Blog - Thoughts on "Tosca"
A Genuine Surprise
Othello (though not Otello)
Planting and Payoff
Framing Tosca's [Dilemma]
Brief personal note speedrun: I like the opera, I've been a subscriber to Opera Orlando since about 2018, yada yada yada, Jump to Recipe.
On October 29, 2023 I saw Opera Orlando's production of "Tosca" at the Dr. Phillips Center. I very much enjoyed it, and wanted to share some thoughts / observations I had. This isn't a review of the production per se, as I really don't have the background, vocabulary, or knowledge to do a useful review, but I guess I can go with the Mr. Sunday Movies binary review system and say: "Best Opera Ever."
Libretto: Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Josh Shaw
Conductor: Eiki Isomura
Floria Tosca - Eleni Calenos
Mario Cavaradossi - Nathan Granger
Baron Scarpia - Daniel Scofield
Cesare Angelotti - Lloyd Reshard
"Tosca" is a 1900 opera in three acts by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), one of the giants of the medium. (Note: Operas are credited to the composer, who writes the music, and not the librettist, who writes the text). The opera is based on a French play by Victorien Sardou, though the opera is in Italian. It's one of the top 10 most performed operas per Operabase. (Two of the other 9 are also Puccini's: "La Boheme" and "Madame Butterfly")
"Tosca" is set in Rome in 1800 against the backdrop of Napoleon's invasion of Italy. It is the story of singer Floria Tosca, her artist boyfriend Mario Cavaradossi, and Baron Scarpia, the very very bad chief of police. It takes place over the span of less than a day
(Spoilers ahead.... for the 123 year old standard repertoire opera "Tosca")
The opera starts with Cavaradossi, painting in the church of Saint Andrea della Valle, discovering an escaped political prisoner named Angelotti hiding in his (Angelotti's) family's chapel. Tosca arrives, Angelotti hides, and Tosca and Cavaradossi have some back and forth about Cavaradossi's painting of a beautiful woman who is decidedly not her. Cavaradossi smooths over her jealousy and she leaves. (This scene is actually kind of cute / funny, though...foreshadowing). Cavaradossi helps Angelotti by sneaking him to his hidden villa.
Baron Scarpia arrives, looking for Angelotti, He runs into Tosca, who he wants to sleep with, and through ... stuff, tricks her into leading him to Cavaradossi's villa where Cavaradossi is arrested. (The aforementioned "stuff" isn't bad or stupid, it's just a little hard to briefly summarize and from a top level, isn't super important.) Angelotti gets away without being seen by Scarpia's men.
Scarpia makes Tosca an offer to stop torturing Cavaradossi if she admits she saw Angelotti at the villa. Tosca holds out as long as she can, but then admits it to save Cavaradossi the torment. Scarpia's men apprehend Angelotti off-stage and Scarpia condemns him and Cavaradossi to death within the hour. Scarpia offers to spare Cavaradossi's life if Tosca sleeps with him. Tosca agrees, gets Scarpia to give an order to fake Cavaradossi's execution and write them a pass for safe passage out of Rome. Scarpia approaches her, she drinks a glass of wine to steady herself....
And then she pulls out a knife and guts him like a fish.
Act 3 starts under the ramparts of the Castel Sant'Angelo with Cavaradossi awaiting his execution. Tosca arrives and lets him know that Scarpia is dead but his last order was to change Cavaradossi's execution from hanging to firing squad, but the firing squad would use blanks. Cavaradossi would have to pretend to fall dead and then he and Tosca would flee from Rome.
The firing squad shows up, then, shock of shocks, Scarpia lied to Tosca and the squad actually shoots Cavaradossi. Tosca realizes he's actually dead and not just a great actor just as Scarpia's sidekick arrives, having found Scarpia's body.
The sidekick orders Tosca to be arrested but she runs up the ramparts and kills herself. (The libretto says she throws herself from the walls, but in the production I saw, she cuts her own throat and then falls backwards off of them).
Some Initial Thoughts
A genuine surprise
I approached this performance a little differently than I usually do in that I didn't read the plot summary beforehand. I generally don't care at about spoilers in any media. Like, at all. It's the journey not the destination for me, and honestly I like seeing how the story / craft elements lead to and earn the big shocking moments.
(I have lots of thoughts on the irritating pervasiveness of plot spoiler policing but that's a whole other thing. I will say I am amused by the term "plotcel," which is a person who only engages in the most literal surface level way with a story's plot, and only its plot)
So I only had a very basic idea of what was going to happen. I knew there was an indecent proposal, some torture, and it was a tragedy so probably Tosca was going to die.
