Few operas have divided opinion as thoroughly as Tosca.
Benjamin Britten once said he was “sickened by the cheapness and emptiness” of its music, while American musicologist Joseph Kerman famously dismissed Puccini’s second hit opera as “that shabby little shocker”. Yet it didn’t take much effort by audiences to overcome its sometime reputation as a B-grade movie thriller. They’ve grown to love its soaring music and sensationalist, lurid story.
And true enough. Tosca sidesteps all of opera’s usual niceties and plunges the listener into a bloodied chapter of Italian history with torture scenes, murder, execution by firing squad and suicide. It is Puccini’s hardest hitting verismo opera. Tosca as the central figure is a celebrated raven-haired opera singer who finds herself drawn into a cadre of liberationists and Napoleon sympathisers who are trying to overthrow corrupt authoritarian rule in Rome. Baron Scarpia, a chilling general of the secret police, systematically hunts them down and gaols them.
There is no room for the picturesque. Tosca has none of La Bohème’s bittersweet charm or Madama Butterfly’s endearing exoticism – the two works either side of it. This is Puccini at his most hair-raising. In 1889, the composer saw Victorien Sardou’s pro-revolutionary French play La Tosca while it toured Italy, and immediately he knew had a winner on his hands; but he had to wait a full six years and fight off other composers before securing the rights to turn it into an opera. Even Verdi briefly toyed with the idea of taking it on, but thought its finale, in which Tosca leaps to her death from a castle parapet, was too violent.
State Opera’s forthcoming production promises to hide nothing either. Director Cath Dadd says the political angle of Tosca is one thing. “The reign of terror depicted in Tosca reminds one of Mugabe, of Saddam Hussein, and going back to Pol Pot in Cambodia. Another modern-day example is Putin in Russia: there they’ve traded one Stalin for another. Opera can hold up a mirror to society and make you think, ‘Oh my gosh that’s happening right now’.”
Yet what most interests her in Tosca is not the politics but the human story Puccini tells. “You’ve got to do that especially with Puccini,” Dadd says. “He was always taken by the story – the plays he saw, the subjects he chose. It is always the characters that drive the story. You can always tell what they’re thinking. They shed real tears, they bled real blood.
“Tosca was no shrinking violet, she was not a victim. She could hold her own, and she regains her dignity by taking her own life after the shocking incident when Scarpia tries to rape her. She knows that the only answer is either to escape from the city or end her life.
“That she was living in sin with her artist friend Cavaradossi shocked audiences of the day. But the violence that was meted out to her was another shock. When they saw this they felt assaulted by the senses.”
Tosca might have lost none of its power, but that hasn’t prevented some directors trying to update it. The story has been transplanted to the fall of the Berlin wall, and another production by John Bell for Opera Australia relocated it to the period Mussolini. But Cadd rejects all such “meddling” as artistically untruthful. “I can’t find any way of doing it other than in Napoleon’s time because it is written in the text,” she says. “In act one the officials shout ‘Bonaparte… scellerato’ (Bonaparte…the scoundrel) and ‘Bonaparte è vincitor!’ (Bonaparte has won!) in the second. You cannot place any of that in a modern context, yet the story being told is still relevant to any time.
“I still cry at the end of it. There is torture music when Cavaradossi is being beaten. It is brutal, not gentle music, and you have to be on your mettle to play this piece.”
Conductor Nicholas Braithwaite is leading the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in this production. He agrees novel interpretations of Tosca are not the answer. “Where I take exception is where people think they can do better,” he says. The search for novelty can become an end in itself. The point is Puccini and his librettists were consummate operatic professionals. It is our job to get that across.
“Yes Tosca is brutal, because the subject is brutal. It could really be called Scarpia because it all centres on him as a total psychopath. He is totally evil, sadistic and manipulative, a real lesson in history. You hear it in the opera’s first three bars where the whole orchestra snarls. This is his signature motif. Puccini uses four trombones, not three trombones and a tuba, which makes a huge difference – it just sounds much more nasty.
“But then you also have beautiful moments such as a shepherd boy with his flock and the bells of Rome just before the light of dawn in the beginning of Act 3. Puccini creates a magical and luscious sound in this score.”
In turn this can make Puccini more difficult to perform than Wagner, Braithwaite says, because that richness can in turn spur performers to give too much. “Wagner rarely has a full orchestra going on when a singer is in full voice, so you don’t have to struggle to achieve balance,” he says. “But with Puccini, orchestras can enjoy themselves too much.”
State Opera of South Australia
Saturday, November 12 to Saturday, November 19