This text is dedicated to my wonderful friend Arianna, who is a stunning example of Tosca’s passion, generosity, and talent. To Arianna I owe an apology: Tosca is, indeed, the best opera. Ever.
What is there to know about Tosca? Or if put in a simpler way: What is there not to know about Tosca? What is there not to be said about Tosca?
The task of defining such circles of knowledge has prevented me from rushing forward with another fresh review of another opera performance (this time at the Met). The task has haunted me for days when jogging, commuting, or even falling asleep. The word Tosca would resonate strongly, deeply, and long. It would revive stories and histories. One would lead to another, resulting in a myriad of overlapping impressions, unexpressed insights, and fleeting understanding. Quite naturally, the idea of writing a post about Tosca translated into an attempt at exploring my evolving perception of the drama that has left many generations of spectators around the world captivated, spell-bound, and wanting more. And my perception of Tosca has definitely evolved.
Tosca must have been my first memorable opera experience. I remember knowing nothing about what was unfolding in front of my eyes and pouring into my ears. I remember a dark and dusty stage, a frenetic conductor, a lament of a woman in distress, frozen in time, and my mother, drawing my attention in a whisper to E lucevan le stelle, the aria of Mario Cavaradossi.
This time it was I who whispered the encyclopaedic histories and stories, as we walked after the performance across warm and fragrant streets of Florence back to my parents’ hotel, enlightened and empowered.
I remember a blind rush towards Nina Scharubina, a most dazzling Tosca, amid a deafening applause as the opera guardian grannies finally let me jump on stage. I remember shouting through the noise at her melting make-up and into the numb void of her eyes how much I adore her, clumsily pressing a bunch of thorny roses onto her forearm. I remember dialling my mother’s number during the live performance of E lucevan le stelle by Placido Domingo, singing a few meters away from me, so that she could hear her favourite aria and later share her impressions with me. I remember many other Tosca moments, comic, tragic, awkward, and stunning, myself somehow always one step away from getting an exhaustive grasp of Tosca’s drama in its bicentennial context. Hopefully, this blog entry will do just that, i.e. turn from being an attempt into an act of coming closer and getting a clear focus. Hopefully, this will be justified, and you, a very much welcome reader, would remain a kind judge. It is with your permission that I set out to review both Tosca the drama, its history, and its recent production and performance by the cast of Metropolitan Opera, New York.
“After two or three days of rest in rural idleness I have recovered from all the stress and notice that my desire to work has not disappeared, yet became even more vigorous… I’m thinking of Tosca! I beg you to do everything it takes to obtain Sardou’s permission before I renounce the idea. This is very important to me as in Tosca I see an opera that is meant for me, an opera without disproportionate excesses, without a show décor, an opera that has no space for any of that grotesque commonplace music”.
This idea of turning a French theatre drama into an opera by Puccini was suggested by several librettists somewhere around 1889 (just two years after the theatre play La Tosca had its first night in Paris). Yet at the time of the suggestion Puccini was immersed with other operatic endeavours, including Manon Lescaut and La Boheme. In 1894 a French playwright Sardou, the author of La Tosca met several composers in Paris to discuss the project amid the rumours that even Verdi, who was in Paris to supervise the French premiere of his Otello, was also interested in writing La Tosca into an opera.
Yet the composers were concerned with having too much narrative in the story. Certain scenes that Sardou wanted to keep in the opera seemed unrealistic from the perspective of opera production. Composers would withdraw, having found La Tosca too difficult to “operise”. When in 1895 Puccini finally secured an agreement with Sardou and a librettist, the world was set for an unparalleled commitment and an uncompromised composing of a future masterpiece. Yet before highlighting Puccini’s resolve and passion, I would like to share several insights into La Tosca, into what it had been prior to its pre-Puccinian glory.
Victorien Sardou was already a famous French playwright when he wrote his five-act theatre play La Tosca in a custom-tailored fashion for Sarah Bernhardt, another French celebrity of the time. Sardou was very inspired by the French revolution and Napoleonic themes and hence was naturally very studious and motivated in researching these matters from fresh angles. Nevertheless, La Tosca brought discontent of other playwrights who claimed to have written similar narratives. Despite the accusations of plagiarism, the play received its first night on November 24, 1887 in Le Theatre de la Porte Saint Martin in Paris, a theatre that has still preserved its dark red plush velvet seats and a noble ambiance (it was here that I enjoyed a modern twist on Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme during my teacher exchange visit to Paris in March 2012). The audience was thrilled with Sarah Bernhardt, even if the play got mixed reviews.
There was a reason for the thrill. Sarah Bernhardt’s life was as theatrical as it can ever get. An illegitimate daughter of a Parisian courtesan (her mother, a young Jewish lady from Amsterdam, had probably few other choices) already by the age of twenty was notorious as an actress who got thrown out from La Comedie Francaise, who gave birth to a son (conceived with a certain Belgian prince – quel scandal!), who slept in a coffin to strengthen her acting skills and made a fortune by offering escort services. By her thirties Sarah Bernhardt was back as the theatre queen of La Comedie Francaise and in demand all over Europe and America. By her forties she was an icon, gave master classes and had theatres named in her honour. Her circles included Victor Hugo, Edward VII, Alexandre Dumas-son, and many other celebrities of the time. She tried herself as a sculptor, an artist, a producer. While Sardou wrote several plays with Sarah Bernhardt in mind, La Tosca was her most revered role. Ironically, when performing La Tosca at the age of 60, during the Tosca’s final jump, Sarah injured her right leg, which led to an eventual amputation. Yet she continued her triumphal career performing in a wheel-chair or with an artificial limb until she passed away, content and peaceful at the respected age of 78. With all her dishonesty, promiscuity, and pragmatism (not unlike another art deco diva Coco Chanel), Sarah Bernhardt must have been worthy of her cult status since she left a lingering impact on how directors would perceive Tosca on stage, even if Puccini’s vision of Tosca was radically different.
While Sarah Bernhardt’s life captures well the context of the theatre play La Tosca and its consequent reflections in Puccini’s opera, another female character can help us understand the context of the actual action – the city of Rome on the day of June 17, 1800, the context that was as real as the one we experience today, intense, and politically inflammable.
The woman in question is the queen of Naples Maria-Carolina, whose royal court was at the time travelling from Naples to Vienna with several long stops on the way, including, according to Sardou and Puccini, Rome, a city that was governed by a royal dignitary appointed by the Queen.
