Puccini – Tosca / Magee, Kaufmann, Hampson / Zurich Opera 2009 (1)

There are operas where if you ignore the ostensible setting in the libretto it doesn’t matter – or at least, it doesn’t matter very much. There are also operas where if you do this it can work but at the risk of causing the occasional what? moment. Tosca is in the latter category. The story is very specific as to its setting and time period – this is one of those librettos that refers to things like the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome and the Battle of Marengo. And Napoleon.

This production of Tosca has been moved to what I guess by the clothes and hairstyles is roughly the 1950s. There is a great deal of emphasis on the fact that Tosca is a creature of the stage and the spotlight. The church of Act I is closer to a theater than to a church. There is a curtained off-wall on one side, and most of the stage is taken up with rows of chairs. Programs that say TOSCA and have a picture of Tosca on the cover litter the floor – the sacristan picks a few of them up when he comes in, and as he gets to “behold the handmaiden of the lord” in the angelus he holds one up. Mario’s got one among his painting supplies, and in Act II Tosca leaves one of them, sort of like a calling card, on Scarpia’s body. The ruckus in the church that Scarpia interrupts near the end of of Act I consists not of priests and choirboys but theater ushers and a little bevy of ballet students (this caused one of several “what?” moments, at least for me, when they all start whooping it up w/r/t Napoleon.) During Scarpia’s “va, Tosca” the chorus are theater patrons, with tickets. The lighting is reddish, or brownish – they’re going for a vaguely sepia-toned look.

Along similar lines, there is a spotlight on stage in Act II, in which both Tosca and Scarpia are emphasized at various times (e.g. Tosca pauses in it after she has killed Scarpia). And Act III is literally a bare stage for the ‘acted’ (or not) execution. The closer we got to the end of Act III the more I kept wondering “but what is she going to jump off of? Nothing at all?” As it turns out (I have laserlike theatrical instincts!) it is indeed nothing at all – Tosca pauses in the spotlight and then steps out into the shadows. The audience (the real one) applauds, because this is the end of the opera, but Tosca (Emily Magee) does a little bow in character, and is handed flowers by Scarpia’s footmen, before the ‘real’ end of the opera. In other words, I guess, Tosca’s death is her ultimate dramatic moment. To which the unkind part of me says ‘well, duh’ and the less unkind part of me says ‘yes, that’s fine – no quarrel with that at all.’

So. We’ve got a setting of Tosca that takes place in the 20th century, and doesn’t allow us to forget a thing that is actually fairly easy to remember, which is that this opera contains a lot of theater. It also contains a lot of religion, or at least a lot of references to it. So next up: virgins, whores and the destruction of religious art!

(Next part here.)

5 thoughts on “Puccini – Tosca / