Vissi d'arte

from lullaby to requiem

Friday, June 23, 2006

Memoir #11: Questo il bacio di Tosca!

Tosca – Finalmente mia!

So the operatic super villain Baron Scarpia exclaims at end of the second act of Puccini’s Tosca as he takes his embrace of the diva, Floria Tosca. Musically speaking, it’s one of Puccini’s finest pieces; sung correctly, it can be as electrifying as the Cell Block Tango, only three times as deadly.

I bought Callas’ recording of Tosca quite a few years ago; it was my second complete opera (Medea was the first). The logic as to why I bought Tosca before Norma or Traviata (or even Il Trovatore, Aida, or Turandot), has always eluded me. My best guess as to why I bought this inferior recording (note: recording, not opera) is that I was going through a ‘tenor-phase;’ every once in a while I only listen to the world’s greatest tenors: Corelli, Domingo, Picchi, and Caruso among others.

Although the opera is, itself, mostly carried by the female lead (Tosca), it’s mostly a tenor’s opera. Puccini wrote two wonderfully dazzling arias for the tenor part of Mario Cavaradossi: Recondita armonia and E lucevan le stele, not to mention the glorious arietta Vittoria! My first Tosca recording was the one with Maria Callas (Tosca), Carlo Bergonzi (Cavaradossi), and the incomparable Tito Gobbi (Scarpia). I have also recently purchased the other Callas Tosca with Guiseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi and Gobbi reprising his role as Scarpia. This recording is much better than the first one I bought mostly because most of the principals were in top vocal form, and conductor Victor de Sabata leads the orchestra wonderfully.

As Tosca was only my second complete opera recording, I have had plenty of opportunities to listen to it and learn the score; eventually I memorized it. So when I found out that the Metropolitan Opera was staging another production of the opera, I just had to see it. Plus, the only other operas running at the time I was in New York were Rodelinda and Parsifal – I was in no mood for either Handel or Wagner, so I chose Puccini’s oft-performed work.

This was my last week in New York – and I made certain to save all the best for last. So I booked the last performance of Tosca, on May 16th, at 8:00 PM. I left the house (which we had just moved into) and got into the city at around 3. I had plenty of time to spare, so I decided to explore the Tower Records at Lincoln Center, and then Central Park later. I grabbed Callas’ live 1952 London recording of Norma, and decided to go to Central Park and have dinner somewhere there. I got off the subway at 81st St., and walked into Central Park trying to find the nearest Starbucks – getting lost in the process, of course. I did stumble into the Belvedere Tower, which had a magnificent view of the Park’s lawns. When I found myself a way out of the park, I was at Central Park West and 69th St. – so I decided to walk a few blocks to Lincoln Center, where the Metropolitan Opera moved to in the 1960s.

I got to the Met at around 7:40, and started taking more pictures – feeling under-dressed for a night at the opera. Wow… New Yorkers do know how to dress; there were people in fur coats and hats, men in tuxes (looking kinda like waiters…), women wearing gorgeous shawls and lovely gowns. I went into the ‘under-ground’ entrance of the Met which connects it to the 66th St. subway. I was so awestruck by the sheer beauty of the staircases leading to the upper floors – I prayed I wouldn’t trip and fall flat on my face. Of course, the gods heard my prayers, and gave me exactly what I had not wanted – my right shoe got caught on the third step, and I fell flat on the gorgeous (and, hopefully, clean) red velvet carpet. Most people were going ahead of me, so I hope not so many people saw my diving into the steps of my beloved opera house; there was this one guy who looked at me though – straining to control a smirk. I immediately regained my composure, and went straight up to my Balcony Box – this time holding onto the velvet handrails of the staircase.

I was in Box 13, seat 4; cheap seats, but I borrowed binoculars from John, which helped a lot. The Metropolitan Opera is a grand theatre which sits around 4,000 people, with ticket prices ranging from $250 (orchestra) to $10 (standing room), depending on which production, and which night, you’re seeing it – opening night galas are usually more expensive than regular weeknight performances. The chandeliers adorning the golden-walled auditorium were a gift of, if I’m not mistaken, the Austrian government. Before the curtains rise, the lights dim and the chandeliers begin their slow ascent.

Tosca is based on a 5-act play by Victorien Sardou. Puccini had discovered the story of the jealous prima donna long before he wrote the opera; still, he put off writing it for a few years, composing Manon Lescaut and La Boheme before it. Because the play was so long, Puccini and his librettists, Illica and Giacosa, had a lot of trouble condensing the play into three operatic acts of roughly an hour each. The play was butchered into its essential parts, and many subplots were eliminated.