Maria-Carolina was a daughter of the Austrian Empress Marie-Therese, and was thus a sister of the unfortunate French queen Marie-Antoinette. Maria Carolina became the queen of Naples and Sicily at the age of 16. Being very close to her sister, Maria-Carolina abhorred everything French: France, the French, the French revolution, and even the French language. She saw herself as a patron of the arts, music, craftsmanship, yet she turned her kingdom into a police state, especially after her husband died, when she became the queen in her own right. She would often change her apartments in fear of a revolutionary plot; she would engage herself with intrigues and espionage, with a help of a special friend, Lady Emma Hamilton, who supplied her with British diplomatic secrets. Maria-Carolina would throw herself with enthusiasm into all kinds of alliances, political and matrimonial, mainly against France, and especially so after the French revolution and the gruesome decapitation of her sister, and more importantly at the time of Napoleon’s dominance in Europe. Napoleon’s troops, in fact, took Naples on several occasions, whereby Maria-Carolina had to flee into exile to Sicily. Yet she would be restored back, every time stronger than before. It is ironic that Napoleon later married Maria-Carolina’s grand-daughter after his divorce with the Empress Josephine to secure his peace with Austria. At the time of the play La Tosca, Maria-Carolina, reinstated as the Queen of Naples, is waiting for political news, while travelling, and, assumingly, maintains a royal court to accompany her, graced by Floria Tosca, her beloved opera singer.
Maria-Carolina, after the events of La Tosca, was exiled again and lived in Vienna, waiting to be reinstated another time. She did not live to see Napoleon dethroned and exiled. Her body was found prostrated on the floor in a heap of scattered letters, presumably having suffered the stroke… Such was this woman: a devotee of an absolute monarchy, a patron of the arts, and a paranoid chef of a police state, a woman who enjoyed Tosca’s singing and spoiled her with lavish royal attention.
Maria Carolina was also fond of Giovanni Paisiello, a widely popular composer of church and opera music, who had lived eight years in St- Petersburg at the court of Catherine the Great, yet returned to Italy to work gloriously for the Kingdom of Naples (composing among other things their national anthem). Paisiello would provide most of the music that Tosca would have performed at the court of Maria Carolina. Yet after Tosca’s events, Paisiello, treacherously (in the eyes of the Queen Maria-Carolina) became Napoleon’s favourite composer in Paris. Today his music is largely forgotten, yet remains the music that inspired Beethoven, Rossini, and many other composers of the 19th century.
Thus the context on which depend the lives of the main characters of both Sardou’s theatre play La Tosca and Puccini’s opera Tosca is highly charged with political turbulence and artistic passions. The reinstated royal power at the time is weak, whereby Napoleonic admirers and revolutionaries find themselves in a quasi-Stalinist atmosphere of suspicion and denouncements.
The four key characters of the drama are a Napolitan nobleman Cesare Angelotti, the Regent of Rome’ police Baron Vitellio Scarpia, a French Rome-based artist Mario Cavaradossi , and Floria Tosca, a greatly acclaimed opera singer with a promising career and irresistible looks. The characters brought to life by Sardou are semi-fictional. They are each based on several real-life figures, whose identities were interwoven by the playwright almost in a cryptic way. Here are their stories seen in the context of the drama.
Cesare Angelotti is a descendant of a rich family in Naples, who rebelled against the royal power (Maria-Carolina) and became a Roman Consul, i.e. a minister of a short-lived government of Napoleonic Republic in Rome. Cesare Angelotti also had the audacity to disclose publicly that Emma Hamilton used to be his lover in London before she became the wife of a British ambassador to Naples. The Queen Maria-Carolina, being an enemy of everything Napoleonic and a close friend of Emma Hamilton, wanted Angelotti brought to Naples and executed. At the time of the drama, Angelotti is imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo awaiting his transfer to Naples. His sister, a highly connected Marquise d’Attavanti, arranges his escape. Angelotti, exhausted, hungry and in distress, manages to rush across the Tiber and dense Roman streets towards the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where his sister’s family keeps a private chapel, and where he intends to hide for a while. When in the church, he meets the painter, Mario Cavaradossi, who, himself a revolutionary, assists Angelotti, and sends him off in a female disguise to his family’s villa, instructing him to hide in the garden well, in case of an emergency. Unfortunately, the police soon finds out about the escape. It takes only several hours to track the accomplices and to find Angelotti, who, unwilling to surrender, commits suicide. Both Sardou and Puccini saw Angelotti in a very similar way, except for few details. In Sardou’s La Tosca, Angelotti escapes Castel Sant’Angelo and runs across Rome up the hills towards a smallish church (a bit unrealistic in the view of Puccini). Additionally, for Sardou, Mario Cavaradossi and Cesare Angelotti had known each other before their encounter. In the theatre play the chapel in the church belongs to Angelotti’s family, not his sister’s new family, the Attavanti; and towards the end of Sardou’s play, Angelotti’s body is hanged publicly after his suicide to cover the police’s inability to prevent his escape.
There are several real historical figures behind Cesare Angelotti as well as behind other characters of Tosca, as brilliant decade-long studies by Deborah Burton, College of Fine Arts, Boston University, have revealed (it is to Deborah Burton’s work that I am much indebted in my attempts to bring the reality into the picture). When looking at the lives of two of them, Liborio Angelucci and Francesco Angelotti, one can see that Sardou, as a playwright, enjoyed deconstructing the lives of several historical figures and combining their various elements freely into a life of one semi-fictional character. Additionally, Sardou enjoyed composing the names of his characters as anagrams, as we will see in the case of Tosca. Yet let us come back to Angellotti’s protagonists: Liborio Angelucci was indeed a Roman consul and was once imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo. Yet it was Francesco Angelotti who was Napolitan, escaped one of his arrests, attempted a team-suicide with his comrade Cesare Rossaroli and was in the end executed when trying to flee yet another time. All of them, Liborio Angelucci, Francesco Angelotti, and Cesare Rossaroli, died much later than when the events of Tosca took place. While in Sardou’s play Cesare Angelotti is still one of the main characters, Puccini pushed the character further away into the operatic periphery of the first act, making him a trigger and a background for the drama that is about to unfold.
The next male character, Vitellio Scarpia, is an incarnation of evil, an evil which was collected piece by piece by Sardou across many Italian testimonials of the cruelties of those times. Baron Vitellio Scarpia is partly a reflection of a certain judge Vincenzo Speciale, who was based in Palermo, Sicily, and who was known for his unparalleled sadistic cruelty, inhuman tortures, and other hair-raising exploits. Another protagonist behind Vitellio Scarpia is a certain Gherardo “Sciarpa”, a militant who was made baron by the king and the queen of Naples. Gherardo Sciarpa (an Italian nickname “scarf”) was notorious as a blood-thirsty, conniving type who tried to implement deranged procedures of French revolutionary tribunals, executing even children. The tortures that he would order for his detainees were so brutal that death was welcome as a salvation. Both Vincenzo Speciale and Gherardo “Sciarpa” lived long past Tosca’s events and none of them was murdered by a woman. Yet, as Sardou would know, many other devilish police officers of the time were killed by desperate men and women in their ultimate attempts to restore justice. Sardou would also know that women all over Italy would sell themselves to negotiate better prison conditions or paroles for their loved ones, which makes the story of Vitellio Scarpia quite realistic.
