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November 28, 2005


Sooner or later, every opera fan learns that critic Joseph Kerman, in his 1956 book, Opera as Drama, denounced Giacomo Puccini's Tosca as a "shabby little shocker." The "shabby" owes, I think, to the slapdash performance practice that obtained with respect to Puccini's operas until well into the Seventies. (I still remember being blown away by Zubin Mehta's Turandot, which presented Puccini as orchestrally interesting.) Listening to the opera on Saturday, I was struck by a string of reminiscences of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, of all things; the score of Tosca, while not the most scrupulous composition in opera land, is anything but shabby.

As for "shocker," well, Tosca can still shock. Its three deaths all horrific. First, the malignant Scarpia, bloated with lust, turns to meet the nasty surprise of Tosca's blade; he may deserve what he gets, but you feel his bewildered terror. Then Cavaradossi is shot by the firing squad. You may at first believe, with Tosca, that the bullets were blanks, and that the painter will rise up as soon as the soldiers troop off. But I don't think that you can have been paying very close attention to this opera if you arrive at Act III with optimistic expectations. Cavaradossi dies twice, in effect - for the second time when Tosca discovers the truth. And, finally, there is her heroic suicide, jumping to her death from atop the Castel Sant'Angelo. These endings are enduringly arresting.

And then of course there's Tosca's pantomime after Scarpia's death, arranging the candlesticks and crucifix about his corpse before leaving his plus apartment in the Palazzo Farnese. This is the heart of the opera, and if no one is singing, that's because there is so much that is simply unspeakable about this story. The French playwright Victorien Sardou, who wrote La Tosca for Sarah Bernhardt, claimed to have found the kernel of his story in an episode from the French religious wars of the sixteenth century; thank heaven we were spared yet another one of those. Set instead in the Rome of 1800, amid the Napoleonic Wars, Tosca is unusually stylish. But regardless of the setting, Tosca is about the mercilessness of unbridled state power. Without that, there would be no story.

Scarpia is an unusual villain for opera in that he combines two strands of villainy that usually work alone. The first is the obsessive who will stop at nothing in the pursuit of his object, which is usually the death of somebody else. The second is the representative of authority who is only doing what he's supposed to do. To this coupliing Scarpia brings a sadism that is almost his alone. He persecutes Cavaradossi as much out of jealousy as out of zealotry. No one is safe in Scarpia's world. Tosca is far more political than it claims to be.

Although Act I meanders a bit, especially before the arrival of Floria Tosca, it compensates for its lack of a dramatic death with a finale of voluptuous blasphemy, as Scarpia bellows over the choral Te Deum that Tosca makes him forget God Himself. Overall, Tosca is too short to wear out its welcome. The operas that Puccini would write after Tosca, and before Turandot - the opera in which he returned to the old style composition of "numbers" - all suffer from a combination of length and shapelessness; Puccini, like it or not, is the musical ancestor of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and other creators of today's formless and forgetful confections. Only in Turandot (which he did not live to complete) would Puccini rediscover the powers of great tunes and taut forms.

Posted by pourover at November 28, 2005 07:08 PM

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