Unlike many operas, Puccini did not write any orchestral prelude to Tosca and Act I opens with Cesare Angelotti (baritone) – fresh from his escape from Castel Sant’Angelo’s prisons. To aid his escape, his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, has left him a disguise at the Attavanti Chapel. The Sacristan (baritone/bass) arrives and Angelotti hides in one of the private chapels, as painter Mario Cavaradossi arrives to finish his masterpiece – a portrait of Mary Magdalene. As the first aria progresses – Recondita Armonia (I recall a strange harmony) – Cavaradossi muses how he has come to paint the Magdalene as a blonde with great blue eyes, when his jealous lover, Floria Tosca, has brown hair and eyes. The Sacristan then leaves, and Angelotti comes out of hiding, not realizing that he’s still not alone. He recognizes Mario, and the latter agrees to help Angelotti escape the clutches of the evil Baron Scarpia. Angelotti recognizes his sister as the inspiration for the blonde-haired-blue-eyed Magdalene, just as Tosca calls out from the chapel for Mario to open the doors. Angelotti quickly escapes with Mario’s basket of food and the disguise that has been left by the Marchesa.

Tosca (soprano) enters, enraged that Mario had not let her in sooner – she claims to have heard footsteps inside the church and questions her lover about the blonde Magdalene with blue eyes. Mario swears his loyalty, but Tosca recognizes the Marchesa in the portrait and insists that Mario repaint the eyes with a darker colour. She also brings him some news – she’ll be singing in Church that evening and will be able to meet him after her performance. The two sing an exciting love duet, and Tosca exits happily – but still insisting that the eyes be repainted. Angelotti returns, and Cavaradossi instructs him to hide inside a well in the garden of his cottage until they can figure out how to smuggle him out of Rome.

The Sacristan returns with choirboys to practice for that evening’s festivities, which will be graced by La Diva Tosca. The merriment is interrupted when Scarpia (baritone) enters bearing news of the escape from Sant’Angelo. He instructs the Sacristan and his choirboys to prepare for the Te Deum, and they exit with significantly lowered spirits. Through a quick CSI scan, Scarpia discovers a fan that has been left inside the Church bearing the crest of the Marchesa Attavanti. He asks the Sacristan who has been working at the chapel, and he answers Cavaradossi – whom Scarpia knows to be a liberal, against his governance. Tosca enters and Scarpia uses this opportunity to lay the framework for his plans to ensnare Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Angelotti all at once. Scarpia taunts Tosca with the fan, saying that Mario has a lover – the Marchesa Attavanti. Fueled by jealousy, she storms out and heads to Mario’s cottage; Scarpia instructs his minions to follow her. The first act ends with Scarpia’s glorious aria – Va, Tosca, with the choirboys and the entire chorus behind him praying the Te Deum, while he lusts after Tosca.

Act two opens in Scarpia’s study; he’s having dinner while musing over his plans to seduce Tosca and capture her lover and his ex-con friend. One of his secretaries enters and says that the attempt to follow Tosca and find Angelotti has failed – they didn’t find what they were looking for, but they did arrest Cavaradossi on the charges of ‘inciting to sedition’ (I think GMA has a lot in common with Scarpia…). Scarpia questions Mario just as Tosca is heard from outside singing for the evening’s festivities. Unyielding, Mario gets himself thrown into the torture chamber just as Tosca arrives. In one of my all-time favorite operatic scenes, Tosca is ‘tortured’ by Scarpia – he has her lover tortured in the next room while she hears all his moans of agony. After a solo (the quintessential soprano aria, Vissi d’arte), a series of duets, and a trio, Tosca gives in: Scarpia will ‘save’ Cavaradossi if she agrees to satisfy his sexual needs. Scarpia instructs his secretary to stage a mock execution for Cavaradossi – just like the one they did with Comte Palmieri. His secretary agrees and leaves as Scarpia writes a safe-pass for Tosca and Cavaradossi so that they could get out of Rome after the entire ugly incident. Meanwhile, Tosca moves to Scarpia’s dinner table and pours herself a glass of Spanish wine. She sees Scarpia’s steak knife, and hesitantly grips it. As the orchestra thunders to a climax, Scarpia stretches his arms out to embrace Tosca – Tosca! Finalmente mia!!! he yells – Tosca, you are mine finally! She turns and as Scarpia closes in to kiss her, she stabs him in the chest – Questo il bacio di Tosca! This is Tosca’s kiss – one of the most exciting moments in the opera – and a chance for the confused weakling Tosca to become the angry/deranged sorceress Medea. While her victim yells for help, she tortures him – mocking him for being killed by a woman; and not just any woman, a woman like Tosca, a god-fearing, fickle, and weak diva – only in death can she forgive him. He dies after a few seconds, and Tosca quickly recovers from her adrenaline rush. She wipes her hands that have been bloodied by Scarpia, and wonders to herself why the whole of Rome trembled before this pathetic tyrant. Before she leaves the room, she scours it for sign of the safe-pass, which she finds still clutched in Scarpia’s hands. She puts two candles on either side of Scarpia, and lays a crucifix on his chest. She finally storms out, but not before snatching her shawl from Scarpia’s desk.