According to Sardou and Puccini, Vitellio Scarpia is a Sicilian baron who was promoted by the Queen Maria-Carolina to serve as the Chief of the Police. Vitellio Scarpia’s public image is that of a religious fanatic, an impassionate servant to the Queen, and a merciless advocate of justice at all costs, especially to eradicate all seeds of revolutionary or Napoleonic thoughts. In private, Vitellio Scarpia is a sadist and a maniac who hunts women as his prey, with no respect for any social rule. Vitellio Scarpia employs a large network of informants, agents, assassins, executioners and has installed torture chambers even inside royal residences across the state, including the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, where much of the Tosca’s action takes place.
When the guardians at Castel Sant’Angelo find out that Cesare Angelotti has escaped, they fire a canon and inform the police. Scarpia is enraged. A certain part of Scarpia’s anger belongs to the fact that Angelotti’s sister, a beautiful blond Marquise d’Attavanti, has never surrendered to his lascivious advances and preferred to quit her public life at the court just to escape his monstrous pursuits. Now Angelotti, the brother of the stubborn Marquise, has challenged Scarpia’s authority. Scarpia knows that the brother and sister have several places in Rome, where Angelotti could hide. Before too long, the hunt brings Scarpia to the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where he discovers nobody, since Cesare Angelotti and his sympathiser Mario Cavaradossi had enough time to arrange Angelotti’s further itinerary away from the danger. Yet Scarpia, using his detective skills and by interrogating the church’s sacristan deducts that the Attavanti’s chapel hosted the convict for at least a while and that the painter (another revolutionary suspect!) assisted the fugitive, by sharing the food and guiding him out. Scarpia also finds a folding fan with the initials of Marquise d’Attavanti, which was probably left by the woman earlier as she hastily left the church having made preparations for her soon arriving brother.
Scarpia makes the fan work to his advantage in several ways. First, he knows that Mario Cavaradossi will return to the church to work further on his mural painting of Maria Magdalena, which already has a strange resemblance to Marquise d’Attavanti, a fact that (when coupled with the fan) would enable Scarpia to intercept and interrogate the painter about Angelotti’s whereabouts. Second, Scarpia has been already thinking of making advances on the queen’s favourite opera singer, Floria Tosca. In Scarpia’s vision, Tosca is a much coveted trophy due to her dashing beauty, her celebrity status, and her reputation of being passionate and incorruptible. Additionally, Tosca has taken a revolutionary-minded Mario Cavaradossi as her lover (which raised some eyebrows at the court) and intends daringly to build her life together with the painter, pursuing her ascending opera career across Italian cities. Scarpia also knows that Tosca is an impulsive woman, as the stories of her scenes of jealousy have reached his ears several times. This time, the fan and the resemblance between Marquise d’Attavanti and the painting can certainly advance Scarpia’s lustful plans.
Scarpia surprises Tosca, as she returns to the church (she visited Mario to see him work earlier in the day) with a smooth and insistent conversation about Mario Cavaradossi. Skillfully guiding Tosca into a fit of jealousy, he seals her anger with the fan. Tosca, who is desperately reassessing her supposedly flawed relationship, swears to revenge Mario and to assist Scarpia in his police work. As Tosca leaves to rehearse a new cantata by Paisiello, which she will perform for the Queen later that night at the court in Palazzo Farnese, Scarpia is left in the church to polish his plans. Very soon, the congregation and the clergy arrive to set the church for the performance of Te Deum, an oratorio commissioned by the Queen to commemorate the recent events at Marengo (a battle where the royal army and the Napoleonic troops were fiercely slashing each other towards an unpredictable outcome both for the Queen and the entire Italy). Scarpia joins the singing procession in a fanatic ecstasy, seeing himself as a semi-God on his way to a new conquest, Tosca.
After Te Deum, Scarpia returns to his office in Palazzo Farnese. He decides to skip Tosca’s performance in the Queen’s apartments. Instead, he orders his agents to bring Mario Cavaradossi for an interrogation. What follows next is an intense psychological thriller. Scarpia uses his talking methods to intimidate Cavaradossi with no success and thus sends the painter into the torture chamber. As the painter’s body is sadistically violated, Scarpia sets a late dinner table and invites Tosca to join him and to listen to the sounds of the torture behind the wall. As horrified as she is, Tosca manages to secure an exchange of several words with Mario and decides to save her lover from hell.
Scarpia yields to Tosca’s insistence to spare Mario’s life after she tells him (under tremendous pressure of seeing the inhuman torture procedures) the whereabouts of Angelotti. As Mario Cavaradossi, barely alive, is being transferred to Castel Sant’Angelo during the night, Scarpia starts his cat-and-mouse game with Tosca. Scarpia’s condition is Tosca’s much coveted body. Tosca’s conditions include a pardon for the painter and a secure passage for both of them out of the kingdom. During the tumultuous argument, that includes Scarpia’s attempts at rape and Tosca’s threats to involve the queen, Scarpia wins. His solution is to convince Tosca that Mario will be given a “mock” execution, i.e. an execution with dummy bullets, after which she and Mario could safely run towards the nearest port. Scarpia signs the passports for the couple, yet gives instructions to his agents to stage a real execution for the approaching morning. Tosca, in her ignorance of Scarpia’s real intentions, accepts the deal. As Scarpia is preparing himself for the upcoming sexual pleasures, Tosca, pushed into the corner, decides to turn the situation around. When Scarpia approaches her, she stabs him to death, much to his surprise. As Scarpia is dying helplessly on the floor, the last thing he hears is Tosca’s enraged shouting at him, cursing his name and his soul.
The third male character of the drama, Mario Cavaradossi, is, again, a semi-fictional character. There are at least two real-life artists that can be seen behind him: an Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi and a French painter Joseph Chinard. Giuseppe Ceracchi was a Roman who lived and worked in Britain, France, and the United States. Ceracchi was a famous author of many grand neo-classical sculptures and busts, including those of his patrons, Napoleon, George Washington, and others. His life was full of travel, ambitious projects, and naïve expectations. His disappointment with the Napoleon’s regime led him to take part in an assassination plot, which was uncovered with gruesome consequences: Ceracchi was decapitated. Somewhat ironically, the carriage that drove him to the guillotine was of his own design. Before his execution Ceracchi was noted for his bravura and fearless attitude to torture and death. The other character behind Mario Cavaradossi, a French painter Joseph Chinard, lived (like Mario) in Rome and was imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo for revolutionary propaganda, yet, unlike Mario, he was saved by his mother’s heavy lobbying (which involved a lot of diplomatic scandal).