I was genuinely shocked when Tosca killed Scarpia in Act 2. Admittedly, when Tosca gets Scarpia to write her and Cavaradossi a pass she's looking over his shoulder, ostensibly making sure he's doing what he said he would. While he's distracted and writing she sneaks the knife off his desk. I did not notice that detail, so I was probably more surprised than I should have been, but there was a not insignificant portion of the audience that also seemed audibly surprised.
One detail I really appreciated is that when Scarpia approaches her, Tosca, facing away from him, takes a drink of wine and steadies herself. In the moment I was thinking she was bracing for Scarpia's assault on her. The acting, the music, the staging all supported that assumption. But after the fact it was clear that she was steeling herself to kill him, and all those elements I thought I was so clever to notice were recontectualized. It was a really well done subversion of my expectations.
I really thought when Scarpia made his "proposal" that she was going to suffer through it and then he was going to kill Cavaradossi anyway. I'm glad it instead unfolded like it did.
That entire Act was really powerful.
Something that interest me a lot is how in art, some constituent components can override others. So, if we're talking movies, the cinematography / framing can override the script.
The easiest example, articulated the best by Lindsay Ellis in her "Framing Megan Fox" video, is the perception of Megan Fox's character in the Transformers franchise. To paraphrase Ellis, Fox's character Mikaela, if you were just reading the script, is the best written character in the movie. She's smart, has understandable motivations, has a skill set that actually ties in to the conflict, and is a pretty active agent. But because the camera constantly treats her like eye candy, people don't notice. The cinematography overrides the script.
In opera the overriding element is the music. I don't think that is a controversial take. Hell, the composer is the one who is credited with the opera, not the librettist.
I saw Mozart's the Magic Flute last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fact that the plot was silly and perfunctory and the libretto, if read as just a text by itself, isn't super compelling. (This is similar to modern music in general, where the lyrics of lot of songs, even great ones, read really weirdly if divorced from the actual music.)
Another example of operatic override would be Opera Orlando's performance of Tales of Hoffman, which elicited a really strong resonance with me despite being absolutely bonkers surrealist and kind of inscrutable in the moment. All on the strength of the music.
Tosca was kind of an outlier here for me, as I think the text itself is pretty compelling. Certainly the music was still the most important element, but particularly in Act 2, I think the story, characters, and drama alone would have been gripping. Which I guess makes sense, given it was originally based on a stage play that Puccini decided he wanted to operize.
Othello (though not Otello)
Tosca reminded me, in kind of an amorphous way, of Othello. (The Shakespeare play, not the Verdi opera, which I haven't seen). And I don't mean the plot, which isn't very similar at all. I mean more the....vibes.
Tosca has a similar...narrowing down as the plot goes on. Othello starts with the characters headed to Cyprus for an epic confrontation with the Turks, but then kind of left turns into an intense domestic drama and the fight never materializes.
Tosca begins with an escaped political prisoner and Cavaradossi lamenting the fallen Republic, with early stuff about an epic victory (false, as it turns out) for monarchism over Napoleon etc. You'd be forgiven for thinking that aspect was going to be the dramatic focus of the story. But it's not. Angelotti and Cavaradossi aren't the protagonists, and Angelotti is barely a character. He's sort of the inciting incident I guess, but then he effectively vanishes.
It is firmly Tosca's story and the dramatic climax is her conflict with Scarpia. The opera has a similar slow build of claustrophobic tension as Othello and all the political stuff ends up having nothing to do with it, and just serves a backdrop to a small scale evil.
I'm kind of burying the lede here, but Scarpia also explicitly references Othello with the line
Iago had a handkerchief, and I a fan
to drive a jealous lover to distraction!
Scarpia's motives are similar to Iago's in that they're kind of squishy. Iago doesn't really have direct line motivations. He has what Coleridge called "motiveless malignancy." Sure, he has some pretenses, but they don't always line up with what he's doing. If he's pissed about his job, why bring Desdemona into it? If he thinks Othello is sleeping with his wife (which he really doesn't even seem to believe), then why screw with Cassio? He's just kind of messing with people because he can and we never even find out why he set all of this in motion. He's an engine of chaos.
To me, Scarpia is similar, if more explicitly driven by his id. It was kind of ambiguous if his plan to make Tosca jealous and lead him to Cavaradossi was purely mercenary means to an end or if he was enjoying planting a poisonous fruit for its own sake. Also he starts with maybe some pretense that he's going to woo her, but then reveals in an aria in act 2
For myself the violent conquest
has stronger relish than the soft surrender.