The final act is set high atop Castel Sant’Angelo, with its signature Angel holding a huge sword. The voice of a shepherd boy is heard in the early morning light, singing an ominously beautiful song about the loss of love. Cavaradossi enters and sings his last aria – that sounds more like a lullaby than a farewell to the world – E lucevan le stelle. Sung correctly, it could almost be as moving as Nessun dorma from another Puccini opera, Turandot. Tosca enters and tells her lover of the mock execution – he won’t be hanged but will be shot, instead, with blanks. She tells him to fall and wait patiently for the guards to exit before they can go out together. She also tells him of her horrible crime – who knew that Tosca’s little, innocent hands could be capable of murder? The guards arrive, and Mario gets ready for his fall – come la Tosca in teatro – just like Tosca on stage. The firing squad gets ready – just as Tosca’s anxiety build up into a climax. They shoot, and Mario falls perfectly on cue. Tosca waits for the guards to exit, and approaches Mario, who’s still on the ground, perfectly stills. She finds out, to an orchestral climax, that Scarpia had deceived them – even from beyond the grave, Scarpia is pretty menacing. Scarpia’s secretaries and guards arrive, having discovered Tosca’s crime, to arrest the diva. Half-mad with grief, she rushes to the top of the castle, beside the stone angel. One of the secretaries harangue her with her crime saying that she will pay dearly for having killed Scarpia. She knows this, and holds her hands out to stop the guards – she will pay for Scarpia’s crime with her own life. Turning to the guards one last time, she calls on Scarpia to meet her before God – just before she leaps of the castle to her death.

The role of the fickle soprano, Tosca, isn’t one of my favorite roles. I like women who kick ass – Medea (who kills her children to get back at her philandering husband), Norma (who sacrifices herself to save her children and her friend), Turandot (who asks her suitors three riddles, and has them killed if they can’t answer them). Only very few opera singers can count the role as one of their favorites, even though it’s perfect for a star-singer – it’s a one-woman show, need I explain further? The music isn’t especially difficult to sing, unlike Turandot, which has been known to devour both her suitors, and sopranos unfortunate enough to sing her incorrectly; one of the reasons Callas lost her voice so early in her career (other than not practicing) is that she concentrated on very heavy, difficult roles when she was young – Turandot was one of her vehicles to fame. Dramatically speaking, though, Tosca can be as complicated as Norma or Medea, who both contemplated on killing their kids, despite loving them beyond life. Unlike Norma though, or other bel canto roles for that matter, you can’t exactly get just how dramatic the role can be just by listening to recordings. You need to see the opera to get the drama behind the libretto and the music.

This is one of the main points I learned when I saw Tosca at the Met with Aprile Millo in the title role. Miss Millo first achieved fame when she sang Aida in the 1980’s; she’s a fabulous singer whose forte is Verdi heroines. Singing Verdi, of course, requires much from any soprano – to sing the typical range of Verdi repertoire, you need to be a lyric and dramatic soprano, perhaps even a coloratura – Violetta Valery (La Traviata) requires one to be all three! Compared to Puccini heroines, which are typically spinto and lyric sopranos, many Verdi heroines are much harder to sing. This is not, however, to trivialize Puccini heroines, least of all Tosca. Puccini is a realist; he wrote operas in the verisimo style, meaning real-life. He wrote no grand operas with grand choruses, ballets, and quartets or quintets (or sextets and sestets!); his operas were a reflection of real life. For Tosca, he went to the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo at dawn to experience the ringing of the bells, which he wrote to open the third act, along with an authentic shepherd’s song.