According to Sardou and Puccini, Mario Cavaradossi is a descendent of an old Roman family, whose mother was French, which allowed him spending most of his life in Paris, where he studied art under the supervision of Jacques Louis David, the official painter of the French Revolution. This explains Mario’s staunch belief in revolutionary ideals. As it was not unusual for many artists of the time to come to Rome to get classical training, Mario made use of his family connections and a family residence in Rome and moved to the Eternal City to advance his artistic career. Yet with all his interest in the classical arts, Mario had quite an anti-establishment life-style: instead of wigs and courtier’s clothes, he preferred to wear his long hair loose and to dress simply. To secure his permit to stay in Rome, Mario would have to agree to paint the murals of the Roman churches (naturally, for free), which would require him to work in places that would be far from his revolutionary ideals. Being a revolutionary painter was dangerous. Yet Mario found a passionate solution: his lover, Floria Tosca, was a famous opera singer and a favourite of the Queen, which, perhaps, helped him stay off the black list for a while.
At the time of the Tosca’s drama, Mario Cavaradossi starts his yet another day as an artist. He has to continue working on a mural painting in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. As he enters the church he notices a young beautiful woman, a blond with graceful blue eyes, who has been in the church several times before. Mario is quite attracted to the beauty of the woman, whom he recognises as a wife of a prominent Marquis d’Attavanti and a sister to a well-known rebel Cesare Angelotti. As Mario’s professional task is to depict Maria Magdalena, he channels his attraction into his artistic work, whereby his Maria Magdalena on the wall acquires the blue eyes of the Marchesa d’Attavanti. Mario Cavaradossi can certainly appreciate the beauty, yet a womaniser he is not.
Having arrived in Rome as an outsider, although a Roman by origins, he has been committedly in love with one of the most talented and celebrated women in Italy – a passionate and impulsive, devout and generous opera singer, Floria Tosca, whose patrons included famous composers, the Queen, and even the Pope himself. Floria Tosca became the reason that Mario Cavaradossi was happy to struggle with his life in Rome. And a challenging struggle his life in Rome was. While Floria Tosca was praised lavishly by the royal regime, Mario Cavaradossi, her lover, remained a political suspect and perhaps escaped many interrogations due to his lover’s clout.
On this particular day, Mario Cavaradossi knows that Tosca will find time between her court appointments to visit him at work and to share the latest news, or rather to check on him whether he is actually at work or hiding away with one of his models. While Tosca’s jealousy would often be a nuisance, Mario already knows by now how to disarm Tosca’s distrust and pacify her insecurities: just like a child, Tosca would surrender to peaceful patience and soulful declarations of love. The church guardian is also used to their somewhat noisy and unholy arguments and (oh no!) passionate reconciliations right in the temple. Besides keeping an order in the church, the guardian would also bring a lunch box for Mario (at least the church would provide free meals to the painter) in a secret and often successful hope that Mario would be too absorbed with the work and would end his shift without having lunch, which would enable the guardian (somewhat struggling with managing his own weight) to enjoy the contents of the lunch box, which would normally contain a wine bottle among other delicacies. On this day, the guardian will be disappointed: Mario and Tosca would have a big fight and a most passionate reconciliation; the lunch box would not be touched by Mario yet would strangely disappear.
As Mario continues working, he is frightened by a shadow lurking across the church. In an initially apprehensive encounter, Mario Cavaradossi and Cesare Angelotti very soon identify each other as political comrades and swear their mutual allegiance to the revolutionary ideals. Mario, moved by Cesare’s unfolding escape, arranged by Cesare’s beautiful sister, is terrified at the sound of a canon salute, fired from the Castel Sant’Angelo. Both Mario and Cesare realise that the hunt for the escaped prisoner has begun, and that the chief of the Roman police, the vile baron Scarpia, will stop at nothing. Cesare puts on his sister’s clothes, takes the lunch box and the keys from Mario’s villa, and rushes from the church through a sideway gate, while Mario hears Tosca’s impatient voice, looking for him across the church’s vast interior, behind the columns and everywhere else.
After calming all Tosca’s suspicions (for she did recognise the Marquise d’Attavanti’s face in the painting), Mario resumes his work. Tosca is chirping away making plans for the night. Mario encourages Tosca to follow her plans and to attend the Queen’s reception in Palazzo Farnese, where she is scheduled to perform a new cantata written by Paisiello. Meanwhile, Mario would hope to rush to his villa and to see whether Cesare Angelotti is safe. Tosca, unaware of Mario’s concerns, wants Mario to have dinner with her after her performance, to which he reluctantly agrees, raising her suspicious doubts again.
As Tosca leaves the church for her rehearsal, Mario proceeds to his villa and helps Angelotti hide in a garden well, just before Tosca arrives in one of her jealous fits. When understanding that her suspicions are groundless, she becomes concerned for Mario’s safety yet has to leave for her performance in Palazzo Farnese. Scarpia’s agents arrive and take Mario by force for an interrogation. When facing Scarpia, Mario denies any involvement with Angelotti’s escape. Mario dismisses bravely the threats of an execution and endures inhuman sufferings, repeatedly collapsing in primal screaming.
When Scarpia takes Tosca to see Mario’s torture, Tosca manages to exchange several words with the painter. To explain his arrest, he briefly tells her Angelotti’s hiding place and pleads her to keep his secret undisclosed from Scarpia. As the torture continues, Tosca, unable to contain herself, tells Scarpia about Angelotti and his probable hiding place.
Meanwhile, the much anticipated news arrives to Palazzo Farnese from the battlefield of Marengo. The royal court is in shock, as Napoleonic troops seem to have been victorious and now threaten to overthrow the royal regime in the Kingdom of Naples. The news does not escape Mario, who, emboldened by such developments, bursts into Scarpia’s office, and shouts at him the threats of imminent revenge. When realising that Tosca unveiled Angelotti’s whereabouts, Mario damns her as well.
Scarpia orders Mario to be transferred for an execution to the Castel Sant’Angelo, exactly from where Cesare Angelotti escaped just several hours earlier. With no hope left, Mario is awaiting his life’s last morning, listening to the early songs of shepherd boys. His only comfort is the bittersweet memory of Tosca, her fragrance, her hair, her voice. Mario bribes the prison guards with his last valuables for a permission to write a letter to Tosca (here begins the most sad, powerful, and beautiful song of all Puccini’s tenors – E lucevan le stelle). All of a sudden, Tosca rushes into his confinement (a chapel or courtyard of Castel Sant’Angelo), deranged, confused, excited, and scared (another bribe for prison guards, perhaps). In a state of affect, Tosca tells Mario about her fight with Scarpia, about the murder, and the new passports. She convinces Mario that the approaching execution will be a staged spectacle, after which they will be able to run towards the sea port, provided, of course, that Mario plays his part well when time comes to fall on the ground. Mario seems to recover hope and spends the last hours before the dawn dreaming about the future and thanking Tosca for saving him yet another time. Mario faces the firing squad with abandonment and confidence. His death is immediate while the last thing he sees is a breath-taking panorama of Rome.
