Monday, December 15, 2014

Moments in an inexorable drama (Puccini's Tosca)

Moments in an inexorable drama – a spotlight on Tosca’s musical highlights

Act I proper of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s 1995 opera Harvey Milk begins with music that is recognisable as the brutal Scarpia motif from Puccini’s opera Tosca. Why? Harvey Milk, the assassinated San Francisco City Supervisor and gay rights leader, loved opera and....well, Tosca is arguably the opera buff’s opera par excellence.
Critics may dismiss Tosca but it’s a particularly successful piece of music theatre. Its libretto is as economical as a screenplay. At the same time audiences have great musical moments to savour. Trust Puccini to be able to detect the opera beneath a dialogue-heavy play - Sardou’s La Tosca of 1887.
I wouldn’t want to launch into an appreciation of Tosca’s great moments without first paying tribute to the swift and inexorable drama that Puccini and his librettists, particularly Illica the scenarist, created from Sardou’s well-made play. In operatic terms, Sardou’s play is too much - five acts, historical minutiae, 23 characters... Illica began the task of condensing it, reducing the number of characters and the number of acts. Together the Puccini team’s version concertina-ed the action, ratchetting up the tension, and most importantly making room for lyrical expansion (in other words arias and set pieces such as love duets).
Sardou’s play begins with the Sacristan and Cavaradossi’s servant Gennarino (not in the opera) discussing Cavaradossi’s habits. No stakes raised there! But Puccini’s curtain goes up on Angelotti, who has escaped from the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Puccini can get to the first of the opera’s ‘big numbers’ as quickly as possible.

Recondita armonia
And this is Cavaradossi’s aria – Recondita armonia (How strange a thing is beauty). Cavaradossi is painting a Mary Magdalene for the church where the First Act is set. Unconsciously almost, Cavaradossi has modelled his Magdalene on a woman who has been coming each day ostensibly to pray – the Attavanti, who has actually been preparing an escape kit to conceal in the family chapel for her brother, Angelotti. But Cavaradossi is in love with Tosca. How can he admire the Attavanti’s beauty at the same time? Cavaradossi muses on the power of art to merge all kinds of beauty.
The aria begins with one of the opera’s most striking orchestral effects. Hushed strings leading to hurdy gurdy-like swirls on flutes and clarinet. Lyricist Giacosa’s text consists of two verses of five lines each, over which Puccini constructs his ingenious melody. Cavaradossi’s musing is expressed in near-monotone, rising to a lyrical outpouring as he compares the two women’s eyes. Puccini returns to the ruminating single tones as Cavaradossi reflects on art, that ‘strange enigma’, before surging again - focussed on Tosca - to a top note. ‘Recondita armonia’ is often sung in concerts; in the theatre you get to hear it counterpointed with the Sacristan’s pious asides, a perfect example of how Puccini can use music to delineate contrasting characters.
The Sacristan leaves; Angelotti emerges from his hiding place. Puccini’s Cavaradossi recognises him as ‘the Consul of the former Roman republic’ and that is enough to establish him without Sardou’s lengthy introductions. But Tosca arrives and Angelotti must make himself scarce.

Act I Love Duet
It’s a tribute to the dramatic flow of this opera that many of the big numbers are also fully-fledged scenes, and can be discussed as such. Such is the case with the love duet in Act I, four lyrical sections interspersed with recitative.
The music settles as Tosca enters. Though her theme is sweetly orchestrated – flute and pizzicato strings - she’s jealous. Who was Mario talking to? Cavaradossi placates her and she talks (that is, in recitative) about their meeting later that evening. Ascertaining his happy expectation, she tells of her dream of a little house for the two of them in the country. We are 15 minutes in, precisely at the point where Oscar Hammerstein II later stipulated that the lead character in a show should have an ‘I Want Number’. Puccini follows Giacosa’s rhyming scheme here (although quite often, in this 20th century opera, he overrides it) and as she rises to her highest point: ‘... palpitate/ ...albor,/ ...stellate! / ...amor!’, Cavaradossi breaks in joking about how she ‘fetters’ him. But note, they rarely sing together in this love duet – that’s one of the realistic (‘verismo’) touches; after all, real people rarely speak at the same time. In another long recitative, Tosca notices the portrait of the Attavanti as Magdalene. Cavaradossi reassures her (‘Quale occhio’) that no eyes in all the world can equal the ‘dark, fiery eyes of my Tosca’. They now sing in duet, although it’s mostly dovetailing and interjection. Tosca leaves, calmer now that he’s sworn his love, and Cavaradossi can get Angelotti from his hiding place.
Keep in mind what’s happened here. There’s another love scene later in the opera (also another tenor aria) and after the events of Acts I and II, they’re both of a more piquant emotionalism.

