The Trials of Tosca


Perhaps it's the waning summer, but I have had a yen for all things Italy in the last week. So I have broken out soundtracks, albums, movies, and- lest we forget- food to kindle the sensation of traveling down the cobbled streets of Rome or the watery canals of Venice. I've enjoyed rewatching old favorites, such as Summertime with Katharine Hepburn, Only You with Robert Downey Jr., Dangerous Beauty with Catherine McCormack, and, because I adore spy thrillers, The Tourist by Christopher McQuarrie and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. by Guy Ritchie. I've whipped up stunning pasta dishes and dunked more than one biscotti in my espresso this week. But, the thing which I have loved most is the music I've kept playing nearly continuously in my background as I write, read, drive, clean, cook, et. al.

Italy, for me, evokes opera. So many of the composers I adore were Italian, so the association is simple. And, as opera was primarily the music I played to bring Italy to the forefront, I couldn't help put travel down that musical roads for today's post. 

When last I spoke about mishaps and the opera, it was in regards to Verdi’s Rigoletto. (See post here.) But such mishaps are not exclusive to performances of Rigoletto, however.

Another opera fraught with misfortunes - to the actors, not the characters (F.Y.I. All operas are fraught with misfortunes for their characters) - is Puccini’s Tosca. 

Tosca falls into the same familiar pattern of so many operas. While the plot does have a bit of a political flare, in the end, it all comes down to jealousy and betrayal. Surprise. Surprise. 

It all starts with Napoleon- he could be blamed for quite a bit, it seems. See, he’d led French forces into Italy in 1796 and established a republic, but when those French forces withdrew, the fractious city-states seized power from the republican counsels he’d set in power. Re-enter Napoleon during that sultry summer of 1800, hell bent on taking back that which he thought was his, which was really everything and the kitchen sink, as is the way with power hungry men.

A little background music for your read- Puccini Instrumentals. Sheer beauty. 

Meanwhile, in Rome, Tosca is a celebrated singer, with echelons of admirers who adore her every move, including her lover, Cavaradossi (this name is a mouthful for me; mostly I just refer to him as the painter).

However, Cavaradossi is not just an artist content to spend his days up to his elbows in oils and turpentine. No. He’s also a republican. And not just a republican in the sense that it’s his political leaning. He’s an activist, an activist who agrees to help Angelotti, one of Napoleon’s seven counsels of his republic state, who is running for his life. The painter is marshaled to action and agrees to hide him in his villa. 

Enter Scarpia, the vindictive chief of police, ferreting out republicans wherever they be and making them walk the plank- pardon, I mean, executing them. The painter has long been in Scarpia’s sights, and not because he’s a republican. No, dear readers, that would be too boring. Scarpia covets Tosca- after all, she is very covetable, singing like a siren, luring him in with her spellbinding beauty. Truly, she might be up there with that other beauty- you know, the one with that face that launched a thousand ships and burnt those topless towers of Ilium. Kit Marlowe could write a thing or two about Tosca, I’m sure. 

Scarpia waltzes into Cavaradossi’s villa, seemingly searching for Angelotti, but really looking for any reason to get at Cavaradossi. He accuses the painter of painting Angelotti into some background somewhere and has him arrested- or, more truthfully, drags him off to another chamber to have him tortured. Then the spider lies in wait for Tosca and weaves her the tale of woe of what he will do to her lover is she doesn’t cooperate and tell him Angelotti’s location. To the strains of her tortured lover’s voice, Tosca pleads with Scarpia not to execute Cavaradossi. 

Scarpia is all merciful, truly, offering to enact a ‘mock’ death by firing squad on one condition: Tosca must sing a more private, intimate score just for him; I think you all know what that means. So what’s a woman to do? Tosca agrees, but before he can act, she has an I am woman, hear me roar moment and stabs him, declaring this is Tosca’s kiss. Pretty fab, no? 

Tosca runs to her painter and tells him to pretend to die because she’s arranged for the firing squad to fire blanks. In his final duplicitous act, Scarpia has his revenge from beyond the grave, for he never gave the order to use blanks. Imagine Cavaradossi’s short-lived surprise when he doesn’t have to pretend at all. 

Tosca rushes to his crumpled body and embraces it. Together they sing their swan song. Then, when her painter has breathed his last, Tosca climbs to the top of the battlements and throws herself off.  After such an empowering move as offing her enemy and with such a killer punch line, no less, this is a thoroughly drippy and dissatisfying ending for her, regardless of how beautiful the music is.  

Nothing really funny going on here, is there? However, an audience was treated to a hilarious bit of entertainment in the 1920s, when the rather robust (and purportedly unpopular) soprano playing Tosca threw herself off the battlements, landed in safety on the trampoline below, but bounced all the way back up to the battlements for all and sundry to see. What’s even worse is that she supposedly bounced back a whopping FIFTEEN times. It is believed that the stage hands removed the mattress she was originally supposed to land on in favor of the trampoline that brought about her humiliating comeback because they did not like her. Lesson one: NEVER PISS OFF THE HELP! It’s a shame she didn’t have the chance to read Kathryn Stockett’s novel; it was most insightful on that score. 

Another ignominious performance included the firing squad confusing Tosca and Cavaradossi, firing at Tosca while on the opposite side of the stage- obviously un-aimed at- Cavaradossi falls dead. Tosca- who has been shot by the firing squad- rushes across the stage to her lover. In the mayhem of uncertainty that ensued, Tosca continued on valiantly, and tossed herself off the battlements. The confused firing squad, following vague instructions whispered from off stage to ‘Follow the principals,’ subsequently threw themselves off the battlements after Tosca. What a hysterical disaster! No doubt the director of that farce entertained following his principal right off that battlement, too. 

Photo by Jeff Busby from 2014 Opera Australia. 

Photo by Jeff Busby from 2014 Opera Australia. 

The famed prima donna, Maria Callas, set her hair on fire during a 1965 performance of Tosca in Covent Garden. Thankfully Tito Gobbi- the baritone playing Scarpia- acted quickly and put it out before true damage could be done. Certainly, never has the chorus this girl is on fire been so appropriate. (I’m talking, top of her lungs, full blast Alicia Keys Girl on Fire, here. And, given the reputation of Callas, I’m quite certain someone bore the brunt of her fiery wrath.)

The final mishap I’ll chronicle before leaving you is perhaps the one I find the most humorous. The firing squad sequence in Tosca can’t get a break. While performing in an open air arena in Macerata, Italy in 1995, the tenor Fabio Armiliato suffered an injury when debris from the blanks fired at him hit his leg. He was removed to the hospital on a stretcher. The next night, in a reprisal of his role (he said he didn’t want to disappoint the many fans attending the annual summer festival in Macerata), he mis-stepped in the wings at the end of the first act, fell, and broke his other leg in two places, requiring his removal to hospital via stretcher two nights in a row. Armiliato seems to have kept his sense of humor about this, though, lamenting that he seemed destined to never leave that particular theater on his own two feet.

So just in case you were beginning to think that the opera was all tragedy, I offer these rather hilarious happenings as proof that one can- on occasion- laugh during the opera. 

Have you ever had a yen to travel to a particular place? Where? Did you do anything (listen to music, watch movies, read books, etc.) to conjure that place into your ordinary atmosphere?