Great moments in opera: Tosca

June 22, 2014

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 (andhasbeen) 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.

8 Responses to “Great moments in opera: Tosca

  1. If my memory is correct, my first exposure to opera was Callas in Tosca, at the hands of an aunt who thought Callas was a goddess and was also delighted that finally someone in the family was interested in classical music. (I was 18 or so at the time. As far as I know none of her three children, my contemporaries, ever developed the least taste for it.) I suppose it was probably that same recording. I was unenthused by the music as a whole, and completely insensitive to Callas’s particular gift. I do remember thinking it was quite a story, though. Since then I’ve warmed up to opera to some degree, and have had some memorable experiences (e.g. with Wagner) but I suppose at this point in my life I’ll never become a real fan. I’ll listen to these clips when I get a chance, as your description makes them seem very appealing.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I don’t remember my first exposure to opera, but I do remember the first opera recording I ever purchased: it was Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, which seems a very strange choice now. But I liked it a great deal. Even stranger was the first opera I ever attended in live performance: it was The Golden Ass, composed by a Canadian (name forgotten) with a libretto by Robertson Davies. It was the Davies connection that got me into the seat; I was (and am) an admirer of his novels.

    The Callas Tosca was one of my first opera recordings, and I do love it. I’ve never been tempted to buy any other recordings of that opera. I’m not surprised that you were underwhelmed by Callas the first time you heard her; as with anything, one needs some experience before one can be discerning. Her special qualities stand out when one can hear her against a background of lesser talents.

    Despite this long series of posts I’ve written on operas (approaching 70 or 80 of them now, I think), I don’t consider myself an opera fanatic. I’m just trying to learn more about the form, and this is my way of doing it.

  3. cburrell Says:

    At that first opera performance, I remember being so surprised that the singers didn’t use microphones! Yes, I was a rustic from the provinces. I also remember puzzling over my ticket, which said that I was sitting with the orchestra. Well, I figured it out eventually.

  4. Ha. I think I had the same moment of confusion when I saw “orchestra” on a ticket price list.

    It’s true that one needs experience to discern the gift of someone like Callas. For all I knew that was just what all opera singers sounded like. Sadly, though, to this day my ability to appreciate a voice acknowledged to be great is still pretty limited.

  5. Well, I watched the Callas clip twice, and even though I still can’t articulate a comparison of her singing to another’s…wow. That is an extremely potent performance. One thing about Callas in that role is that you never for a moment doubt that she’s capable of stabbing Scarpia.

  6. Adam Hincks Says:

    My first blog post on Ibo was about Tosca. An Italian friend says that everyone in Italy always weeps at the end (and this is confirmed if you read the first comment of that post!), so if the pathos of the final scene was deliberately heightened, it has the intended effect.

    When I was recently in Rome, I visited the terrace of the Gregorian University with a friend of mine who works there. He pointed out to me the locations of each of the three acts of this opera within the city.

  7. cburrell Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the Callas clip, Mac. You’re right that she conveys the character of Tosca superbly well. This is one of the interesting things about Callas that opera aficionados will often emphasize: in addition to being a great singer, she was a great actress. Opera, obviously, calls for both, but the number of people who can do both well is small.

    I’d forgotten about that post, Adam. I’m smiling at the thought of all those Italians crying. As much as I love their country, perhaps I’ll never truly be able to warm my Nordic blood enough to experience the world as they do!

    If I should ever get back to Rome, I’d like to visit Palazzo Farnese; I’ve never seen it.

    I’ve stood atop Castel Sant-Angelo for a view of Rome: what a sight! Probably I’d have been able to see the Gregorian University — and even waved to whomever was surveying the city from there — if I’d have known where it was.

  8. As far as I know I’m pretty much 100% British Isles, though not directly Nordic, and I will confess to being a little misty-eyed at the end of that last clip.

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