Angelotti now mentions that he fell victim to Baron Scarpia, police chief of Rome, and Cavaradossi swears to defend Angelotti against the ‘dirty bigot’. A cannon shot announces discovery of Angelotti’s escape. Cavaradossi has given Angelotti the key to his villa. Swift contrasts abound: no sooner has Angelotti gone than the Sacristan and pupils enter to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat at Marengo. This plot beats like a modern script.
The children’s high jinks are quashed by the arrival of Scarpia.

Act I Finale 
We now have the set-up for what Mosco Carner described ‘as one of the most effective act-endings in all opera’. Against the performance of a Te Deum, Scarpia gives vent to his twin lusts to see Cavaradossi executed  and Tosca in his paws. It’s a real inspiration, this finale. But Puccini researched thoroughly for it, seeking from his friend Fr Panichelli the plainsong melody to which the Te Deum was sung in Roman churches, the correct order of the cardinal’s procession and even the costumes of the Swiss Guard. He even sought a text that could give the chorus a murmuring effect under Scarpia’s exultation. ‘Adjutorum nostrum in nomine Domini’ - say it softly to yourself and you’ll hear how skilfully Puccini guaranteed choral mumbling. Interestingly, this is the only traditional finale in the opera. It’s as if we leave behind old opera in Acts II and III.

Act II
Act II basically consists of two large arcs: Cavaradossi’s interrogation and torture; and Scarpia’s bargain and murder. It begins with Scarpia eating alone and considering how he prefers violently conquering a woman than to have her meekly surrender. Handed a copy of the libretto in 1895 and asked to versify a monologue for Scarpia, Giacosa objected that, finishing the first act with a monologue and beginning the second with another by the same character ‘is a bit monotonous – apart from the fact that...[a] Scarpia acts; he doesn’t explain himself in words’. Actually, Scarpia’s previous monologue takes place in the context of an ensemble piece, but perhaps Giacosa was right. Scarpia presents his credo in context later in this Act when he tells Tosca how, when she sprang into her lover’s arms like a leopard, he determined to have her (‘Già mi struggea’).
This act is even more of a dramatic continuum than the first. Full-blown melodic moments emerge subtly from the story as short-lived ariosi. Puccini’s librettists got rid of Sardou’s
Act Two (preparation for the cantata) and placed the performance of the cantata as background to the Scarpia-Cavaradossi scene (Sardou’s Act III) giving Puccini a superb opportunity for a quasi-realistic spatial effect – and irony - as the cantata is performed outside Scarpia’s rooms during Cavaradossi’s initial interrogation. Tosca arrives after singing; Cavaradossi has been led away for torturing. She tries to ignore his cries but eventually reveals Angelotti’s hiding place and is allowed to see Cavaradossi. At news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (the earlier news had been wrong), Cavaradossi bursts into a paean to victory, another lyrical outbreak. As Cavaradossi is taken back downstairs, Scarpia begins his pursuit. ‘Now let us talk like friends together’, he sings, in the style of a nonchalant barcarolle. He tells her she has the power in her hands to free Cavaradossi – and we know the price he’s asking. Off-stage drums indicate the march of the condemned (a Puccinian sound-effect driving the plot) and increase the urgency of what Tosca must decide. Now we reach the only stand-alone aria in the entire act.

Vissi d’arte
‘I lived for art; I lived for love. Never did I harm a living creature,’ sings Tosca, wondering what she’s done to deserve this predicament. This is one of Puccini’s most-famous numbers, ‘a splendid piece,’ said Mosco Carner, ‘demanding of the singer a perfect legato and radiant, liquescent tone.’ Yet Puccini came to regret its placement in the opera; it held up the flow, he thought.
The words ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’, sung to a celestially-descending phrase, actually form the introduction to the aria. Tosca then weaves her confused thoughts (‘Daily I pray...why am I now suffering?’) around the core melody which is mainly carried by flute and cellos. ‘I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,’ she goes on as violins, violas and cellos underscore the main melody and she rises to an impassioned climax. The aria is often greeted by applause in the theatre, but Puccini inserts Scarpia’s chords, odiously ingratiating, as the villain asks, ‘Your answer?’