That line got a gasp from the audience, by the way. Scarpia refers to Cavaradossi as a rebel and a traitor but, again, those references felt perfunctory and it was fuzzy to me whether he really cared about that part of it. I guess, as with Iago, my initial read of the character was that he had a certain nihilist solipsism about him, driving him to destroy for destructions sake and have no real higher underpinning philosophy. He has a hole in him he's trying to fill with... whatever.
Planting and Payoff
And on an Othello note, I thought the use of Tosca's jealousy was a really good use of planting and payoff. This is a basic storytelling idea in any medium, but I thought it was kind of cool here. In Tosca's first appearance, she's immediately characterized via her jealousy. It's played in that first appearance as kind of a joke? Like she's jealous of a painting. (Though admittedly Cavaradossi did only use the real, but never seen, woman as a model because he thought she was really beautiful.)
But they have an amusing back and forth about it, and she leaves with a playful (maybe?) admonition to him to change the color of the painting's eyes to look like hers. It's still pretty light.
In her second appearance, this comes back, when Scarpia definitely uses her jealousy against her to get her to lead him to the villa. Scarpia doesn't find Cavaradossi through accident of fate or plot contrivance. The story is driven by a character via a flaw that was previously established in kind of a different context. It was funny the first time and ominous the second, but I didn't get the sense when they had their initial comedic back and forth that it was going to be Chekhov's jealousy.
And speaking of Tosca's characterization, I think she's a fantastic character. She would have been so easy to make kind of a one note harpy who is fully defined by her jealousy and screws everything up for the real main characters because of that.
But she's not.
She's the active agent, she is the one who makes decisions. And she's very smart. Her jealous moment does lead to Cavaradossi's capture, but Scarpia asks her if she is sure Cavaradossi was alone in the villa, she shrewdly leverages her jealousy to lend credibility to her lie. She says "Nothing escapes the jealous eye. [He was] Alone." She repurposes and weaponizes her character flaw against her enemy.
She lulls and outsmarts Scarpia and when she kills him, he's as surprised as I was. He thought he had bullied and manipulated her into getting what he wanted. He did not.
And I really liked how she's written and played in the aftermath of the stabbing. Her rage is palpable as twice she snarls "Is your blood choking you?" But then before she leaves, she places two candles near him and lays a crucifix on his body. A prayer for an awful person being who was still a human being that she killed. She's shaken, but still composes herself, and puts her plan in motion.
And it ALMOST works. Scarpia's order to his men did not mean what Tosca thought it meant. She couldn't have known, but he was always going to betray her. Again, the drivers of the plot are rooted in character.
Framing Tosca's [Dilemma]
Another interesting thing about Tosca that sort of surprised was the framing of Scarpia's offer. Her being coerced into sleeping with him is not framed as "But she's Cavaradossi's sexy lamp, Scarpia shouldn't be taking Cavaradossi's thing from him! What will going through with this do to Cavaradossi?!?" Cavaradossi doesn't even find out about it until after Scarpia's dead. It is wholly her dilemma and her cost.
There's also no weird purity stuff associated with it either. She doesn't say "I'm going to be dishonored" and (by implication) "ruined for any other man." She just says, essentially, "Wow you're an a-hole."
Also she get's a great line when she next sees Cavaradossi. She says "You're free." He responds with "This is Scarpia's first act of clemency...."
"And his last"
I don't have much else to say about Scarpia as a character, but he does say this to Tosca:
I have waited for this hour!
Already in the past I burned
with passion for the Diva.
But tonight I have beheld you
in a new role I had not seen before.
Those tears of yours were lava
to my senses and that fierce hatred
which your eyes shot at me only fanned
the fire in my blood.
Supple as a leopard
you enwrapped your lover.
In that instant
I vowed you would be mine!
Which just... this f*cking guy.
Napoleon crossed the Alps in May of 1800. (Napoleon Crossing the Alps is a pretty recognizable painting by Jaques-Louis David, and the inspiration for Raul Julia's decoration in the 1994 film masterpiece "Street Fighter")
Napoleon Crossing the Alps
(Jacques-Louis David (1805))
(Street Fighter (1994))
In June 1800 the French army engaged the Hapsburg Austrians* at the the Battle of Marengo in northern Italy. The French suffered a setback early in the day and after a French tactical retreat, the Austrians reported the battle won. In Act 1 of "Tosca" some side characters celebrate Napoleon's "defeat." Later in the afternoon the French counterattacked and defeated the Austrians. This news reaches Scarpia in Act 2 via a perturbed aide. (It's unclear if Scarpia cares all that much).
