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  • Scott Williamson

Va, Tosca!


Tosca came and went in a whirlwind, as she always seems to do. The last time Opera Roanoke mounted Puccini's "little shocker" was in the wake of 9/11. I remember the production well, as it was the first I was able to attend in the newly-renovated and reopened Shaftman Performance Hall at the Jefferson Center. Steven White led a thrilling performance then (and is conducting it with our friends at Arizona Opera now).

I am grateful to all my friends and colleagues in the cast and crew, and to all those volunteers, patrons and supporters, trustees across every generation of opera-lover in Virginia's Blue Ridge, and beyond. Here's a link to the review in the Roanoke Times.

I could not be more pleased with, proud of, nor grateful for our principals, apprentices and coro, and our awesomely professional (and equally cool) production team who exceeded Friday night's fabulous opening with an even sharper and more successful performance yesterday afternoon. Bravi tutti e grazie molto, amici miei!

For inquiring minds, below are some notes and quotes which I assembled in my own Tosca "journal". I thank everyone who listened to my discursive pre-show ramblings, which may not have lived up to their title of "opera insights," but which I always try to keep entertaining, if not enlightening.

An edited version of the notes below formed the program note essay in our playbill. The image of "A Night at the Opera" is courtesy of our friend, Eric Fitzpatrick, who was kind enough to share it on Facebook following Friday night's opening.

Notes on Tosca

…their voices rise

and twine not from beauty nor from the lack

of it, but from the hope for accuracy

and passion, both. They have to hit the note

and the emotion, both, with the one poor

arrow of the voice. Beauty’s for amateurs.

(from “A Night at the Opera”, in Search Party: Collected Poems, William Matthews)

…And I’ve unveiled myself of any hope,

And death’s steps rasp along the path,

and, like any star, I have nothing

to burn but the life I love. (from “E lucevan le stelle”, Search Party, Matthews)

…You understand what critics don’t.

They call us stars because we burn

In darkness – cold, remote, and bright…

(from “Maria Callas’s Aria,” FOUR SONGS FROM TONY CARUSO’S FINAL BROADCAST, in Pity the Beautiful, Dana Gioia)

Tosca is a politically charged thriller, a melodramatic “historical” and “pulp” fiction with all the salacious trimmings, including a high body count (each of its three principal characters are murder or suicide victims), and other sundry acts which have long been the purview of “pop” cultures. In academic and critical circles, Puccini’s popularity and melodic accessibility have rendered him suspect, an “easy target” for academics and “serious” critics with an agenda or an axe to grind…

It is also a work of art whose protagonists are artists – it is art about artists. Its mirroring of life and art is made explicit in the opera’s most famous arias, the painter Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” and the 19th c. “diva” Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.” The opera would be less meaningful and have less impact were it made of lesser materials than Puccini’s genius. Tosca has always been an “easy target” for critics and certain corners of the academy (a “shabby little shocker” is how one famed musicologist notoriously dismissed it).

Tosca has always been surrounded by “backstage drama” and controversy, from the moment Puccini allegedly pushed his publishers into breaking their contract with his colleague Franchetti, using the ruse that “the subject was really most unsuitable for an opera.” Not only was its “scenes of torture and brutality” inappropriate for the opera stage but its “political background” would be found “incomprehensible” to “modern opera audiences.” Never mind Puccini’s Milanese La Scala employer and impresario/librettist Ricordi’s and Illica’s insult to audience’s appreciation of history (long a beloved operatic subject), but did Franchetti really not see through this ruse? Or did he willingly give up the coveted rights to the latest Sardou melodrama?

Anyway, Puccini was so taken with the play, a vehicle for the star Sarah Bernhard that he insisted his colleagues renege on Franchetti’s contract and give it to their “poster” child composer. The “next Verdi”, as Puccini was hyped/hoped to be (certainly for his publisher’s, impresario’s and librettist’s pocket-book’s sake) didn’t get around to Tosca until after Manon Lescaut and La Boheme. Verdi gave his Milanese colleagues and patrons (Ricordi and Illica) his blessing on the libretto, after being especially moved by the tenor’s “farewell” aria in act III, a subsequent highlight of Puccini’s score, and one of its composer’s most signature successes. “E lucevan le stelle” is an apparently simple, lyrical and exquisitely crafted melody whose plaintive whispers become plangent cries. It’s brilliant orchestration illustrates its composer’s gifts for dramatic arc, beginning with a sparse duet between clarinet and voice, rising to a full orchestral tutti which mirrors and reinforces the “primal cry” of the tenor’s lament [use Matthews final strophe].

