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Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

Melodramatic ‘Tosca’ Lights Up Florentine Opera

Is it still Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’?

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The irony behind the early censure of Tosca (1900) as a “shabby little shocker,” unworthy of Puccini’s talents in the eyes of the then musical sophisticates, is that its current overwhelming popularity does not entirely discredit those initial criticisms. Based upon a trashy 1887 melodrama written by Victorien Sardou as a vehicle for the flamboyant, equally overripe Sarah Bernhardt, such critical reactions now seem obtusely unaware of Puccini’s startlingly progressive originality. Tosca revitalized and added a more realistic dimension to the old opera medium.

Opera lovers long begged the point that Sardou’s lurid melodrama is justified only by Puccini’s music. In truth, the composer had his hands full with overblown source material that contained an attempted rape, political bargaining for sexual favors, a brutal stabbing, an offstage torture sequence, a double cross, a mock execution and religious mockery.

Yet Puccini relished the task, untroubled by Sardou’s verbose, redundant dramatics, paring the unwieldy vehicle into an intoxicating combination of romantic musical drama that overreached even his own usual sentimental treatment of conventional Italian verismo. He envisioned something more daring: an expansion of dramatic lyricism into a more complex psychological tapestry that combined his own unparalleled gifts for melodic invention with a more realistic context incorporating the gritty, the vulgar and the sadistic into an airtight construct in which the music enhances rather than overwhelms the plot.

Today many prefer Tosca to the composer’s more sentimental works. Yet, there is no lack of melody. A recent reviewer described the music as “both refined and brutal—late romantic opulence pinned to raw action.” It includes three world-famous arias that have become concert staples, a beautiful love duet and a touch of political intrigue. While the music drives the story line, it doesn’t detract from the shocking fascination of the onstage violence.

The first act begins and closes with the brilliant Scarpia motif, overbearingly ominous with his soon to be evil dominance. The first act finale enlarges and distorts that motif, the score becoming a riveting musical masterpiece centering the drama around Scarpia’s sexual obsession. The first act love duet and the famous tenor aria “Recondita armonia” flesh out the lovers’ passion, but it’s Puccini’s magnificent first act Scarpia motif that dominates and overwhelms the religious Te Deum as he vows to defy God to possess Tosca. Scarpia’s music remains the wellspring of the opera throughout; he never gets the “pretty” music.

Anticipation for the second act always tends to mesmerize audiences with its promise of impending violence, no matter how often one has seen the opera. The wizardry of Puccini’s score is the eerie reticence with which he anticipates the ensuing tension without revealing the terrors to come. Will Tosca agree to sex in exchange for her lover’s life, while he is being tortured offstage? Will she fend off Scarpia’s groping? Will she strike at him?
Not given to writing music for tenor torture scenes, Puccini concentrates on Tosca’s growing anguish as she realizes what she is up against while her lover suffers agonies offstage. The rising chromatic beat is awesome to hear as the music begins to heighten Tosca’s hopeless entrapment. In a recent James Bond movie, the inevitable chase scene takes place during an over-amplified version of this same Scarpia-Tosca scene. Even the renowned John Williams, no shabby composer himself, cannot match the fatalistic depths of Puccini’s far more profound score written a century earlier.

Perhaps the most magnificent moment in the second act is Tosca’s realization the she must kill Scarpia. An unsettling, ominous motif, arresting in its haunting beauty, accompanies her discovery of the knife. She must take a human life and is a devout Catholic. Will God forgive? Puccini’s indescribably awesome scoring captures not the horror but the solemn inevitability of her decision. She will place candles around the body after the deed is done, but her horror is beyond music. She speaks rather than sings her departure.

With Scarpia gone, the last act loses some of its thunder, despite the great tenor aria “E lucevan le stelle,” but the execution scene is hauntingly dissonant. When Tosca leaps to her death, her last words are of Scarpia’s final betrayal. Fate has linked them. The drama has come full circle.

The Florentine Opera’s forthcoming production of Tosca (Nov. 20-22 at the Marcus Center) promises to be a winner on all counts. Florentine General Director Bill Florescu emphasizes that this production will highlight more subtle settings and special lighting effects to focus on the psychology behind the characters’ personas, giving greater impact to their more melodramatic motivations.

Heading a seasoned cast is Cynthia Lawrence, who has previously sung the role of Tosca with tenor Renzo Zulian, also appearing in the Milwaukee production as Cavaradossi. Lawrence is a Metropolitan Opera veteran, having sung with Pavarotti, no less, and brings a wealth of Puccini experience to this role. Zulian, noted for his stentorian High Cs, has sung Aida previously with the Florentine Opera. Baritone Todd Thomas is new to Milwaukee but has performed the villainous Scarpia to great reviews with the New York City Opera. It should be a great trio.


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