Puccini’s Tosca has been an opera-house favourite since its premiere in 1900. Joseph Kerman famously dismissed it as “a shabby little shocker”, not without some reason, for it does have an unusually vicious villain, and the finale does play in a merciless and calculated way on the audience’s heartstrings, but the music is memorable and winsome, and in opera that generally carries the day.
The action of the plot takes place in a specific 24 hour period — 17-18 June 1800 — and the three Acts are set in three famous landmarks in Rome: the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo. The action opens with a young painter, Cavaradossi, working on a mural in Sant’Andrea della Valle. He is interrupted by a friend, a political prisoner just escaped from prison. He offers him food, clothing, and a refuge on his estate. His lover, Tosca, then makes her entrance. Soon enough the fates of all three will be entangled. At this point, however, we are simply treated to a lovely duet (Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta?) (Do you not long for our little cottage?) between Cavaradossi and Tosca:
After Tosca’s departure, the Chief of Police, Scarpia, enters the church in pursuit of the escaped prisoner. Cavaradossi denies all knowledge, but Scarpia does not believe him; Cavaradossi is arrested.
In the second Act, the evil in Scarpia’s heart becomes fully evident: he brings Tosca in for questioning and vows to torture and kill Cavaradossi unless she will submit to his lecherous advances. She, hearing Cavarodossi’s cries of pain, vacillates as to what she should do in the famous aria Vissi d’arte (I lived for art). This is one of the best-known soprano arias in all of opera, and with good reason.
Much to my joy, we can listen to Maria Callas sing this aria! I haven’t featured Maria Callas much in these “Great moments in opera” posts because I generally prefer to embed live action, staged, and subtitled clips, and there is precious little live action footage of Callas. This clip of Vissi d’arte, however, meets all of my criteria. I am especially pleased about this because the role of Tosca is indelibly associated with Callas: her 1953 recording (opposite Giuseppe di Stefano and under the baton of Victor de Sabata) is widely considered to be the greatest recording of Tosca. Indeed, in a discussion of the greatest opera recordings ever made, it would have to be (and – has – been) part of the discussion.
Anyway, here she is singing Vissi d’arte, in a 1958 recording. (The clip is unfortunately not embeddable.)
The outcome of Tosca’s prayerful deliberation is a cunning scheme: she consents to submit to Scarpia’s desires on condition that he afterwards grant Cavaradossi and her safe passage out of Rome. He agrees, but stipulates that Cavaradossi must first go before the firing squad, as planned. He tells Tosca that he will have the soldiers fire blanks — never intending, of course, to honour the promise. He writes and signs her letter of safe passage. Then, as he approaches her, she draws his knife from his belt and stabs him. When he collapses on the floor, she grabs the passport and runs.
As the third Act opens, Cavaradossi is awaiting execution. In the quiet of the early morning, as the last stars he will ever see begin to fade from view, he sings what is one of my favourite arias in the repertoire, E lucevan le stelle. It’s a great example of Puccini’s art: simple in construction, lasting not longer than a typical pop song, but powerfully affecting. It begins with a quiet dialogue between the singer and a clarinet; the singer ruminates on a recitation tone, and the clarinet answers with a plaintive rising and falling phrase. Then, as the aria gathers momentum, the singer adopts the same arcing phrase, to wonderful effect. My favourite moment in the aria comes somewhere near the mid-point: as the singer reaches the top of his arc, Puccini has him drop to pianissimo and add a gorgeous little decoration. In the right hands, this comes through as meltingly gorgeous. Here is Joseph Calleja showing us how it is done:
Tosca tells him of the deal she struck with Scarpia, and of her subsequent murder of him. She instructs Cavaradossi to go bravely before the firing squad, and, when he hears the shots, to feign injury, falling and lying still until the soldiers leave. He, overjoyed, yet eager to flee before Scarpia’s murder is discovered, agrees. But of course the squad does not fire blanks, and though Cavaradossi falls and lies still, he feigns nothing.
These moments, immediately before and after the shooting, are the dramatic high point of the opera, and for many they are powerfully effective, but I have reservations. The dramatic situation is precisely but cruelly calibrated, and to me it feels manipulative. Listen to the music Puccini writes after the shots ring out: the agony is allowed so much time to ripen that I almost feel Puccini is relishing it. Is this just me recoiling from a particularly powerful but painful dramatic success? Maybe so, but I can’t shake the feeling that the scene, which might have been superb, is, in the end, too indulgent of feelings that I’ve no wish to cultivate.
Here is the scene, beginning a minute or so prior to the execution. We’ll watch it through to the end of the opera.