Like a Shakespearean monologue, a Puccini aria can contain a character’s entire world in a snapshot solo moment. It both serves the drama and steps outside it; it breaks the so-called “fourth wall” to speak directly to its audience’s hearts and souls. The act of singing an aria or delivering a monologue is central to the human experience. The channeling of an artist’s resources through an expressive act in order to distill the essence of a “universe in a grain of sand” – to evoke what the ancients called a “catharsis” – a visceral and emotional response created by the artistic stimulus – is a unifying historical and cultural leitmotif of the unique expressions of the “human spirit.” More so even than the Temple, Mosque, Church, Synagogue or other communal outlet, the theatre continues to unite a diverse mix of people across the globe.

[Musing: We are all, at one time or another a Tosca, a Mario, and/or a Scarpia; we are all members of a chorus or a supporting character in life’s drama; we are all accomplices, victims, or perpetrators even as we aspire to be heroes. The characters on our stages hold up mirrors so that we might see our selves reflected, and emerge from the opera house moved or renewed, if not changed...]

Like many of its repertory-standard older colleagues, La Traviata and Norma among them, Tosca opened amidst backstage drama, intrigue and controversy, culminating on the opening night in Rome, 14 Jan 1900, with a bomb threat. A police officer informed the conductor that in the case of such an event, Maestro Mugnone was “to perform the national anthem.” We have at least progressed in matters of security and safety protocols in the intervening century-plus, even if Tosca is the same dramatic opera queen she’s always been…

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Puccini’s goal emerges as that of reinvigorating a great legacy by modernizing it, and his achievement was the contemporary extension of an Italian compositional heritage.

He was keenly aware that even his staunchest allies, particularly Giulio Ricordi and Arturo Toscanini, shared an idealized notion of the elevated nature of music, and opera. Toscanini…revered Verdi as a spiritual and political force and was an advocate of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

[The arch-modernist “Frankfurt school” critic, Theodor] Adorno sees Puccini’s genius as one that renders conditions of oppression and misery affecting on stage and ironically tolerable outside the theater. Music and spectacle lure the audience into a pathetic complacency.

[Musing: Does that mean the Marine Colonel I caught crying at the end of my first Butterfly in 2011 was merely “moved to tears” but not to genuine empathy which catharsis could render into action, a la Toscanini’s “elevated” notions of opera’s “spiritual and political force?” Might he have left the theatre a changed human being… Or might he, like many an opera lover, simply have had an “emotional experience,” shed some much-needed, long-overdue tears, responded with a simultaneous outburst of feeling to the overwhelming impact of immediately affecting music?… It is interesting to consider the implications, to tease out the relationships between artist and critic, artist and patron / public, among other fascinating operatic “subplots” like those of artist in society/history, opera as social history…]

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The melodic invention, the rhythmic vitality, the ingenuity with which he developed motivic material, the daring and idiosyncratic harmonic palette, and the consummate command of orchestral sonority are, after all, stunningly inspired.

The most important characteristic of musical theater in the public realm was its power to entertain, to interrupt the consciousness of quotidian time. Puccini did so not by expanding it, as Wagner did, but by condensing it. His stroke of genius was to reduce the role of language in opera to the bare minimum required to tell a story through a synthesis of continuous melody and visual spectacle.

After Verdi and Wagner, theater and opera, which had flourished as vehicles of political expression and symbolism linked to issues of national unification and identity, shifted focus… toward an exploration of eroticism and violence among individuals, particularly the poor, in society. The verismo movement asserted a realism that was about human nature and, indirectly, psychology.

Puccini anticipated and fulfilled the requirements that still define popular success in the moving-image drama with sound, whether a Hollywood blockbuster or a TV mini-series. Through his use of music to convey economically a formulaic set of emotions, he subordinated the creative tension and symbiosis between musical form and linguistic narration that defines most great operas, from Mozart to Berg.

(Leon Botstein, “Music, Language, and Meaning in Opera: Puccini and His Contemporaries” in Puccini and His World)

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from Pucciniana (Ricordi):

After an absence of several months, and a truly triumphant progress… [throughout Italy], maestro Puccini returned yesterday evening to Milan. Although laden with laurels…Puccini is not ready to rest on these laurels, still less to luxuriate in the contemplation of the fine compliments he has received from his many admirers; in fact, as soon as he got down from the train, he replied to the friends who happily greeted his return:

  • Now, dear friends, to Tosca.

“Again, the style of the notice (reflecting as it does Ricordi’s patient ‘construction’ [marketing, or ‘branding’] of Puccini as a public personality) merits full quotation:” (Roger Parker, in Ricordi crit. ed.)

Puccini, after having passed the summer season in a villa near Lucca, now finds himself in his usual home at Torre del Lago, lured there by the seductions of the hunt. But this will not entirely take him from his work; thus after a good morning’s massacre with many accurate rifle-shots, Nimrod changes into the maestro, and in the late evening…inhabitants on the shore have the good fortune to hear resounding in the nocturnal calm…the piano or the organ, from which emerge the latest Puccinian inspirations. In these very days Puccini has consigned the full score of the first act of Tosca. (Gazetta musicale di Milano, 6 October 1898)

Va, Tosca!


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