In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

The Complexity and Humanity of Floria Tosca

Oct 17, 2017 3:33:45 PM
By Lucy Caplan

Tosca costume sketch-1.jpgFlung into a world of revolutionary conviction and maddening corruption, horrifying violence and passionate devotion, the title character of Tosca finds herself ensnared in a tightening web of tragic events. The opera, taut and melodramatic, unfolds over the course of a single day in Rome, in June of 1800. Throughout, the celebrated diva Floria Tosca is at the center of the action. She flirts with her beloved, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, prays, and sings; then, after crisis strikes, she resists the advances of the villainous Scarpia, kills him, escapes, rushes to save Mario, fails to do so, and, finally, seizes her own destiny from the parapets of the Castel Sant’Angelo. As she endures these trials, Tosca emerges as a deeply complex character. Her complexity flows from many sources: the artistic vision of the opera’s creators, the perspectives of her fellow characters, and the interpretive choices of the singer performing the role.

Tosca has rich historical roots. Puccini based his work on La Tosca, an 1887 play by the prolific French dramatist Victorien Sardou. La Tosca, like many of his 70-plus plays, features a sensational plot, meticulous attention to historical detail, and overtly political themes. Puccini and Sardou worked together on the adaptation, meeting several times in Paris to discuss the project. The collaborative process was largely harmonious, but on one vital point, Sardou’s wishes overrode Puccini’s: while Puccini initially envisioned a drawn-out final scene, Sardou insisted upon the abrupt, explosive conclusion  that now stands as a hallmark of the opera. Puccini also embraced Sardou’s commitment to historical accuracy as he composed, even climbing to the ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo at sunrise so that he could listen to the church bells resounding across the landscape.

Sardou created the part of Tosca with a particular performer in mind, the illustrious French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Among the most famous women of her day, Bernhardt was an internationally-known celebrity, acclaimed for her emotionally charged acting as well as her gossip-column-worthy offstage life. Her fans flocked to her performances not just to see her play a role, but also simply to witness the fabulous spectacle of Bernhardt herself. (Puccini saw her perform the role of Tosca twice, in 1890 and 1895.)

In Sardou’s play, the character of Tosca is equipped with a substantial backstory. Born to modest circumstances as a goatherd, she spent her teenage years in a convent, where her extraordinary voice was discovered, catalyzing her rise to fame. In contrast, Puccini’s Tosca is more of an unknown quantity. She appears onstage in Act I of the opera in the prime of her life, a gloriously successful singer and a woman in love. Audiences learn nothing of her past, of what she was like before this fateful day. What they do learn is that that she does not fit easily into any single archetype, but rather seems to evoke several. At various moments throughout the opera, she embodies the innocent victim and the jealous lover and the transcendent artist and the angry murderess and the pious believer—all of which converge to make her a multifaceted, potentially ambiguous character.

Tosca_(1899).jpgThe men in Tosca’s life do not necessarily comprehend the fullness of her character. In his early aria “Recondita armonia,” Cavaradossi praises her stunning beauty, musing that Tosca’s dark hair and eyes make her just as lovely as the blonde woman he is painting. “Oh hidden harmony of contrasting beauties!” he sings. Later, in far more sinister tones, Scarpia describes his wish to force himself upon Tosca: “God made diverse beauties as he made diverse wines, and of these God-like works I mean to taste my fill.” Cavaradossi’s words reflect his love for Tosca and Scarpia’s are a threat, but there is a revealing similarity in the way that they both imagine her as a
specimen of female beauty and an object of their desire.

Yet Tosca herself resists this sort of oversimplification. As her terrible predicament intensifies, she wrestles with difficult choices, racing the clock and trying desperately to save her beloved Mario. Even as she faces immense personal danger, though, she imagines the world beyond her immediate circumstances and makes clear that she is a person of depth and substance. Perhaps most telling is her famous aria “Vissi d’arte,” in which she declares her sincere belief in art, love, and piety—at the very moment that she struggles to escape Scarpia’s lechery. Is Tosca a victim of her circumstances,
or a hero in spite of them? Is she strong or vulnerable? What is she capable of? The point is not so much that her actions answer these questions definitively, but rather that her character invites them.

The contrast between how men perceive Tosca and how she perceives herself raises more expansive questions about how women are portrayed in opera writ large. Because the art form historically has been dominated by male composers, female operatic characters are typically the products of men’s imaginations. Yet it’s undeniably true that women, as performers, are essential to opera; it relies on their voices, their bodies, the power of their presence. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that without women, opera could not exist. So a paradox emerges: while male composers dictate the representation of women in opera, female performers bring their own interpretations and artistic decisions to those characters as they are presented onstage.

Tosca brings these issues to the fore in especially dramatic fashion. After all, Floria Tosca herself is none other than an opera singer, ideally suited to represent the many facets of being a woman on the operatic stage. Moreover, the complexities of her character mean that the singer playing the role enjoys a great deal of latitude in choosing how to portray her. It is no wonder, then, that singers often call Tosca a favorite role—not only because of the lushness and beauty of Puccini’s music, but also for the sense of identification they feel with the character, both as an artist and as a woman. Tosca is, ultimately, rich with possibility: she is flawed, vulnerable, heroic, strong, ambiguous, impetuous, defiant, talented, reviled, and admired. In short, she is human.


Boston Lyric Opera's Tosca runs OCT 13 - 22, 2017.

Buy Tosca Tickets

Images (top to bottom): Costume rendering for BLO by Deborah Newhall; Tosca poster, 1899, by Adolfo Hohenstein.
Lucy Caplan is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, where she is writing a dissertation on African American opera in the early twentieth century. She is the recipient of the 2016 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism.

Topics: Tosca, #ToscaBLO, 2017/18 Season, Women in opera

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