Tosca would have been allowed to pray in church, but not sing there! The opera is also well-known for a history of theatrical mishaps. In a famous example, Tito Gobbi played Scarpia opposite Maria Callas in Tosca: during one performance, she came too near the candles burning on Scarpia’s desk in Act II and ignited her wig. Gobbi immediately jumped on Tosca, embraced her, and extinguished the flames. Tosca rejected him with disgust, but then whispered, “Thank you, Tito,” just before stabbing him. Also memorable is Plácido Domingo’s headlong fall while rushing down from the scaffolding during Act I on live television in Rome: he crashed
into the fence of the real Cappella Attavanti, giving a definite hint of realism to the broadcast. In 1995, tenor Fabio Armiliato was actually shot in the leg by debris from the blanks during Act III after the pistol was overloaded with powder. Five days later, he returned to perform (on crutches), and fell during his Act II entrance, breaking his other leg. Apocryphal stories include a Tosca bouncing back up in the air after her Act III leap, and the soldiers following her off the parapet (after being told to “exit with the principals”).

The two biggest hit arias from Tosca are easy to recognize, as Puccini brings his swirling action to a halt for them. In Act II, as Tosca is being blackmailed by Scarpia, she sings “Vissi d’arte,” (“I’ve lived for art”) saying that she’s always lived her life for art and love. The tenor’s signature moment comes in Act III. As he’s awaiting execution, Cavaradossi sings “E lucevan le stelle” (“How the stars shimmer”), looking back on his life, his love for Tosca, and how it has all come to nothing. He’ll die, he says, in desperation.

Act I, combining operatic and sacred musical forms, also showcases Cavaradossi. “Recondita armonia” compares the beauty of two very different women, introducing the character as someone with an artist’s eye for detail and nuance. As the drama builds, Scarpia sings “Tre sbirri, una carozza... Va Tosca!” (“Three men, a carriage... Go, Tosca!”), describing his manipulation of Tosca. Driven by jealousy, she unwittingly helps Scarpia to pursue a traitor
during the singing of the Roman Te Deum canticle. Puccini came from a long line of both church and theatrical composers; he also interrupts this sacred scene with the sound of Roman cannons announcing Napoleon’s supposed defeat at Marengo.

One of opera’s greatest villains, Scarpia begins Act II with his scene-chewing “Ha più forte sapore” (“[Violent conquest] has a stronger flavor”), anticipating the submission of Tosca to his will. Puccini shows himself as a master orchestrator here, developing the sounds of an offstage chamber orchestra (a favorite effect of Verdi) into a raging torrent of malice. The libretto chillingly contrasts two of Puccini’s favorite pastimes, hunting and romance, in a searing denunciation of love and life. This brief arioso is sometimes called Scarpia’s “Credo” and is a perfect example of what some may love (or hate) about Puccini: Scarpia rejects music and pleasure in favor of “nuova esca” (new bait for his prey), just as Puccini gives precedence to drama and realism over an extended melodic treatment. His music perfectly mirrors Scarpia’s impatience, and in so doing, deprives us of the great aria any other Italian composer would have written.


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Laura Stanfield Prichard is a Visiting Researcher in Music and Dance History at Harvard University and regular contributor to the Boston Musical Intelligencer. After teaching and performing in San Francisco for ten years, she is now a popular pre-concert speaker and university lecturer in the Boston (principal speaker for Boston Baroque and Berkshire Choral International). She was an Assistant Director for the SF Symphony Chorus under Vance George’s direction, and is a regular speaker/writer for the Chicago Symphony, New World Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and Merola Program.


This article has been reprinted from the fall 2017 issue of BLO's Coda magazine.

Topics: Coda, Tosca, #ToscaBLO, 2017/18 Season

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