Civilisation and Violence in Tosca’s Rome

Article by Gavin Plumley

Rome is one of the most culturally rich cities in the world and its name is synonymous with the precepts that inform the governments of today’s civilised world.  Underneath the stunning facades of its monolithic temples and palaces, however, exists a basic and feral underbelly.  For every Cardinal or Prince, there is a grocer or a barista; next to every fashion designer’s boutique there lurks the trained hand of the Roman pickpocket.  It is this dialectic which comes to the fore in Giacomo Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca, where seemingly grand personalities from the arts (the singer Tosca and her artist lover Cavaradossi) and politics (the Chief of Police, Scarpia) become embroiled in a violent, embittered and ultimately nihilistic tragedy.  The outward civility belies a passionate and violent heart and the mixture of the two gave birth to this work that teeters brilliantly between the verismo posturing of Puccini’s compatriots Leoncavallo and Mascagni and the modernist jungle drums sounding in the musical cities of Northern Europe.  Despite this mixture, Tosca is a thoroughly Roman drama, a constant reminder of the feral Latin spirit in the midst of the operatic repertoire.

Many of the most famous buildings in Rome today have hidden pasts.  The Basilica of St Peter’s in the Vatican is built on the burial site of early Christians, including the martyred St Peter himself.  His bones quite literally form the rock on which the church is based, so that one of the main focuses for Christian pilgrimage is built over a site of anti-Christian brutality.  An even more telling reminder of the many pasts of Rome, both civilised and not so civilised, can be found in the church of San Clemente.  The grand basilica that stands on the site just to the south of the centre may today speak of the Church’s power, but the building has many levels that lie beneath its gilt appearance.  Under today’s Basilica is an original medieval church and underneath that another earlier Christian building, used for worship during the early Roman persecution of Christians; yet more hidden is an early pagan temple.  On entering San Clemente the visitor is overwhelmed by the sheer variety of worship that has taken place on the site.  The overwrought Basilica Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, in which the first act of Tosca is set, has none of St Peter’s or San Clemente’s rich, varied and often violent history, but the drama that unfolds in its highly decorated walls has both their outer façade and that typically Roman primeval pulse.

When Puccini embarked on his fifth opera, Victorien Sardou’s plays were already a blockbuster choice at the opera house.  The playwright had received wide recognition, not least through his strong alliance with the redoubtable actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Puccini’s contemporary Umberto Giordano adapted Sardou’s earlier play Fédora and his highly-strung verismo opera of the same name burst on to the scene in 1898.  Puccini first saw Sardou’s play La Tosca in Milan in 1887.  His friend Ferdinando Fontana, the librettist of the composer’s first two operas, Le villi and Edgar, had suggested the subject to Puccini, but he was busy at work on Manon Lescaut and La bohème at the time.  The composer’s publishers, Ricordi, who had acquired the operatic rights in the title, then passed the work (along with the attached librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica –themselves collaborators of Puccini’s on both Manon Lescaut and La bohème) to the less well-known composer Alberto Franchetti.  Puccini was annoyed to have missed out on the opportunity of transforming this widely performed title.  During his work on La bohème Puccini cajoled Ricordi and they began to support the ‘Puccini Tosca’ eventually persuading Franchetti to give up on his plans.

As Puccini’s collaboration with Giacosa and Illica on La bohème had uncovered, the team was hugely adept at taking pre-existing literature and imbuing it with an almost cinematic sweep.  The score for Tosca, even more so than its predecessors, creates a brilliant sense of flow, where motifs and themes are subsumed into a continuous stream of ideas.  Although the portentous and brash ‘Scarpia’ motif, with its lurching harmonies, that opens the opera is a stand-alone example of an operatic calling card, it is also a springboard to the terrific pace with which Puccini and his librettists introduce the audience to the prisoner Angelotti, the bumbling Sacristan and Cavaradossi himself.  It is with haste, of course, that Cavaradossi hides Angelotti away when Tosca arrives; so no sooner has the prisoner disappeared (with his motif in train) than the two lovers are launching into their first heartfelt duet.  The concision of Puccini’s musical design in Tosca was unprecedented in his oeuvre and some would argue that, La fanciulla del West and Il trittico aside, he never quite recaptured such proficiency again.

Although Tosca finds Puccini in a more symphonic frame of composition than before, it is tempered by the composer’s continual obsession with detail.  A clerical friend of Puccini, who also gave the composer details of the order for the religious procession and the costuming of the requisite  Swiss Guards who accompany the Cardinal, meticulously researched the plainsong that runs through the ‘Te Deum’ at the close of the first act.  The pitches of the bells that can be heard at dawn at the opening of the third act are entirely accurate, notated on a trip the composer took to Rome when he sat on the ramparts of the castle; even the Shepherd Boy’s half-heard song was written by a Roman poet, one Luigi Zanazzo.  Many productions since the original at the Teatro Constanzi in Rome on 14 January 1900, have taken Puccini at his word by directly replicating the very specific timings and settings of the three acts and famously, in 1992, a performance was broadcast live from the actual settings.  Such slavish affectation is, of course, to miss the fine balance in the opera between that meticulous detail and the modernist touches and expressionism of the frequently half-glanced action.

