Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… Tosca

Continuing the series on our writers’ operatic passions, Sam Smith reveals his admiration for one of Puccini’s best-loved works


David McVicar’s production at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Ken Howard)

Critic Joseph Kerman described Tosca as ‘that shabby little shocker’, while conductors have suggested they need to tackle the opera once a year to release all that is pent up inside them! With the piece full of intrigue and death, as none of the three main characters survive to the end, Tosca is nothing if not melodramatic.

Yet it is the dramatic rather than the melodramatic aspects of the work that move me the most. It may be no accident that Kerman’s comment came in a book entitled Opera as Drama, and for all that the opera can be seen as hyperbolic, it still adds up to a perfect piece of drama. Although the story, based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 French language play La Tosca, is a fiction, the historical events against which it takes place are entirely real. These do more than provide a backdrop to the action, and prove absolutely crucial to what unfolds.

It is hard to think of another opera that occurs in such a specific time and place. All of the events take place during the afternoon, evening and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800, following the Battle of Marengo between Napoleon’s army and Austrian forces. The Austrians were initially triumphant and sent news of victory back to Rome, but the city’s celebrations were cut short when a later report revealed that Napoleon subsequently mustered reinforcements and actually inflicted a crushing defeat.

Tosca is set around the hours when the contradictory messages arrive in Rome, and in three specific locations in the city: the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo. It is one opera that very few directors choose to set in anything other than its original time and place. Some have tried, but when the piece stipulates these so precisely it is easy to work with them, and hard to find another setting that provides appropriate parallels with every facet of the original.

Dramatically, the opera rests heavily on chance events because at the start two people – the painter Cavaradossi and singer Tosca – are simply going about their normal lives. They are then thrust into such an extraordinary situation that by the following morning both are dead. We can follow the chain of events that lead to this, but it is the speed at which everything happens that matters. Whether we attribute the point of no return to the moment at which Cavaradossi initially decides to help the fugitive Angelotti, or to the occasion on which a jealous Tosca heads to Cavaradossi’s villa (which leads to the painter being implicated when Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta follows her) their fate seems largely sealed by the end of Act I. In fact, things escalate so quickly that Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ in Act II represents in part the first time she can pause for breath to ask how she ever got put into this situation.  

The power of the score and the inventiveness of its orchestration are widely recognised, and the music is adept at capturing many emotions simultaneously. For example, in Act III when the soldiers march on to shoot Cavaradossi it simultaneously conveys the routine nature of the business from their point of view, the fear felt by Tosca despite believing everything will be all right (she has been told it will be a mock execution), and our own absolute sense of impending doom. That the same theme feels more ‘dysfunctional’ as they march off again adds a cry of anguish to the mix before we even know of the tragic end.

“…it is the dramatic rather than the melodramatic aspects of the work that move me the most”

The drama also provides many opportunities for performers to play out the subtexts. I am a great believer that as soon as Tosca tells Cavaradossi of the escape plan in Act III, he realises neither of them will be getting out of the situation alive. He may have worked out that Scarpia double crossed Tosca when he promised a mock execution, but crucially he cannot believe she could ever escape from the Castel Sant’Angelo before someone discovered Scarpia’s body and got to the site. In other words, he believes she is already as dead as he, and this would make sense. If he thought she had any chance of surviving, he would be urging her to escape then and there. As he does not, he realises all he can do is make her final moments happy ones by getting her to picture in her mind the perfect life that he suggests they have before them.

This still represents an interpretation, but it is one to which most directors and performers seem to subscribe. In Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production for the Royal Opera, Cavaradossi actually discards their passport out of the city in disgust at the moment at which he believes Tosca slept with Scarpia to obtain it. When he learns the truth, however, he makes no effort to retrieve it as a way of emphasising that he knows they will not be getting that far. When Vittorio Grigolo assumes the role, pain and anguish are written all over his face in a way that makes it obvious he knows they are doomed. When Luciano Pavarotti played the part, his expressions were more subtle, but the very fact they were ambiguous made the same point in its own right.

With the majority of productions sticking to the original time and place, the measure of the strength of most versions lies in the details they offer. Kent’s Royal Opera production places much commentary within the curved walls of the late Paul Brown’s sets. For example, Act I presents the underbelly of Rome’s Sant’Andrea della Valle, with the Attavanti chapel lying both behind and below the church’s main altar. From the audience’s vantage point the nave and chancel stand above the stage, with marble columns and candles proclaiming beauty and light. In contrast, the lower level provides a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of the church, where different artistic and architectural styles vie for attention.

This more cluttered area reveals the church to be imperfect as an institution, which in the context of the Neapolitan occupation derives from its virtual inseparability from police and state. Indeed, during the Te Deum when the choir and crowd sing to the heavens above, Scarpia alone occupies the entire lower level revealing how, in practice, he rules over all three of these domains.

Sir David McVicar’s 2017 production for the Metropolitan Opera saw designer John Macfarlane take real notice of the original locations and reproduce them as closely as possible. In most cases adjustments were required to fulfil certain theatrical requirements, but when it came to the Castel Sant’Angelo the ramparts proved so amenable to a stage that he simply presented them as they exist. The production also possesses a host of interesting touches. For example, after Cavaradossi is shot one soldier moves to stab the body but is prevented from doing so by Spoletta. It suggests that part of the ‘Count Palmieri’ procedure is not to do what might be done in other cases, and that Spoletta is determined to keep up a pretence, but in any case it certainly heightens the drama.  

Another classic production comes in the form of Franco Zeffirelli’s Royal Opera version that immediately preceded Kent’s, and ran for forty years. Its initial outing in 1964 featured the dream cast of Maria Callas as Tosca, Renato Cioni as Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. Act II was filmed and represents the only (at least extant) film of Callas in any staged opera. She is still widely recognised as the greatest exponent of the role, and so anyone who ever gets the opportunity to see this footage, which has appeared before now on Sky Arts, should seize it at all costs.

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Why I Love… Tosca