Thus Sardou and Puccini compiled and composed the lives of three male characters, a Roman nobleman Cesare Angelotti, a Sicilian baron Vitellio Scarpia, and a French painter Mario Cavaradossi, the three lives that get intertwined on June 17, 1800 and perish within several hours, be it in a desperate suicide at the bottom of a garden well, in a blunt murder while in the heat of a sexual desire, or in a naïve hope to start a new life. They all have something in common – a woman who, involuntarily, became the catalyst of their demise – Floria Tosca.
Floria Tosca, the title character, is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of opera and, perhaps, of theatre as well. She is a household name, yet remains elusive, inconsistent, and polarising. Maria Callas, perhaps the only performer to come close to Sarah Bernhardt in making Tosca her own, would refer to Tosca as a hysterical figure and would not consider her a favourite heroine. Many other singers would try to establish a legacy with their interpretations to only fail. Sardou’s play La Tosca itself has not been performed in theatres for many decades. Yet the opera remains one of the most performed operas in the world, and the number of new aspiring Tosca sopranos only keeps growing.
Sardou’s Floria Tosca is a patchwork, just like Angelotti, Scarpia, and Cavaradossi are. There are at least three famous opera divas of the past that can be linked via their biographies to Tosca: Angelica Catalani, Francesca Costa, and Celeste Coltellini (here again I am very grateful to Deborah Burton for unveiling these life-stories behind Tosca). These singers differed by the types of their voices, and lived in different places at somewhat different times. If there was anything in common between them, that would be popularity, close ties with aristocracy, Italian origins, and non-violent existence.
Angelica Catalani, or La Catalani, besides being cast in opera productions in Rome at the time of the drama, had a life that at times reminds strikingly the fictional life of Tosca. Born in Venice, the young girl was brought up in a convent, yet brought to the secular light due to her astounding singing talent. Composers and the clergy alike would petition for her to become an opera diva. Very soon, La Catalani enjoyed her engagements in Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Teatro La Fenice, Venice, and Teatro Argentina, Rome, followed by singing contracts in London, Paris, Stockholm and elsewhere. La Catalani was famous, glamorous, and regally rich. Her reviewers and followers included Goethe, Paganini, Stendhal and others. Yet her voice, a technically impressive coloratura soprano, lacked depth and emotion. Critics would say that La Catalani had a bad taste, always sounded the same no matter what she sang, and was incredibly jealous and possessive. Having finished her career at the age of fifty, Angelica Catalani settled in Florence, and devoted herself to charity. She died in Paris, trying to escape an epidemic of cholera. It was Angelica Catalani who was featured in opera productions in Rome on the days preceding and following the events of Tosca.
Francesca Costa, a singer who lived in the mid-seventeenth century, brings another dimension to Tosca’s character. Francesca Costa was born in Verona and was known to be a prostitute before becoming a famous singer. Her beauty and her talent opened to her the doors of royal courts and enabled her to compete even with castrati for the most illustrious opera parts. Additionally, her sister became a famous writer and helped her achieve an even higher social status. Sardou was known for his love for anagrams, and Francesca Costa may quite well explain both the cryptography of Floria Tosca (Costa – Tosca) and Sardou’s choice of Verona as Tosca’s birthplace.
When it comes to the anagram, Sardou mentioned in his correspondence that finding the optimal name for his heroine was challenging right until the beginning of the rehearsals. Tosca (or Tusca) is a well-known first name, which means, literally, “Etruscan”, and has the same linguistic history as the word Toscana. Verona is particularly relevant as a place to look for Tosca. Chiesa delle Sante Teuteria e Tosca, the oldest church in Verona and in Veneto region, is a small 8th century structure that commemorates two sanctified catholic women, Teuteria and Tosca. According to the legend, Teuteria escaped her pagan Anglo-Saxon tribes to lead an enlightened life in Italy, which she managed to do in the company of a young virgin Tosca, who was a sister of Verona’s bishop. Teuteria and Tosca lived together in inseparable intimacy for many years until Tosca’s death. Thus the word Tosca itself yields religious zeal and primal womanhood.
Additionally, the word Tosca may call to mind the word “Tossica” (Italian for toxic). When thinking of Floria Tosca as a “toxic flower”, another famous singer of the past comes into the big picture, due to her namely, well, name. Celeste Coltellini could mean (in Italian) “celestial knives”, which is a great metaphoric allusion to the drama of Tosca. Celeste Coltellini was another famous singer of the time, a rich, successful, and talented mezzo-soprano, a rival to Angelica Catalani, and a friend of Emma Hamilton. Celeste Coltellini had more artistic integrity than La Catalani, was known for her interpretations of Mozart’s music, and thus was very much welcome in Vienna and all over Italy. She settled in Naples after marrying a Swiss banker and lived her life in peace and comfort.
Such are the life-characters behind Sardou’s Floria Tosca. And when it comes to the version of the play and the opera, Tosca’s narrative of the events would go somewhat as follows (if a compromise can be found between Sardou’s and Puccini’s versions).
An orphan by birth, little is known about Tosca’s origins, apart from the fact that she was picked up on the hills of Verona by nuns of a local convent who took a pity on a small child who, instead of enjoying her tender age, had to herd sheep (I actually would not mind herding a few sheep on those marvellous hills of Verona, since herding my students in the classrooms of Porvoo in Finnish darkness at times seems to be less of a pleasant alternative). Once in the convent, young Floria developed a voice of an angel. So powerful and so delightful was her talent, that composers Cimarosa and Paisiello, several cardinals, and the Pope encouraged (for the lack of a more insistent word) the nuns to release Floria Tosca into the secular world. Very soon Tosca made her magnificent debut in Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in Paisiello’s opera Nina, which is all but forgotten today, yet was all the rage at the time.
After several years of a glittering career, Tosca turned into a much-coveted diva, yet kept her allegiance to the nuns and the clergy: Tosca was devout and very self-assured in her righteousness, even if her court life would pose various challenges. The challenges included lustful admirers, political intrigues, and intense travel itineraries among other. Tosca coped with such challenges quite well: she had enough money so she would only take a lover who she would be passionately in love with; her talented singing provided her equally with the Papal protection, the Queen’s friendship, and the adoration of Napoleon supporters. As for the travelling, for the moment Tosca was happy to stay in Rome, since her temporary contract with Teatro Argentina allowed her enough time to sing at the court and to enjoy the company of her latest lover, an artist Mario Cavaradossi, who was, in her opinion, too focused on looking out for another fresh beauty to paint.
