Written by: Alexander Campbell
The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.
Who wrote it?
Since its premiere in January 1900 Puccini’s Tosca has been an audience favourite. This composer had instinctive dramatic instincts and this opera includes three great central roles with plenty of opportunity for interpreters to imprint individuality and dramatic force, as well as great arias, an impressive choral finale to the first Act, torture and murder in the second, and a final Act where the tragedy unfolds with unstoppable momentum.
The opera is based on La Tosca by French playwright Victorien Sardou which Puccini saw in 1889 some two years after it was written. Once he and his publishers had obtained the rights the libretto was crafted by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica with much, not always welcome, input from the composer. Owing to the setting the premiere was in Rome and a great public success although the critical appraisal was, and sometimes remains, somewhat muted. Its London premiere followed a few months later, with the American one, at the Metropolitan, following in 1901.
It is an opera recorded and filmed many times.
What’s it about?
We are in Rome in June 1800. The city is under the control of the kingdom of Naples, its short period as a Republic under consular rule having ended when the French withdrew in 1799. The French, under Napoleon, have once again entered Italy from the north. The city is therefore under threat of occupation once more and political tensions are running high.
Act One occurs in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. Decorations are underway as there is scaffolding enabling artists to paint new murals. A scruffily dressed man rushes in as if pursued. He heads to the statue of the Madonna, finds a key at its feet and enters the private Attavanti chapel where he conceals himself. The Sacristan enters, followed by Cavaradossi, the aristocratic artist working in the church. As the painting is revealed the Sacristan comments that the face of the newly-painted Madonna resembles a lady who has been seen praying in recent weeks. Cavaradossi admits the lady’s features are to his own lover, the operatic diva Floria Tosca. Continuing to work Cavaradossi suddenly sees the man emerging from the chapel and recognises him as Cesare Angelotti, the former consul of the Roman Republic who was imprisoned by the Naples forces. He has escaped from imprisonment by the Chief of Police Baron Scarpia. Sympathetic to his plight Cavaradossi offers to assist Angelotti’s escape but their departure is interrupted as Tosca is heard approaching. Cavaradossi explains his lover is jealous, religious and naïve and so advises Angelotti to hide once again.
Tosca arrives to pray, and to make plans with her lover for their evening. She thought she had heard voices and jealously accuses Cavaradossi of conducting an affair. He allays her fears only for them to resurface when she sees the painting. She recognises the face! It’s the Marchesa d’Attavanti! Furious, she once again accuses him of infidelity. He explains how he came to paint her without her knowing. Tosca is reluctantly accepting of the story but as she leaves asks that the eye-colour of the painted lady be changed.
Angelotti re-emerges, refreshed by the food left for Cavaradossi, and carrying a bundle of woman’s clothing which his sister, the Marchesa d’Attavanti, had left in the chapel to help him escape. Suddenly the cannon from the fortress is heard. Angelotti’s escape has been discovered. Cavaradossi offers to lead Angelotti to safety at his villa. He can stay there for as long as needed, and in extremis can hide in a hidden chamber located in the well of the garden.
The Sacristan reappears surrounded by the church choristers. They rejoice at the news that Napoleon’s forces have apparently been defeated, but the church suddenly fills with policemen and Scarpia enters, furiously searching for the escaped prisoner. He orders preparations for the Mass to commence and sets his henchmen to search the private chapel. They find the empty food basket and a lady’s crested fan. He also notices the painting and on discovering the artist is Cavaradossi suspects his involvement in Angelotti’s escape. Suddenly Tosca arrives. She had come to tell Cavaradossi that her plans have changed as she will need to perform at the official celebrations of the French defeat that evening. Scarpia insinuates that Cavaradossi may be unfaithful to Tosca, using the fan as bait. Tosca recognises the crest and rushes off in furious jealous pursuit of her supposedly fickle lover. Scarpia sets his spies to follow her.
In Act Two we are in Scarpia’s chambers at the Palazzo Farnese. His henchman Spoletta arrives. Nervously he admits to not having found Angelotti; he has however arrested Cavaradossi. He is led in and the two men bristle verbally as Tosca is heard singing outside. She arrives in the room just as her lover is led out for further questioning. Scarpia goads Tosca. Why is she so agitated? Has she something to hide? Scarpia reveals her lover is being tortured; she hears his screams. Under duress Tosca reveals Angelotti’s whereabouts. Scarpia’s henchmen are dispatched. When Cavaradossi learns that Tosca has revealed the secret he is furious. At this moment news arrives that Napoleon’s forces rallied and have defeated the Naples forces at the Battle of Marengo. This inspires Cavaradossi to an impassioned declaration of republicanism. Furiously Scarpia orders his imprisonment and subsequent execution. Tosca is left to plead for his life and asks what price Scarpia would accept as a bribe. He will accept one thing only – for Tosca to submit to his carnal desires. She is repulsed and appalled, but agrees. She demands guarantee of a safe passage to leave the state. Scarpia agrees but there must be a mock-execution. He sits at his desk to sign the pass document, before he turns his attention to his female prize. In the spur of the moment Tosca grabs a knife and plunges it into Scarpia’s heart stabbing him repeatedly until he dies. She then forgives him before God, leaving lit candles around the body before leaving to rescue her lover.
In Act Three we are on the rooftop platform of the Castel Sant’Angelo open to the sky. It is before dawn. Awaiting execution Cavaradossi bribes a guard to give him pen and paper. He writes his farewell to Tosca. Rather unexpectedly she arrives and shows him the document ensuring safe passage. He reacts incredulously as Tosca reveals her murder of Scarpia. However, when he hears he must submit to the mock-execution he becomes less effusive. They sing of their future happiness; she with fervour and he with apprehension. The firing-squad arrives. To off-stage encouragement from Tosca he submits to his fate. The shots are fired and he falls to the ground. Tosca waits for the soldiers to disperse before coming to tell him all is clear. Only then does she realise the shooting was real. As she does so Scarpia’s murder has been discovered; Spoletta and his cronies burst onto the stage. Tosca has only one way of escape…
Look out for…
Tosca the opera starts out in style as the opening theme, associated with Scarpia, thunders out from the pit. It has superb arias and set-pieces for the three protagonists. Tosca herself is a gift of a part. She needs to be playful, imperious, jealous, desperate, reflective, optimistic and suicidal. Her most famous aria is ‘Vissi d’arte’ – a rather curious episode in the second Act where, whilst Scarpia is demanding sexual favours, the action stops and the soprano pours out her heart to her God. It is the moment we see her free from artifice and pretence for the vulnerable person she truly is.
Cavaradossi has two great arias with Tosca as their inspiring force.
Scarpia is a rewarding role as the character is so complex. He must be charismatic as well as villainous and how singers choose to manifest that in vocal and dramatic terms is always exciting.
Puccini’s music is direct and emotionally manipulative, brilliantly penned. It is classic music of the Verismo (realism) genre – heady, emotional and thrilling.
Who’s in it?
For various reasons there have been numerous cast changes, including Opolais, Kaufmann and Terfel withdrawing. The cast now includes Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca; her dark-toned and intensely Italianate-sounding voice should be ideal for the role, and she certainly has the necessary dramatic temperament. Vittorio Grigolo is Cavaradossi, which should suit his impassioned style. As Scarpia there is the imposing Serbian baritone Željko Lučić; he is justly famed for his villainous characters and also beautiful and powerful singing. Emmanuel Villaume (replacing Levine replacing Nelsons) conducts Sir David McVicar’s new staging.
When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on Saturday January 27.