Tosca - "a story of cheating and doubt"

Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle

In this most Realist of all operas, nothing is real. Baron Scarpia, the powerful chief of Roman police, lies to singer Floria Tosca in the second act, to get her love. In the first, Tosca's jealousy forces her lover Mario Cavaradossi to dissemble about the woman he is painting. In the last act, Tosca and Cavaradossi are living a lethal fiction - Scarpia's lie. Distrust and misplaced trust drive a bleak plot, giving wickedness an easy victory over naive innocence. From the opening crashing discord - the Scarpia leitmotif - the music tells of a powerful evil overarching the following lighter music of simplicity and love. That is captured so well musically when Scarpia in Act I enters the church to rebuke children playing. Watch Pappano and Legge show us the musical leitmotifs - tied to events and places as well as characters.

We actually spent a session on Tosca back in September 2016. Whether you were there or not, do have a look at its web page, which discusses the characters, past productions and their singers, and links to two full productions 0n YouTube - notably an outstanding 1976 movie shot on location with Raina Kabaivanska, Placido Domingo (Lyn cries "Domingo for Cavaradossi, I say!!"), and Sherill Milnes - the gold standard Scarpia? Watch his "Va Tosca" here. And here's another production, shot in the Arena di Verona.

The Opera 101 has a spirited synopsis, fun facts, and a valuable series of clips from various productions. Then there's Ten Things You Didn't Know about Tosca by Susan Vandiver Nicassio - an academic historian who's sung the role and knows about the opera better than most.

Reality Opera

Palazzo Farnese

No opera is more realist in its setting - in character, time and place. As with the play by Sardou (Sarah Bernhardt played Tosca) which Puccini followed, all these settings were minutely specified. Important to the story - which is set in Rome on the afternoon and night of 17th June 1800 - is that the brief Roman Republic had been overturned and Napoleon fled Italy, leaving Rome to the despotic rule of the Spanish Bourbons from Naples, in collusion with the Holy See. Queen Charlotte (sister to Marie Antoinette) ran the operation to destroy republican sympathisers, prominent among whom was the Consul Attavanti - whom we meet as the fugitive Angelotti and his sister the Marchioness with the blue eyes.

But on the fateful afternoon word reached Rome that Napoleon's attempt to regain Italy was routed at the Battle of Marengo. Church and state combined to stage a public celebration, which we meet at the end of Act I and the start of Act II. But that night the tables were turned - news came that Napoleon had in fact won, to the consternation of Scarpia who was doing the Bourbons' dirty work in Rome. He too was based on a real character, Baron Sciarpa, who had proved himself as a leader of Royalist militia in Sicily. More background from Stanford. and from Utah Opera. Put off by the torture and viciousness? Sardou didn’t invent it – download Deborah Burton on The Real Scarpia.

The Castel Sant'Angelo

The story in the opera, however, is fictitious. Wikipedia provides a through account of the opera including the historical background. The sets too were minutely specified. Act I is in the glorious Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle with the Attavanti Chapel. Act II is in the Palazzo Farnese which the Neapolitan regime used as its Roman headquarters. And Act III is from the top of the famous Castel Sant'Angelo. Some productions, notably an excellent one from Opera Australia, went to some trouble to re-create authentic settings; other designers thought they knew better - another from OA had all three acts, inexplicably, in a basement. The first of these set the time during the Fascist/Nazi regime in Rome, an interesting historical parallel but it jarred with the historical text of the libretto.

Our Productions

We will be comparing two very different productions - Opernhaus Zurich in 2009 under the baton of Paolo Carignani, and Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2012 under Antonio Pappano. In both, Cavaradossi (tenor) is Jonas Kaufmann - an outstanding lyric tenor but sometimes criticised for lacking the Italian tone. Zurich has Emily Magee as Tosca (soprano), Angela Gheorghiu takes the role at ROH - both superb as singers and very different as characters. For Scarpia (baritone) you might think Thomas Hampson is much too nice an all-American guy to fit his shoes at Zurich (though his voice is perfect for the role) - but he's a suave Mafia hood in the Marlon Brando mold. For ROH, Scarpia is Bryn Terfel, debauched and repulsive - two very different ways of characterising the role. Sample him from Act I here. The ROH production was also staged in Vienna with the same principals - full YouTube video here.

We will go through the two DVDs side by side, giving great opportunity for comparison and discussion - sets and costuming, music performance, and characterisations. The visions of the designer/producers (Robert Carsen for Zurich, Jonathan Kent for ROH) contrast strongly - another rich topic for discussion.


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