Opera has it all. Love. Murder. Rape. And most fascinating, in the case of Puccini’s “Tosca” a peek into the rapist’s thinking. In fact, he tells all. In church.
Every day headlines tout another soldier in the vast army of rapacious men advancing sexually on some hapless woman. Normal, nice people, cannot help wonder: “What was he thinking?” Well, Giacomo Puccini’s 1900 masterpiece, “Tosca,” lavishly displays such devilish desires.
“Tosca” is a passionate love story interfaced with political intrigue. In fact, the plot hinges on villain Baron Scarpia’s botched rape of Floria Tosca, the brave heroine of the story, madly in love with artist Mario Cavaradossi who casts his protection to an escaped political prisoner of Baron Scarpia — Rome’s chief of police. By now you sense this is not going to end well for anyone.
Listen, I’m not shilling for any opera company. But I suppose I am for the art form of opera. That Italians invented it over 400 years ago is not incidental. And what a glorious experience this show is.
Decades ago I first saw “Tosca” at the Lyric Opera, Chicago. The sumptuous set designs in the opening scenes in a Rome church, with the Te Deum procession, looked like an Old Master painting come to life. It made an indelible impression. Beautiful, but I could not see who was singing. This current “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera is very much the same in splendor. But sitting in a movie theater I can see the lace on the soprano’s bodice and the hero’s kisses look very real.
I saw the current “Tosca” at my movie house January 27. The Met Live HD broadcasts a selection of the season’s operas to cinemas around the world. I love it. I go in my play clothes, pay about $20 and see everything close up. It is a fun thing. Not as swanky as going to a great opera house, but good seeing those faces. So I know who is singing.
This “Tosca” features the great actor/tenor Vittorio Grigolo and soprano Sonya Voncheva as the young lovers swept away by political corruption. Baron Scarpia, played by baritone Zeljko Lucic, embodies the fearsomeness of power.
You know this is a man who believes when he makes an offer no one can refuse. In the opening scene set in the church Sant’ Andrea della Valle, his henchman dips his own hand in the holy water font, and brings the drops to Scarpia, who takes them and reverently crosses himself. There, in church, Scarpia lasciviously reveals his intentions to bend Tosca to his will.
His arias illuminate his thinking while we see his face awash with lust and power. There’s a bit of a hint of “The Godfather” church baptism scene. “For myself the violent conquest has stronger relish than soft surrender,” Scarpia tells all. There are ” … no delight in sighs, I crave pursuing the craved thing, sate myself and cast away and seek new bait. I mean to taste my fill.”
When “Tosca” debuted in Rome, June 1900, audiences were shocked. Based upon the Victorien Sardou play “La Tosca,” starring the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, it traveled to Italy where Puccini saw it in 1889. Imagine 1900-era audiences seeing an attempted rape on stage and a violent reaction by the victim.
After Tosca’s performance for the queen, Scarpia has her brought to his apartments in Farnese Palazzo. He makes his demands while Cavaradossi is being tortured nearby. Tosca tells Scarpia she would trade safe passage for herself and Cavaradossi — think “Casablanca” letters of transit — but she cannot do it.
Her resisting inflames Scarpia: “[F]ierce hatred in your eyes fan the fire in my blood … I vowed you’d be mine and I will have you. Hating what does it matter spasms of hate or spasms of passion you are mine.”
Clearly it is a power play. Not an act of seduction for love. It is intended to scare and dominate. It’s not hard to imagine today’s men of power feeling as Scarpia does. Power can make people irrational.
Today women are shouting out their collective outrage to such actions. But Tosca took immediate action.
Spoiler alert — Floria Tosca picks up the steak knife from Scarpia’s dinner table and when he grabs her she plunges the knife into his heart. Telling him there is “Tosca’s kiss.”
It is a shocking scene even today. Yet, understandable in the context of today’s sexual news.
So it’s clear, opera is the Fort Knox of 400 years of history of human emotions, customs, costumes, political and civic intrigue. That is why it matters.
In the popular Mozart opera, “The Marriage of Figaro,” the plot revolves around the feudal custom of the lord of the manor taking a bride’s virginity on the wedding night. Leaving the groom to bear his humiliation in silence. Operas deliver the unvarnished truth of the times. Good to know.
A couple of years ago the Met allowed a director, with the delusional notion he could improve Puccini, to change the action in “Tosca.” In fact, he removed one of the most iconic scenes in all opera — where Tosca places candles at Scarpia’s dead body, and a crucifix, taken down from the wall, on his chest.
The audience was outraged. He was loudly booed. He had insulted the audience’s expectations and intelligence. So maybe the Met’s current “Tosca” is a mea culpa for that disaster.
At the finale of an opera every performer gets to take a bow … soaking in the adulation and expressed joy swelling up in the house.
Sadly, the creators are not acknowledged. No one says, “Let’s hear it for Puccini.”
But someone should. Bravo Puccini.
• Angela Rocco DeCarlo served as an opera docent with Opera Pacific, Orange County.