I mentioned that the Napoleonic backdrop doesn't have any direct effect on the plot, but there is a neat parallel with the events of the story. Both the Austrians and Tosca herself have a "defeat from the jaws of victory" moment. All was won, until it very suddenly was not.
It's not all that important to the play or deep, but it's kind of cool.
* The Hapsburgs controlled Northern Italy at the time. European history during the Napoleonic wars, and Italian history in specific is really confusing in this time period.
I don't know much about stagecraft, so just a couple of things I liked.
The set itself for the production was really interesting. It was a vaguely non-literal set with 3 giant paintings by Anne-Louis Girodet, who was a student of the David I mentioned earlier in regards to the painting of Napoleon. One painting was used as a wall on stage right (left side from the audience), one on stage left (right side from the audience), and a slightly tilted one as the floor in the center. The wall paintings had doors leading offstage built into them.
The three acts of the play all take place in different locations, but the side and floor paintings stay on stage. Swapping out the backdrop and changing the lighting and furniture meant that even with the 3 paintings being on stage the entire time, the three acts still felt like they were different places.
My wife e-mailed Opera Orlando asking about the paintings and got this response:
"The scenic concept was to have “good” represented on [stage right], dominant during the opening scene at the church. That painting is "Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes,” Ossian being a Norse god. It plays on the pagan and the sacred, and Bonaparte’s influence on what was happening in Italy. “Evil” is represented on [stage left], dominant during ACT II in Scarpia’s quarters. That painting is entitled “The Revolt at Cairo” and was selected or it’s violence and how power and aggression runs rough-shod over the people. The center painting represents the struggle between “good” and “evil,” and is entitled “Scene from a Deluge.” It is actually on display at the Louvre. In this scene, a woman is being pulled in all directions trying to save herself. A perfect parallel to Tosca’s predicament. [In] ACT III all paintings are equally featured to underline the importance of choice, and that life constantly pushes and pulls between “good” and “evil.”"
The Revolt at Cairo
(Anne-Louis Girodet (1809))
Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes
(Anne-Louis Girodet (1802))
Scene from a Deluge
(Anne-Louis Girodet (1806))
So now knowing all that, it's worth noting that in Act 1, the chapel Angelotti hides in was accessed through a door in the "good" wall, and in Act 2 the doors that lead to the Scarpia's torture chamber were in the "evil" wall. The e-mail from Opera Orlando wasn't signed, but huge thanks to whoever you are for all that great information.
There were also some squibs in this, which I don't remember noticing in any other opera production I've seen. Cavaradossi and Scarpia had a good bit of blood on them after their deaths. The blood on Cavaradossi had a tragic dramatic effect, as the audience definitively knew he'd actually been shot before Tosca did. (I mean, as an audience member at a tragic opera, just though social contract the audience likely already figured out how this was going to end, but ignoring that meta-textual stuff, it was a good moment.)
Fred Plotkin, in his book Opera 101, speaking about opera acting said:
'In olden days, it is generally (and perhaps mistakenly) assumed, all an opera singer had to do was "stand and sing." But a great singing performance takes on even greater dimensions when the artist is also a riveting actor.'
I'm generally just a little too far from the stage to get too nuanced of a read on the acting in the operas I've seen. (The exception being the 2018 Opera Orlando production of "Pagliacci" where I was second row. The acting by Brian Cheney and Suzanne Kantorski in particular in two really intense roles were both excellent.)
I was in the front of the second balcony for "Tosca" so I couldn't see faces, but even from that distance there were some really standout moments. Eleni Calenos as Tosca was impressive throughout, but in particular during the run-up and aftermath of her killing of Scarpia. It was like I could feel her tension, her steadying breaths, her adrenaline, and see her hands shaking.
Daniel Scofield as Scarpia in that same scene was also really great. HIs triumphant self confidence when he thought he had Tosca where he wanted her was really unsettling, and he really sold the surprise when she turned the tables.
And speaking of selling surprise, Nathan Granger as Mario had an absolutely convincing "Wait, wtf?" moment during the execution scene when instead of blanks, the actual bullets hit him.
I realize that it's a little weird that on my blog ostensibly about musical things, I've rambled for 3000+ words without mentioning the music.
(I will say this may be the first opera I've seen in person that I hadn't heard any of the music before. Usually a misspent youth watching Looney Tunes and too many movies means I've heard at least some of the most famous ones. But not here. Shrug.)
If you're still reading at this point, thanks for indulging me. I'm thinking of doing this more often for the different performances I see around town. Opera Orlando's Tosca run is over, but the've got Frida coming up in January, and "a Game of Thrones inspired take" on Lucia di Lammermoor in April. Highly recommend checking out a show if you're even a little bit curious.