On that morning of Tuesday, June 17, 1800, Tosca did not anticipate any turbulence. Surely, Paisiello had another cantata to be performed impressively in the evening in the presence of the Queen, yet Tosca was not under any pressure to deliver the music. Tosca would rather make romantic plans: she would visit Mario at his work, then dash to Palazzo Farnese for a rehearsal, perhaps see Mario again, then perform, and then escape the court to spend the night with Mario in their love nest.
When entering the church Sant’Andrea della Valle, Tosca immediately hears hushed voices and the sound of dress robes, exactly the sound of a woman fleeing the scene. With a growing concern, Tosca finds Mario looking troubled and refusing to explain what she just saw. Tosca becomes almost enraged when she notices that Mario’s Maria Magdalena is a stunning naked woman. Her pride does not tolerate easily such promiscuity. She makes a scene and forces Mario to promise that he will paint Maria Magdalena’s eyes black, just like her own, and will later, after her performance, join her for a dinner. She leaves the church feeling warm and refreshed: a passionate argument with Mario would only strengthen her attachment to this heroic-looking idealist. She also feels grateful that Mario is devoted to her enough to put his career on hold and to stay in a hostile Roman environment until her next engagement with another theatre takes them, who knows, perhaps to Milan, Venice, or even Paris (these very well might have been Tosca’s plans).
The rehearsal does not take much time, and Tosca returns to the church to find that the church is being set for a Te Deum, while Mario is nowhere in sight. Instead, Tosca stumbles upon a devilishly smiling baron Scarpia, another favourite of the Queen, who kept all the court in terrified suspense whenever passing by. Scarpia has always been polite and even gallant with Tosca. She would struggle with such emphasised courtesies: on the one hand, Scapria was a very powerful and staunchly religious man of affairs; on the other hand, Tosca knew women who would flee in horror at the mere mentioning of his name. Unaware of the unfolding drama, Tosca engages, even if with a reservation, in a conversation with Scarpia. Very soon Tosca realises that Scarpia is playing her for a fool: he definitely brags of having a proof of Mario’s infidelity to her. When, indignant, Tosca demands the evidence, Scarpia teases her with a folding fan, supposedly left by a woman who just came to see Mario and took him out of the church. Tosca, impatient, grabs the fan out of Scarpia’s hands and sees the engraving of Marquise d’Attavanti’s initials. Suddenly, Tosca is tormented by a bitter realisation that her romantic visions were bitter illusions: Mario used her just as he must have used other women, charmed by his heroic looks and revolutionary spirit. She swears to revenge and leaves the church, while Scarpia seems to be mesmerised by how beautiful Tosca is in anger.
Tosca mingles with the court crowd in the Queen’s apartments in Palazzo Farnese, upset at herself and distraught: she rushed to Mario’s country villa in a deranged hope to confront him and Marquise d’Attavanti. Instead, she found Mario in grave danger, assisting an escaped convict. She also knows that Scarpia will stop at nothing, and just recently, the Queen Maria-Carolina humiliated Scarpia in front of the court, ordering him to do everything it takes to capture and execute Angelotti and all the accomplices. Tosca performs Paisiello’s cantata, which was composed as a hymn to celebrate the upcoming victory at the Marengo. Yet the news arrives that the royalist troops suffered significant losses and had to retreat. The Queen faints and the courtiers leave in a semi-panicking mode. Tosca receives an invitation to join Scarpia in his office. She is apprehensive yet decides to keep her calm and to face the inevitable.
Scarpia receives Tosca with an unchanged devilish smile and the same emphasised courtesy. The dinner table is set yet the apartments look as if a fight or an orgy has recently taken place. As the conversation unfolds, Tosca learns that Mario is agonising in Scarpia’s torture chamber. Sadistically, Scarpia makes Tosca see and hear Mario’s sufferings. In horror and to no avail, Tosca pleads Scarpia to stop the inhuman procedures. She swears that she visited Mario’s villa and found him alone there, with no escaped convicts in sight. She manages to exchange couple of words with Mario through the wall, whereby she learns that Angelotti is hiding in the garden well and that Scarpia’s efforts are in vain for Mario would rather die than betray his comrade. The tortures go on and Tosca, seeing in dismay that her beloved is paralysed, unconscious, covered in blood and sweat, surrenders to Scarpia’s unbearable pressure: she reveals Angelotti’s whereabouts.
When the torture stops and Mario learns that Napoleonic troops defeated the royalists, he, revived and emboldened, rushes out of the torture chamber and assaults Scarpia, who, laughingly, tells Mario that his and Angelotti’s secret has been uncovered by Tosca. It is now Tosca’s turn to face the assault and the verbal abuse from Mario. After the guardians take Mario away towards Castel Sant’Angelo, the agents who departed earlier to capture Angelotti, arrive and announce that the fugitive committed suicide.
Meanwhile, Tosca, crushed and shaken to the core by everything she has experienced, finds herself again in the middle of a calm yet terrifying conversation. As Scarpia offers her a glass of wine and invites her to continue the meal, she hopes for an opportunity of a bargain. She would have been ready to sell all her possessions, yet with Scarpia’s lustful confessions, she finally realises that all of this time Scarpia has been after her and only after her. Her last threat, a plea for the royal protection, is bluntly dismissed by Scarpia on the grounds that Mario will be executed by the time Tosca could approach the Queen. As Scarpia starts taking his clothes off and throws her down the floor, she pleads for a moment to think. Here Puccini freezes the action with one of the most beautiful and poignant arias written for a soprano voice – Vissi d’arte – a sorrowful lament, where Tosca asks God why on Earth she has to go through such suffering. There are hundreds of recordings of Vissi d’arte available. Words are useless to convey the sheer raw beauty of its music and I will not dare do that here.
Having made her decision, Tosca nods to Scarpia’s insistent questions. She has a condition: two passports, access to the port, immunity until their departure from Roman states, and an immediate release of Mario. Scarpia argues that a mock execution must take place (rubber bullets and lots of harmless smoke). He orders his agents to execute Mario Cavaradossi just like they had once executed the Count of Palmieri. Unfortunately, Tosca is not aware that Palmieri was promised a mock execution and was not granted one, i.e. was executed, bel et bien. As Scarpia is issuing the passports and giving the orders, Tosca becomes restless and yet pensive. She sees the end of a tunnel.
