Tosca is on my mind after the final performance yesterday.
Several of Puccini’s melodies are having their way with me, stuck in my head. I’m not complaining. But I can’t stop thinking about the opera and the Canadian Opera Company’s production. Erika and I attended the closing matinee Saturday, leading to this. I sometimes speak of Pollyanna as my alter-ego, that I promise that above all I must not do any harm in reviews. When the show is closed, however perhaps I can say a few things..?
I love Tosca almost more than any opera I know of, given that I’m unable to see Pelléas or Parsifal anytime soon. Is it perhaps time for critics to give it a rest about the critiques from Shaw, Britten and Joseph Kerman? If Tosca is a shabby shocker, what does that make Hitchcock’s Vertigo, ranked the greatest movie of all time a few years ago by the British Film Institute. Tosca is a flawless creation, arguably the greatest of Puccini’s operas and like Wagner 2.0 with its subtle use of themes in an opera that gets so much done quickly and economically, while packing in audiences time after time. I saw the COC show twice, the second time on my own $ via my COC subscription. And for what it’s worth, as I discussed renewing our subscription with Erika over the past few weeks, nothing was more persuasive than hearing Stefano La Colla sing “E lucevan le stelle.” Thank you Puccini, for persuading Erika to renew.
Let me also speak briefly about one of Kerman’s worst phrases in Opera as Drama, when he speaks of the way Tosca ends. He says “Tosca leaps, and the orchestra screams the first thing that comes into its head.” The orchestra give us that same plaintive melody, “E lucevan le stelle” but this time, not softly. It’s a reminder of the precious moments in life that we cherish. Yet why would it be bad for an orchestra to scream the first thing that comes into its head? Orchestras represent emotion, not contrived fake drama. An orchestra being honest and emotional? Kerman must be jealous at some deep level of what happens at this moment, that Puccini is so insightful and clever in the way he constructs Act III of Tosca.
I wonder though, have we lost touch with how the work was written, how it was framed for the audiences in 1900 and shortly thereafter? I’m thinking of the context of Christianity that frames the work. Tosca is pious, Cavaradossi is not, and Scarpia nods toward convention even if he’s a complete hypocrite. Let me enlarge on that, as I think there are some things in Paul Curran’s production for the COC that are more aligned with the values of 2023 than with the time of the opera’s premiere in 1900, let alone the time of its setting, 1800. I get that from the mention of the Battle of Marengo, which was on June 14 1800.
Let me mention a few things where maybe we’ve lost track of the story and Puccini.
Angelotti is a refugee who hides in a church. If you recall the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the idea of sanctuary is fundamental, that anyone great or poor can find shelter in a church. That Angelotti must run away is bad enough. Scarpia comes barging into the church with his “Un tal baccano in Chiesa! Bel rispetto!” He enters as the defender of the faith, not its violator. In the COC production we see him obsess over Tosca while the Te Deum begins. And then Roland Wood strides past the priest and the assembled ceremony as though it were nothing, as though this priest were a nobody. Sorry that’s wrong (although this is surely what the director asked, as it was the same the last time we saw this production a few years ago). He supposedly comes to his senses (or as it says in the score “riavendosi come da un sogno” : coming back as though from a dream) to say Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!… (“Tosca you makeme forget God!”). The score tells us that he crosses himself, kneels and prays devoutly, as opposed to walking past the priest without any sign of respect. Benito Mussolini in the 1930s would have been more respectful than what we saw from our Scarpia.
Okay, modern productions are permitted to take liberties. Of course we’re constantly watching modernized versions, impacted by our changing attitudes. Tosca is supposedly devout. While Keri Alkema really plays this (although a critic I know felt she was too restrained, preferring the edgier approach of Sinéad Campbell-Wallace ) it becomes problematic when the storyline is no longer consistent. Tosca (Sinéad that is) throws the fan at the painting, something rather over-the-top even if it’s an exciting moment, tears up the sketches and throws them like confetti in the church. If she’s devout would she do that? I ask this as a 21st century Christian Protestant, who feels some need to bow towards a sanctuary when I’m in it, let alone if I visit a Catholic church, which is usually even more formal about such things than a Protestant space. If I’m feeling that, surely a devout Christian woman of 1800 would be respectful. When she kills Scarpia and then says she forgives him, it shouldn’t evoke laughter (which I’ve heard in modern performances), even if yes that seems odd to us nowadays that she kills him and then forgives him. But I think it’s written in context with her piety, to represent her horror at what she’s done, leading her to put the cross on his chest as she’s leaving the body behind. And when Tosca calls out her final defiant line I believe she’s speaking out of piety, saying “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” (Oh Scarpia, before God!) to say that she’s confident he is more evil and her actions would be excused by God. Yes it’s a Sarah Bernhardt kind of moment, a histrionic instant to conclude. But it’s a reminder that God is there from beginning to end.
I still have Tosca’s music running through my head, partly because I remember the show from yesterday, partly because I pulled out the score to look at a few moments that I love. From my childhood it changed how I think. I may have been a fool to take Cavaradossi so seriously but there it is, I love his sensuous outlook on life, his appreciation of beauty, his willingness to help his friend and to cheer for Napoleon’s victory (as did so many before and after…Beethoven too) over the tyranny of his home.
While I love Pelléas and adore Parsifal and admire Les Troyens, Tosca always fills seats. And I will be there to see and hear it next time they produce it. To me it’s perfect. It never gets old.