In exchange for Tosca’s favours, Scarpia agrees to execute Cavaradossi but ‘as we did for Palmieri’. Tosca thinks he means a simulation. Scarpia writes out a safe-conduct for Tosca and Cavaradossi and as he gives it to her, she stabs him. Opera aficionados have argued over interpretations of this scene for 113 years. In the 2011 Covent Garden production, the dying Scarpia (Bryn Terfel) actually landed on top of Tosca (Angela Gheoghiu) and she had to pull herself out from under him.

Sardou describes the opening of Act III in quite some detail in his stage directions. How much more enjoyable is Puccini’s tone poem – Puccini even made a special trip to Rome to test the realistic effect of morning church bells from this spot. Here too is another example of Puccini’s use of situational music. The score was essentially complete when he asked the poet Luigi Zanazzo for some verses that would sound like a shepherd’s song of the Romagna, an oasis of calm, text that ‘must have nothing to do with the plot’. Toward the end of the prelude we hear an anticipation of Cavaradossi’s third act aria.

E lucevan le stelle
Cavaradossi asks for permission to pen a farewell to someone who is dear to him. Four solo cellos ‘sweetly’ repeat the love theme from Act I.
Originally Illica had written a paean to art and poetry here. Verdi was very impressed by it, when he happened to hear Illica read an early version of the libretto in Paris in 1894. But Puccini thought it had the wrong tone. Illica changed it to Cavaradossi’s reminiscence of a happier time. Puccini’s choice of clarinet to lead the melody makes it a particularly doleful recollection.

Tosca arrives and tells how she killed Scarpia after he had written their safe-conduct. Cavaradossi takes Tosca’s hands (‘dolci mani’) in his, and thus begins the third act Love Duet.

Act III Love Duet
This too unfolds in a series of lyrical sections ‘always interrupted at the right moment by recitatives/ariosi in which the action moves forward’ (Carner). Tosca tells Cavaradossi that his execution is to be a mock execution, and we now arrive at the point where Ricordi, Puccini’s publisher, had his biggest disagreement with the composer during the composition of the work for here, when Cavaradossi tells Tosca that he ‘minded death only because he would have to leave her’, Puccini inserted rejected music from an earlier opera, Edgar. ‘As it stands,’ huffed Puccini in reply, ‘[this “labour-saving device”] seems full of the poetry which breathes out of the words....As for its fragmentary character, that was deliberate..... In thought Tosca is constantly returning to the need for Mario’s fall to be well simulated and for his behaviour to appear natural in front of the firing squad.’ Tosca and Cavaradossi now turn their thoughts back to their coming freedom and sing for the first time in unison – ‘Trionfal, di nuove speme’ (World of love, shining with promise). However, there’s no instrumental accompaniment, a detail which some writers see as suggesting they know their high hopes are hollow; that the execution will be for real    

From here the opera proceeds quickly to the end. Cavaradossi is shot, Scarpia’s body is discovered, and Tosca throws herself from the ramparts. The orchestra thunders out a reprise of Cavaradossi’s aria, reminding the audience of the saddest music of the Act.

These are the sort of moments that make it onto ‘highlights’ recordings, but it may be worth asking what creates the clearly perceptible unity of this work. Academic critics fault Puccini for not making a more rigourous use of recurring musical motifs, but his motifs provide a recurring web of themes which keep an audience in Tosca’s world and they do provide occasional psychological complexity, as when Tosca talks of coming to Cavaradossi’s villa that night (in Act I) and the ‘Angelotti’ theme reminds Cavaradossi that the fugitive is there.
Finally, let’s think about the three big parts which are the fortuitous result of thinning-out Sardou’s play. Aficionados endlessly debate their favourite interpreters. Gramophone might speak of Carreras’s ‘poetic ardour’ and Opera Today might declare that ‘[Jonas] Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi is more in line with the strong....leading man’. You can even ask ‘Who was the best Scarpia?’ on Google and get answers such as ‘Sherrill Milnes “implacable”’. Many remember the genial Tito Gobbi (once Melbourne’s King of Moomba) as the greatest Scarpia. Gobbi himself talks about the great Toscas he sang beside in an article he wrote for the Cambridge Opera Handbook. He and Callas didn’t just sing, he says, they lived their parts.
US academic Joseph Kerman once dismissed Tosca as a ‘shabby, little shocker’, and musicologists may wish for more ‘motivic integrity’. But audiences hand down another judgement. They tend to greet Tosca’s conclusion - as the onstage ‘audience’ in Harvey Milk greets it - with a chorus of appreciative ‘bravos’.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013

(Australian librettist, Gordon Kalton Williams, is currently based in Los Angeles. This article originally appeared in program booklets for Opera Australia’s production of Tosca, directed by John Bell.  

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