Wednesday, December 21, 2005


It's taken me a while to get around to writing about this, as I kind of feel like this could be long and involved--but hey, I could be wrong. That's what's so great about stream-of-consciousness no editing writing. Who knows what will dribble out--I ahve never been accused of being succint.

That said, a few weeks ago, I went to see Tosca at the LA Opera. I was actually looking forward to it after seeing the truly execrable Parsifal (although I have been told that if you were a true Wagnerite, it was wonderful. I am not.). I went with friends, and went to the pre-lecture, which promised an exciting evening. Alan Chapman, who teaches at UCLA and broadcasts on the radio from USC, was entertaining, and reminded me of what a good teacher does. He explained the different motifs, and especially the hostility that Puccini faced with this now classic opera. He informed us that music critics in London were the worst, followed by Boston, each providing a scathing review of the opera. One critic suggested he write music somewhere else, while another called Tosca something along the lines of bad underscoring for a great drama. I also loved the review from the Italian police gazette that was upset at the negative portrayal of the police and suggested alternate plot and character points. Hysterical. We love bad reviews of great works in hindsight.

So-- a little background and plot summary--Tosca was a popular play written by Sardou for Sarah Bernhardt. It was a very popular play. Puccini became interested when seeing a production in a language he didn't even speak. He was so captivated by Bernhardt he wanted to make an opera of the play. It took him another ten years to do it. The plot is complete melodrama--and here's a short summary:

Acto One-o: Cavaradossi, an artist, is painting a portrait in a cathedral that is a mix of a woman he saw praying and his lover, Floria Tosca, a local singing star. He is interrupted by a man who is fleeing from the police--a political fugitive, whose sister was the woman Cavardossi saw praying. Basically, she left her brother a key to the chapel and Cavardossi hides him. Tosca is horribly jealous, and enters with suspicion that her lover is having an affair as the painting has the look of another woman. She is convinced by him that he's not, and they arrange a romantic rendezvous after her singing engagement. She leaves. Cavardossi tells the man, who comes out of hiding in the chapel, to flee to Cavaradossi's cottage, and he will be safe there. They leave. The police come in, led by the evil Scarpia, who oozes badness. He assumes that Cavaradossi is hiding the man he is searching for, and order the police to look at the cottage. He also tells us that he is in love(lust) with Tosca, and finally can pin her into having to gratify him. He spurns God as well, just in case we missed how bad he was. In a church. Perhaps this was problematic to the Italian police.

Acto Two-o: We are in a police office/suite in a room above the place where Tosca is to sing. Scarpia has Cavarodossi, and is waiting for Tosca. In between the acts, Tosca has met Cavardossi at the rendezvous, and all jealousy is gone. Tosca comes in. Scarpia begins to torture Cavaradossi to make Tosca talk. Even though Cavaradossi tells her not to talk, his screams get to her and she finally tells where the prisoner is. Scarpia promises to let Cavaradossi go if Tosca has sex wtih him, as Cavaradossi is set to be executed the following morning. Tosca agrees, and Scarpia tells his lieutenant that they should shoot him just like another prisoner whose death they had faked. They will pretend to shoot him, and he will pretend to die, but none of it will be real. The lieutenant menacingly agrees, leaving Tosca alone with Scarpia. As Scarpia is about to pounce, she spies a knife on the table and stabs him. He dies.

Acto Three-o: A parapet of the castle where Cavaradossi is to be executed. Tosca comes in and warns him that she killed Scarpia, but they can flee once he, and she says "you'll laugh at this" pretends to die for the firing squad. They come out, shoot him. He falls. She goes to get him, and he, of course, is really dead. She runs off and jumps off the parapet, screaming "Scarpia, Avanti a Dio!" (Scarpia, we'll meet before God!"). End-o

So, the singing was great. Sam Ramey was amazing as Scarpia. Loved Violeta Urmana, though I do prefer a heavier voice, and the tenore playing Cavaradossi sounded like he was standing in front of me. A little light on the nuance, that one, but still, well done.

The first thing I thought was that this could be any drama/crime TV show currently on the air.The plot was completely melodramatic, but gripping, and you can see why people have responded to it for a century.

The second thing I thought, and the main reason I'm writing about this at all, is the nature of torture and truth. Scarpia is an interesting, and completely evil character. He follows his lust. What's fascinating is that in the opening he is actually hitting the nail on the head with his suspicions. We repel from him, though, because we know he has no proof. From the beginning he presumes guilt, and then looks for the evidence to back him up. It's interesting to me that even though he is searching for truth supposedly, and wants to uncover the villain, he becomes the villian by trying to prove what he believes, not seek the truth. In that way, he reminded me of another current leader in power.

He also reminded me of the current administration in use of torture. He actually used it to get something he wanted that he had decided was true. The torture works, but we are left with how inhumane it is, how terrible a way to leverage answers--even more horrible for the person watching than for the one being tortured. And I kept thinking of how torture has been in the news, how it's being debated and being used. Of all things, I didn't expect this opera to resonate at all with me, but then here was a character believing he knew the truth with no evidence, pushing forward to prove it to justify his lusts, and then torturing anyone who got in his way. It's interesting to me that Cavaradossi and Tosca are actually guilty of the crimes they are accused of, but that doesn't matter to us. When the accuser is corrupt, we have no choice but to side with the victims of his accusation. Certainly it's drama, and contrived for us to side with the "good guys", but interesting how slippery the truth is, and intention is all.

Now that's good melodrama.

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