Her following scene has been played so many times in so many ways that there is hardly one way to describe what actually happens. One widely popular interpretation suggests that Tosca approaches the dinner table to pour herself a glass of wine to revive her spirits or to get tipsy enough to live through the upcoming intercourse with Scarpia. As she is reaching for a bottle of wine, she notices a knife and becomes scared of it. After a bit of reflection, she hides the knife either in her dress or keeps it in her fist behind her back. When Scarpia jumps on her again, she stabs him with vengeance. Maria Callas would stab her stage partner so vehemently and repeatedly, that the plastic knife would often break to pieces. Additionally, crude naturalistic productions of Tosca display lots of blood, screaming, and agonising moaning amid Puccini’s unforgettable poignant music. As Scarpia yields his last breath, Tosca drops the knife in unspeakable horror, trying to wipe the blood off her hands and to make sense of what just happened. She comes to her senses nevertheless very soon. She turns the body to take the passports out of Scarpia’s pocket and takes a scornful look at the corpse, saying her trademark phrase: “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!” (And to think that he would make all Rome tremble with fear!). Being a devout Catholic, Tosca places a candle on each side of Scarpia’s body and leaves Palazzo Farnese for the Castel Sant’Angelo, unnoticed in the middle of the night.
Other opera productions bring their own elements into the murder scene. At times, Scarpia tries to take Tosca forcefully on the table, whereby her hands land on a knife with the above-mentioned consequences. At times Tosca skilfully plans the murder. My favourite Tosca, Nina Scharubina, rushes into Scarpia’s office still in her regal performance attire. As the torture scene and violent negotiations unfold, her complex abundant hairdo remains somewhat intact. Yet when she starts contemplating the inevitable and decides to remove the long and sharp hairpins (similar to Japanese kanzashi) from her hair, one hairpin cuts her finger, as her big hair, released, falls on her shoulders, sparkling in the fleeting candle light.
With a Gorgon Medusa smile, she shamelessly pulls up her skirts, pushes up her bra, plumps up her lips, and calls Scarpia to join her on a sofa. Scarpia, surprised by such a lustful change in Tosca’s character, approaches what seems to be a semi-naked, sexed-up courtesan or femme fatale. She draws him closer, aligning her body seductively with his, and, looking straight into his eyes, stabs him with a hairpin, over and over again into his neck, his chest, and his stomach, as Scarpia falls off the sofa and gasps for air on the floor, with Tosca shouting and spitting at him “Questo e il bacio di Tosca!” (Here is your kiss from Tosca!).
I remember at that moment, sitting in the first row, that my father and I looked at each other in a thrilled shock and uttered simultaneously “Твою мать!” (a rude Russian equivalent of Oh my God!), as the impact of the scene coupled with the effect of music was almost unbearable. My mother, though, disapproved adamantly such femme fatale rendition of Tosca. It took her two years to accept Nina Scharubina’s version of the scene, and recently, on November 26, 2013, after seeing Nina Scharubina in Tosca again, she said that her acting was by all standards a masterpiece.
Yet back to the story: Tosca leaves Palazzo Farnese in the middle of the night, fleeing the murder scene, leaving some of her clothing items in Scarpia’s office. She rushes through the empty streets of Rome towards Castel Sant’Angelo (or as other versions of the story suggest, Scarpia’s tortures and murder took place in Castel Sant’Angelo, whereby Tosca simply rushed from one level of the prison to another). The night starts turning into dawn, and she is still under the effect of the recent murder and anxious to see and save Mario.
When Tosca arrives to Castel Sant’Angelo, she bribes the guards to get to Mario’s confinement. Their encounter and reconciliation are passionate. Tosca talks impatiently about the upcoming fake execution, the passports, and their escape route to the seaport. Astonished, Mario wonders whether all of this is too good to be true. Tosca has nothing to hide: she asks for forgiveness for what she has done, sharing the blood-chilling details of the murder scene and breaking down in tears. Mario comforts her tenderly, caressing her hands softly, and whispering words of affection. When revived by their reunion, Tosca instructs Mario on how to act during the execution, how to drop dead on the ground in a believable manner, for she is, after all, an actress and her advice should be trusted. The lovers practice the moves and wait for the squad to arrive. Tosca hides behind the corner and rejoices at the blast of gunshots and the sight of Mario’s body hitting the ground lifelessly. She waits until the soldiers leave and instructs Mario to stay quiet until she gives him a sign. When Mario’s body ignores her impatient signs, she rushes towards him, realising in horror that the execution was real. All tears and sobbing, Tosca sees that Scarpia’s agents are running towards her. She screams at them all the profanities she can imagine: her only regret is that she is not able to kill Scarpia all over again. Pushed by the angry men to the top level of the Castle, Tosca faces the Roman horizon in its early morning lights: Basilica di San Pietro, the Tiber river, and Trastevere. Before the agents can reach and grab her dress, she dives off the parapet. The agents watch in disbelief her body plunge towards the imminent death at the bottom of Castel Sant’Angelo.
Such is the story of Tosca, with its head-spinning twenty-something hour drive through the landmarks of Rome on June 17, 1800. The four main characters, Cesare Angelotti, Vitellio Scarpia, Mario Cavaradossi, and Floria Tosca, designed and composed by Victorien Sardou and Giacomo Puccini, have lived long after their fictional deaths and keep perishing every day around the globe on the most revered opera stages.
The evolution of these characters from Sardou’s design to Puccini’s composition was not smooth. In the year 1895 Puccini took a trip to Florence to see Sarah Bernhardt in Sardou’s La Tosca and actually did not like it at all. Puccini thought that there were too many poetic and lyric elements in the paly. He definitely wanted to tighten the story and to bring more dynamic thrill, taking many lines out. Puccini absolutely did not want the characters to explain themselves in the opera (quite contrastingly to the theatre play, where the characters would indulge into monotonous monologues too often). Puccini thus pressed the librettists to make the sacrilegious changes, even if the librettists would not know what and how to cut. The librettists thought that Puccini was insane to make the drama clear and rapid, to fill it with large raw emotions, and to remove its entire poetic interface.
Yet this was exactly what Puccini wanted. He even authorised special further cuts to make Tosca much less lyrical, so that the characters would affect each other not by words but by dramatic behaviour, be it eroticism, fearlessness, or despair. To add drama to Tosca’s end, Puccini placed the Tiber River between St. Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo (whereas the Tiber has always run alongside both landmarks). Additionally, Sardou’s version of Tosca’s suicide was based on Tosca’s going meekly mad and dying helplessly. Puccini’s version takes another dimension: Tosca’s suicide is dynamic and intentional.
While travelling hectically to promote his La Boheme and other operas around Europe, Puccini finds time to get secluded in his villa Torre del Lago, not far from Viareggio on Mediterranean shore, and enslaves himself with work on Tosca’s orchestration and vocal score. In 1897 Puccini takes a series of consultations with Roman clergy to study the sound of Roman bells, the style of the Te Deum, and the prayers that the devout Romans tend to murmur in the churches such as la chiesa Sant’Andrea della Valle. Puccini also consults friends in Rome to get the dialects and the accents of his characters right.