Where in La bohème the audience directly witnesses the main events of the opera – Rodolfo and Mimì’s meeting, the scene at the Café Momus and Mimì’s death – in Tosca many of the principle points in the synopsis happen off stage and are reported post facto.  We have no idea who Angelotti is as he staggers into the Church and we never see his capture by Scarpia’s ruthless police officers.  Cavaradossi’s bloody torture in the second act happens just out of sight and Scarpia’s body is discovered only after we have left his chamber and journeyed up to the roof of the Castello Sant’Angelo.  What we do witness are the protagonists’ reactions, and frequently these are false; the main characters are, in effect, all fakes.  Tosca’s career is built entirely around duping people with false emotions.  Although Cavaradossi tells Angelotti that his betrothed is ‘una donna gelosa’, Tosca is perfectly capable of playing on people’s emotions and she knowingly does so throughout the opera.  Scarpia is the Chief of Police, but his demeanour (both physical and musical) indicates something much more grand and Cavaradossi is a mere church decorator with revolutionary pretensions.  All three of them are guilty of ‘staging’ elements of the opera.  The ‘Te Deum’ that appears to be a whirlwind of politically infused piety around Scarpia is a hammy religious pretence, a mere cover in Scarpia’s case for furthering his plot to destroy Cavaradossi and to get to Tosca.  Tosca’s own beautiful ‘Vissi d’arte’ (itself an ‘aria’ within the action of the opera) may set out to allure Scarpia and dispel some of his cruelty, but even she cannot sustain the pretence and gives in to Scarpia’s lustful demands.  Cavaradossi may seem the most innocent, but it is through his lies and his evasion of the truth about Angelotti that Tosca is lead into Scarpia’s trap.  Puccini is, of course, highly aware of these ‘pretences’.  The ‘Te Deum’ is filled with the pomp that the composer would have known during his years as church organist and choirmaster in Lucca.  Tosca’s second act aria is certainly a knowing parody of Puccini’s and his contemporaries’ own stand-alone songs, such as Musetta’s ‘Quando me’n vo’ in Act 2 of Bohème.  Most importantly, however, Tosca is a parody of herself.  It was apposite of Puccini to choose to compose one of his most over-the-top parts for the depiction of an actual Diva.  Tosca demonstrates all the prerequisites of the parodied opera singer: she is over emotional, seemingly jealous and ultimately attention seeking.

Given the many narrative strands and the fake posturing of his characters, Puccini’s great musical achievement is that he can play both the façade and the undercurrent at the same time.  Although we first hear Scarpia’s motif emblazoned across the orchestra, it frequently appears slithering under more attractive textures and in this opera of action, Puccini alternates voices and motifs with alarming rapidity.  The Scarpia motif appears during Cavaradossi and Angelotti’s conversation before Tosca’s arrival as a reminder of the continuous threat of being discovered.  It is realised fully and repeated with its initial brute force when the Chief of Police himself appears in the Church, a mundane Mephistopheles in an already hellish tale.  In Scarpia’s own domain in Act Two we hear fewer reminders of his motif – he is physically present throughout – but after his death in Act Three we are made aware of his ghost by subtle reminiscences played in the background until the truth about his death is finally discovered.  Looking at the power of repetition in Scarpia’s motif, it would be hard not to think of another bleak Roman tragedy, the late Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley.  Throughout Tom Ripley’s exhaustive attempts to cover his murderous tracks we are treated to continual visual and aural reminders of Dicky Greenleaf, the beautiful but spoiled dandy Ripley has killed.  Even in the jollity of Roman Holiday, the Princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, is haunted by the past as she attempts to escape her regal duties.  The parallels between these three very different stories can be pulled together by their Roman setting; they reveal the various layers of meaning and history that are visible throughout the great city.  As a tourist stands overlooking the Roman Forum, one is made thoroughly aware of how history has literally built on the past, so that the modern shopping streets are situated some twenty feet above where the Romans would go to market.  In Tosca Puccini builds layer upon layer of music so that a set-piece aria or chorus can rapidly give way to the malevolent undercurrent of the drama.

Puccini has frequently been criticised for allowing his talent for dramatic sweep and his relish of a good tune to go hand in hand.  The final act of Tosca had proved particularly controversial for critics.  In a heartfelt moment, Cavaradossi begins to write, singing the hit aria of the opera, ‘E luvecan le stelle’.  Unlike the rapid fire of the previous acts, Puccini returns to the stasis of La bohème and allows his tenor a moment of solace and self-pity.  The stumbling prose of the libretto is the perfect trigger for the aching lines that Puccini spins.  After a pause and an all-too-brief reconciliation with his lover, Cavaradossi faces the firing squad.  Once Tosca has discovered that Scarpia has wronged her, and that instead of a false execution her beloved artist has in fact been shot, she runs up the ramparts and hurls herself over the side of the castle.  The orchestra, at top volume, bellows the main theme from ‘E luvecan le stelle’.  The critic Mosco Carner felt that Puccini allowed himself to choose the best tune in the whole opera, rather than finding a theme – say the Scarpia motif – that would underline the dramatic outcome best.  But that is to miss the point.  Indeed, Puccini would be the first to find the most telling thematic material, but by choosing such a self-indulgent tune, he underlines the negativity of the entire work.  The tragedy that besets Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia is that they are all inherently selfish.  The great leaders and institutions of Rome that survive to this day instil a sense of the corporate, of all being at one – the main teaching of the Christian church.  The men of Rome who failed – Julius Caesar, the corrupt Popes and Mussolini, to name only a few – met their downfall in a Tosca sense of self-praising and self-aggrandisement.  The orchestra at the end of Puccini’s great opera mocks them all.

Gavin Plumley has written and broadcast widely about twentieth century opera.  He has contributed to publications such as Opera, Opera Now and The Guardian.