If this were a debate, Joseph Kerman would be in one corner, dissing Puccini’s Tosca, the opera he famously called a “shabby shocker”.
Kerman is not alone in that corner. Benjamin Britten wasn’t too thrilled with Tosca either. But I won’t commit public seppuku by disrespecting Mr Britten, who—as a successful composer—is entitled to his opinion. Let’s stick to Kerman’s commentary.
Now of course this isn’t a real debate. Kerman’s words were uttered in the context of a book, not as part of a discussion, and my responses to him may seem like attacks. But come to think of it, so do Kerman’s words about Tosca and Puccini.
So let’s be clear. This is a superficial discussion, not a scholarly paper. While others have already answered Kerman in various ways on his own scholarly turf, I am writing this mostly because Tosca opens in Toronto tomorrow –a night when I have a party to go to, so I can’t be there for opening night—and a friend of mine was asking what opera he should see as his first opera. I think he could do a lot worse than see the shabby shocker even if there is the danger that he might see other operas, and that opera might become an expensive hobby, speaking as someone who can’t resist buying CDs, DVDs, tickets, subscriptions…
Let’s focus on one tiny thing Kerman said that to my knowledge he has never retracted, possibly because to do so would be to admit just how wrong he was.
“Tosca leaps, and the orchestra screams the first thing that comes into its head.”
Whenever I read this, I want to scream at Kerman. But let’s pretend that I have learned self-restraint (if you can imagine that in the context of this big long self-indulgent rant).
When I was much younger I was sometimes guilty of saying the first thing that popped into my head. And it was sometimes a rude or dismissive remark that I would immediately regret and be unable to unsay no matter how hard I tried. I wonder what it’s like to have something in a book that you can’t unsay. But the book Opera as Drama has been published in several editions, and as far as I can tell Kerman has not tried to unsay his dismissive remark. Presumably he’s happy with this dismissive sentence, particularly because his dismissal is so well-known –and part of his fame—that it could have been printed on his business card.
Let’s think for a minute about orchestras, whether or not they say the first thing that comes into their “head”. It’s a funny image, really. Operas are a hybrid of words and music. If anything in an opera is the “head” it’s the words. The orchestra is the engine of emotion, the involuntary place of feeling and gut response, not the head. But let’s not split hairs, even if Kerman’s metaphor in some respects resembles the first lame thing that popped into HIS head.
Orchestral writing is a colossal job, sometimes written and copied and revised over a period of years –or if it’s Rossini, maybe a few weeks!—even though the effects can’t be purely cerebral. The orchestra is not the place for rational discourse, not the place to make precise statements, oh no. The music is a conduit of emotion. So when the effect seems calculated I don’t believe we are nearly so moved as when the effect seems –wait for it—spontaneous.
Hm… spontaneous. That reminds me of something. When I am spontaneous, I am not thinking and pondering and being fake. I am saying the first thing that pops into my head. Funny isn’t it? Is Kerman criticising Puccini at some level for doing something that resembles a kind of ideal(?): orchestral writing that seems spontaneous?
Okay, let’s set Mr Kerman aside for a moment. I want to look at Puccini and actually speak of Tosca, shabby or otherwise.
Act III is a marvellous piece of music theatre, a fact not lost on the many people who see this opera again and again. Tosca has been identified as number eight among the twenty most popular operas in a study by Opera America known as “cornerstones”.
The first two acts set us up for the last act, particularly the last five minutes.
- Tyrannical police chief Baron Scarpia loves the beautiful singer Floria Tosca
- Tosca loves the painter Mario Cavaradossi; Tosca is so despondent that she offers herself to Scarpia, to get Scarpia to promise a fake execution & a safe conduct pass to allow the lovers to escape; when Scarpia claims his reward–to possess her body (and that’s as polite as i can put it)– she stabs him just as he expects a consummation
- Cavaradossi loves Tosca; the painter is imprisoned awaiting execution as the last act opens
Got that? It’s not really complicated, not once you’ve watched Scarpia’s henchmen torturing Cavaradossi in Tosca’s presence (Act II), sadistically pushing her to the point where she betrays Cavaradossi, thinking she is saving him. While some operas can move as slowly as a glacier, that’s not what Tosca is like. And then we get closer to the last five minutes.
Cavaradossi is alone in prison, wondering if he will ever see his beloved Tosca again. He sings one of the prettiest arias anyone has ever written, e lucevan le stelle. This simple reminiscence of the pleasures of life and love in the despairing moments immediately before execution is one of the many reasons this opera is so successful. From the first note you hear a kind of existential loneliness.
Not long after this solo, Tosca shows up. In the previous act, she suffered a horrible ordeal, watching her lover dragged away to execution. She sank so low that the only way she could bargain for her lover’s life was to offer herself to Scarpia, the police chief. He promised to arrange a fake execution for Cavaradossi. It’s not as unlikely as you might think, for Scarpia wanted Tosca’s body, and so was completely vulnerable to her at the moment when he expected a kiss. Tosca carries the safe conduct paperwork that is the last logistical detail to enable her and her lover to have a happily ever after, against all odds, and of course has no idea that Scarpia has double-crossed her as surely as she double-crossed him.
And so, the deal as Tosca understood it is that the execution is fake. The guns will fire blanks, so Cavaradossi must fall down as if he has been shot. This is what Tosca tells Cavaradossi, hoping for the best as she watches what she believes to be a fake execution.
But Tosca has underestimated Scarpia even in death. Although she double-crossed Scarpia (stabbing him just when he expects something tender) it turns out the police chief has double-crossed her too, as he simply wanted Tosca’s body with no expectation of giving her anything in return. Tosca watches what she believes to be a fake execution, even though it is actually genuine.
And so we come to the last five minutes of Tosca, as if it were a little pantomime-within-an-opera. Tosca is the audience, watching what she believes to be a fake execution, hoping her lover will make a convincing imitation of death, never guessing that his performance will be perfect because it’s not an imitation.
The soldiers trudge in to a remarkably banal little tune, because the soldiers are just doing their jobs, bored, and indifferent. And the music builds gradually, Cavaradossi takes his place, is offered a blindfold which he gallantly refuses. He smiles boldly because of course he doesn’t think he is going to die. Tosca is eating it up, as the music gradually builds. The soldiers lift their rifles. The music inexorably gets louder. They take aim.
They fire and the sound is terrifying, particularly when we see Cavaradossi fall.
Tosca is moved by his artistry.
And then the music gradually quiets from its climax, as the soldiers finish their boring job, inexorable and completely insensitive to the man before them whether he’s dying or pretending.
They march away.
When the soldiers are gone, Tosca tells Cavaradossi it’s time to wake up, and runs to him, all eager and innocent as a little girl on Christmas morning, because now she can have her happily ever after. She runs to him, tells him to get up. And when it dawns on her that he is really dead her heart breaks very quickly, no arias, no time to comment: because the cops are now coming for her.
They have found Scarpia’s body. The execution took place in a fortress in Rome. To escape the pursuit, and indeed, devastated by her loss, Tosca runs to the parapet, hurls a defiant word at Scarpia—that they would be judged together before God—and then jumps.
What is the first thing that pops into the “head” of the orchestra? (recalling Kerman)
The prettiest tune we heard all night –e lucevan le stelle– was a celebration of love and romance in the face of imminent death. But the orchestra is now as powerful as it was previously gentle, flooding us with this passionate and beautiful tune.
It makes perfect sense doesn’t it? The orchestra is telling us the subtext for the moment: love and the brevity of life.
I feel kind of sorry for Kerman that he doesn’t get it.
Here’s a film version of those last few minutes complete with titles. Have a look…