Due to all this hectic work, Acts I, II, and III of the opera were not completed chronologically. Yet Puccini never lost the overall vision of his opera. He submitted the final version of the opera to the publisher without any intention to revise it later (which was very rare for the composer). The premier took place three months later, despite the fact that the publisher was not very pleased with Act III.
The premiere took place in Rome, on January 14, 1900, almost exactly 100 years after the events of La Tosca. The reviews were mixed, the critics (including Verdi) were moved by several passages, yet were disappointed by Puccini’s fixation on depiction (long and monotonous, in their opinion) of the dawn and the church bells. Yet today Tosca remains largely unrevised, except for certain discrepancies between the original autograph score and the first printed versions. The autograph score has been stored in Archivo Ricordi in Milan since its submission by the composer as three large bound volumes (one for each act).
Fast-forward to 2013, and we see an immense undying interest in Tosca, both in obscure provincial studios and in global mega-theatres. Such interest is nowhere as important and trend-setting as in the Met (Metropolitan Opera, New York). In 2009 Metropolitan Opera trusted Luc Bondy, a Swiss-born stage director who has an impressive resume, with helping the opera house break the tradition (after all, the Met is a rather conservation institution) and to produce a new Tosca that would be at the same time theatrical and cinematic, especially to align with increasingly popular film broadcasts by the Met (more than half of the Met’s revenues today seem to come from the broadcasts).
I have seen this particular production of Tosca by Luc Bondy three times over the years and can now say that with all the hype and the occasional booing from the audiences, the production is straightforwardly disappointing and boring. It does get at times too theatrical in its bizarre ill-fitted exaggerations and too cinematic in its reliance on somewhat puzzling filmic stunts. Yet the prevailing palette is overwhelmingly dark and bland, except perhaps for Tosca’s from hair to toes redder than red outfit, while the staging is quite simple and at times claustrophobic. When seeing it in 2009 with a Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role, I dismissed my disappointment with the production thinking that it was Mattila’s retired wobble and aged looks that spoiled the night. When seeing the production again on a DVD with Mattila (no better this time) and Jonas Kaufmann (barely able to counterbalance the disaster on his own), I dismissed my negativity thinking that quality of filming must have been the reason. Yet this time, in 2013, taking another look at the production, with another cast, I tend to find fault with Luc Bondy.
Not everything in Met’s 2013 version of Tosca is regrettable. The cast, for once, seemed promising. A French tenor Roberto Alagna, as Mario Cavaradossi, surely is an interesting choice. Once booed as Radames in Aida on Met’s stage, and thus no longer too self-assured, Roberto Alagna made his comeback and could perhaps deliver Puccini’s music reliably well. A Georgian baritone George Ganidze has vile gluttonous looks and a vocal stamina that is blazing enough to make a believable Scarpia. And Patricia Racette, a long-time favourite of the U.S. audiences, could also deliver a nice surprise. While I saw Patricia Racette as Micaela in Carmen (a lyric soprano) and Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly (again somewhat too lyric, in my opinion), her voice, now almost in her 50s, could have matured to cope with the dramatic score of Tosca, or at least that was what I hoped for. Besides, Patricia Racette’s life story (an opera diva that has been adamantly open about her same-sex marriage) suggested a hard-core masculinity and unapologetic integrity, which could suit Tosca’s character remarkably well.
Well, to start, Roberto Alagna is much better as a Mario Cavaradossi than as a Radames. Alagna is definitely a Puccini tenor, albeit with signs of being a bit worn out. Alagna delivers a stable and even sound, strong top notes that never verged on a scream. His Cavaradossi gave a very interesting phrasing. For example, the line “Tosca, sei tu!” was sung from forte into long pianissimo instead of traditional long forte. Alagna’s E lucevan le stelle was impeccably beautiful, his cry for victory Vittorio! was powerful and poignant. At the same time his acting was static and uninventive.
George Ganidze as Scarpia deserves a standing bravissimo. Staunchly fat and evil, overwhelmingly powerful and sadistic, his Te Deum with blasphemous lyrics and lustful rubbing at Madonna’s statue brought horrifying goose-bumps. And thankfully this time, fellatio scenes of earlier versions were cut from his orgies in Act II. Ganidze’s Italian articulation is wonderful, yet it was disappointing to see how much the singer lacked charisma when interviewed during the intermission (Ganidze heavily relied on his interpreter and could barely take part in the conversation).
Patricia Racette (with all the expectations and all the due respect) was the main disappointment of the night, even when compared to Karita Mattila. Patricia Racette’s voice is unfortunately too shallow, flat, and narrow in its higher register. Her lower register has more volume, yet she evidently emerged as a lyric soprano attempting at a drama repertoire, which can be compared to a canary trying to yield a lion’s roar. The much needed chemistry between Racette and Alagna in Act I did not work – the singers were too full of themselves and quite static. Act II with Scarpia produced a better impression: the murder scene was acted well and brought several fresh insights: having stabbed Scarpia, Tosca looked as if considering a suicidal jump out of the window of Scarpia’s office. Yet Racette’s breathing was quite heavy, whereby Vissi d’arte sounded patchy and disastrous at the end. Act III highlighted the best of Patricia Racette’s drama: her signing and acting became more open and more convincing. Yet she is clearly not the Tosca type. Perhaps Patricia Racette, as a spinto soprano, could deliver a delightful Traviata, provided she slims down to rediscover her waist, sheds the abundant flesh on her arms, and masters the Italian phonetics.
A pleasant surprise came from an American bass-baritone Richard Bernstein who is definitely the one to watch. His Cesare Angelotti, even if reduced by Puccini to a mere episode in Act I had a voice that was full, rich, and surprisingly memorable. One only wonders why Metropolitan Opera would not feature him in more coveted roles.
Last but not least, the host of the night, a diva in her own right, Renee Fleming had an amazing camera presence. It is always a joy to watch Renee Fleming as a host, as she manages to engage technicians, choir directors, conductors, carpenters, etc. to highlight the complexities of the Met behind the scenes. As Tosca’s production team and cast were revealing, layer after layer, their impressive machinery, I could not help thinking that Renee Fleming harboured a regret of never being able to sing Tosca on that stage. Yet, unlike Patricia Racette, Renee is wisely aware where her strengths are. She reminded me that Tosca has also been an inspiring compass for many singing careers that never featured a Tosca part.
It is time to finalise this overview of Tosca, perhaps too long and self-indulgent. Yet that is what opera music and our love for it are. As I roll back the pages of the text, I glide over histories, individual lives, theatre productions, myths, memories and experiences. I am not sure whether I came close to grasp the essence of Tosca. Yet I feel that my more than two decade fascination with the drama is coming to another re-launch, for, after all, Tosca remains elusive, open to interpretations, and unsurpassed in its magnetism, or, in Tosca’s own lines: