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Napoleon Complex: The Politics of TOSCA

Oct 13, 2017 2:03:59 PM
By Harlow Robinson

“The less she knows the better.”

She, of course, is Tosca. As her lover Cavaradossi knows all too well, Tosca, the temperamental diva-heroine of Puccini’s passionate tale of political idealism and corruption, is not a political animal. Guileless and consumed by her art, she is too innocent and trusting to keep the secrets revolutionaries must keep. Cavaradossi makes this comment at the beginning of Act I to his fellow conspirator, the rebel Angelotti, on the run from the Roman police force. Cavaradossi fears if they share with the well-meaning chatterbox Tosca the details of their plotting against the tyrannical regime recently installed in Rome, she will inadvertently expose their plans and endanger their lives.

In the end, of course, Tosca does come to learn what her artist-activist boyfriend is up to. And even though she does not really share Cavaradossi’s political views, she aids and abets him out of love.

But what exactly are Cavaradossi’s politics? Lovers of Tosca— sometimes affectionately referred to as “Toscaholics”—can be forgiven for not thinking too much about politics or history when they listen to Puccini’s lush, seductive music. We are carried away by the sheer beauty of the vocal and instrumental writing, by the vibrant characters (Tosca, Cavaradossi and the evil police chief Scarpia) at the drama’s center, and the universal story of art, jealousy and selfless love. For Puccini, too, and for his librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, historical detail was clearly secondary to the musical setting—as it should be in an opera. In adapting Victorien Sardou’s 1887 play La Tosca, they eliminated most of the background material on the confusing political situation in Rome in June, 1800.

Puccini and his librettists seemed to feel, like Cavaradossi, that the less the audience knows about such matters, the better. In the words of that immortal ballad: Don’t know much about history. But if we look more deeply into the ideological and political motivations of the major characters, Tosca can make even more sense.

Lejeune_-_Bataille_de_Marengo.jpgThe Battle of Marengo, painted by Louis-François Lejeune

Sardou set his play in a very specific time and place: June 17, 1800, in Rome. (Puccini and his librettists eliminated the exact date but kept the month.) Why? Because just a few days before, on June 14, 1800, Napoleon had unexpectedly defeated the Austrian armies commanded by Michael von Melas at the famous Battle of Marengo. This brought to an end (at least for a while) a turbulent period in Roman history, marked by frequent changes of regime between the Republicans (those inspired by Napoleon, and seeking greater democracy and self-determination) and the Royalists. What united the Royalists was a fierce hatred of Napoleon and loyalty to the Bourbon monarchy, based in Naples. The Bourbon King Ferdinand IV of Naples and his wife, Queen Maria Carolina of Austria, viewed with horror the aftermath of
the French Revolution, and especially the execution of Maria Carolina’s Hapsburg sister, Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI.

In Naples, the Bourbons pursued a xenophobic and Francophobic policy. Those with sympathies for the French Revolution and Napoleon were branded as “Jacobins” or even “Voltaireans” (followers of the philosopher Voltaire, anti-aristocratic advocate of free speech and equal rights). In Act I of Puccini’s Tosca, Scarpia exclaims with disgust that Cavaradossi is “Un uom sospetto! Un volterian!” “A man under suspicion! A Voltairean!”

In September, 1799, Bourbon troops supported by the Catholic Church entered Rome and established a police state. No shrinking violet, the ambitious Maria Carolina launched a purge of republicans, liberals and anyone else who had compromised themselves during the preceding brief period of French rule. Rome, wrote the eyewitness Francesco Lomonaco, became “a theater of horrors and desolation.”

Scarpia, a thuggish Sicilian, has come to Rome to supervise the capture, torture and execution of those opposed to Bourbon rule. These include Cavaradossi and Angelotti. As musicologist Deborah Burton has shown, these characters were based on real historical personages, as was the character of the opera singer Tosca. When Cavaradossi first sees Angelotti hiding in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, he sings: “Angelotti! The governor of the overthrown Roman Republic.” This is the only cryptic clue we get in the opera concerning Angelotti’s identity as the leader of the former anti-Bourbon regime—which explains why Scarpia, the sadistic enforcer of Bourbon control, is so intent on capturing and punishing both him and Cavaradossi.

Given his strong political commitment, Cavaradossi might have chosen a more suitable comrade than Tosca. In her show-stopping Act II aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I have lived for art”), she proclaims the supremacy of art, its ability to console “those who are poor and unhappy,” and her abiding faith in God—a faith the anti-clerical Cavaradossi utterly rejects. What shallow political convictions Tosca does hold incline, at least at first, towards support of the Bourbons. She admires the pomp and circumstance of life at their court—not to mention their lavish support of the arts. In Act II Tosca performs in a Te Deum sung for the Queen and her royalist supporters, who are—prematurely, as it turns out—celebrating the Austrian victory at Marengo, first (falsely) announced by the Sacristan in Act I.

Yes, Tosca does undergo something of a transformation, becoming more serious and aware, embracing Cavaradossi’s cause as she understands how ruthless and evil are the enforcers of Bourbon power. Indeed, in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, when the new socialist government was seeking to add political relevance to the classics, Tosca was shown attaining the stature of a revolutionary heroine in a revisionist production retitled as The Battle for the Commune.

The opera’s personal, political and military story lines converge brilliantly in the panoramic action of Act II, set at Scarpia’s lair in the Palazzo Farnese. Offstage, we hear Tosca and a chorus performing the Te Deum. During the ensuing conversation between Tosca and Scarpia, we hear the anguished cries of Cavaradossi being tortured—also offstage. Just after Cavaradossi
is brought in to confront the distraught Tosca, word arrives from Marengo that in fact Napoleon has defeated the Austrians (who support the Bourbon cause). The news inspires Cavaradossi to an outburst of song, first rising to a high A-sharp on the words “Vittoria! Vittoria!” (“Victory! Victory!”) and then proceeding to an impassioned denunciation of tyranny. Tosca does not join her lover in the revolutionary sentiment; in fact she tries to silence him. And, in her following “Vissi d’arte” aria, she begs Scarpia for mercy, saying in effect, “What did I do to deserve this?”Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres,_Portrait_de_Napoléon_Bonaparte_en_premier_consul.jpg

What makes the Act III dénouement (Cavaradossi’s execution and Tosca’s suicide) even more tragic is the audience’s knowledge that with Napoleon’s victory at Marengo, the Bourbon reign of terror in Rome is about to end. But in history, things did not turn out the way Cavaradossi had hoped. In the settlement following his victory at Marengo (which also gave us the tasty dish Chicken Marengo), the ever-shifting Napoleon preferred to make an agreement with the Spanish monarchy that ensured the survival of both the Bourbons in Naples and of the Pope in Rome. In July 1800, the new Pope (Pius VII) entered Rome as head of the Vatican State.

Maybe it was just as well that Cavaradossi and Tosca were not
there to see it.

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Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer and Matthews Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians, and The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok. He is a frequent lecturer and annotator for The Boston Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Guild, Lincoln Center and Aspen Music Festival.
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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