As Tosca, Aprile sang better than she acted, which is unfortunate. The role requires a great artist who can act. Her acting was great during the first act; for the first time ever, I found that there were funny bits in the opera – the Sacristan’s side-comments about Cavaradossi’s feelings for both the Magdalene he painted and Tosca, and Tosca’s insistent comments for Mario to change the Magdalene’s eyes to black instead of blue. She’s really good as a comic actress, but I’m not so sure about her being a dramatist – the second act was pretty bland, acting-wise. As a singer though, there is no doubt that La Millo is in her prime; she missed a few high notes in the second act, particularly the ending to the aria Vissi d’arte, which would have been stunning; and her scream of Questo il bacio di Tosca. For the 2nd-act curtain call, she didn’t come out for a solo curtain; perhaps because of these mistakes?

Eduardo Villa’s Cavaradossi is, acting-wise, as bland as can be. His voice isn’t exactly as good as the other singers either. Watching him sing onstage is like watching a sack of potatoes belt out high Cs, only that could be slightly more exciting – potatoes, you can turn into chips after singing E lucevan le stelle – Villa’s rendition, by the way, made me a little sleepy.

James Morris, however, is quite good as Scarpia. I never liked baritone voices, but his singing of Va, Tosca was very exhilarating. As the second act opened, he was sitting on his chair, being his evil self, musing about how to ensnare La Tosca. His performance came out naturally, and quite as inhuman as I had expected Scarpia to be.

One huge bonus when you’re watching an actual opera at the Met is that the house goes all out with costumes and set designs. Famed director Franco Zeffirelli’s designs for Tosca are nothing short of exquisite. The Attavanti Chapel in the first act was glorious in all its ruin, and the Magdalene looked beautiful and heavenly. People, dressed to the nines, passing by the church to lay flowers for the Madonna during scenes added more character to the setting – I never imagined that people could be passing behind tenors and baritones as they exclaim their feelings about love and the Magdalene. I really enjoyed the part where cute little choirboys went rushing into the scene dressed in their choir-robes and started playing around the Chapel, joyously anticipating the evening’s feasts, until Scarpia interrupts them and tells them off for making such a noise at a Church.

Scarpia’s office at the Palazzo Farnese in Act 2 is no less exquisite. The two-storey high library behind the desks and the ‘torture chamber’ on stage right are nothing short of a vision. The lighting might have been too dark, but it lends an eerie mood to the opera, quite like the effect of the rising sun in the last act. It starts out with very dim, early-morning lights, and the stage starts lightening as the sun in the east (stage left) starts to rise. Just as Mario is shot, and Tosca leaps off the balcony, it is already morning and the sun is in its full glory. Unfortunately, because my seat was so high, I couldn’t see the stone-sentinel angel that should have been the centerpiece for the third act’s setting. I saw a tattered version of it during my backstage tour of the Met, I bet this functional one would have been fabulous.

In keeping with operatic tradition, Tosca and Cavaradossi were a little on the rotund side, which may account for their relatively bad acting. James Morris was rather slim though, so were the other minor cast members. They say that it ain’t over till the fat lady sings. Well, she’s sung (quite well, I might add), and suddenly, my date with the Met was over. It was a fabulous evening – plush seats, velvet curtains and staircases, and a soprano leaping to her death – everything an opera lover could have hoped for. Still, Millo is no Callas – I know because the next day, I went back to Tower Records and got myself a DVD of Callas’ 1965 performance of Tosca at Covent Garden, with Tito Gobbi. And although Callas’ voice is has many more flaws than Millo’s, her acting is MUCH more believable – proof positive that there is only one Callas.

As I was making my way out of my Met, I couldn’t help but feel sad – I’ll be going back to culture-deprived Manila in a few days – straight from the cultural capital of the United States. Going home, I caught the subway to Grand Central, along with many other patrons, and even some people from the orchestra. I took another train to Northbrook, and got off at this station (forgot which one), from which I walked to Stacy and John’s apartment, where I was spending the night.


  • At 7/06/2006 2:59 PM, Blogger `kwekwek` said…

    hehehe .. i kept on clicking the 'envelope' icon [which was supposedly for emailing your blog to a friend] .. umaandar nnmn ang katangahan ko sir .. hehehe. anyway, i cnt get through your tagboard. um, links po?

    i miss you, sir .. :) next week i'l spare somtym to read evrythin' here :) muamua ...

  • At 7/06/2006 3:04 PM, Blogger `kwekwek` said…

    i kept on clicking the envelope icon [which was supposedly for emailing your blog to a friend].. umaandar nnmn ang katangahan ko, madam .. anyway .. i cant get thru your tagboard po .. link me teacher dear .. :)

    next week i'l read evrythin here po .. promis :) hehehe

    missin' you,
    zheng-y :)


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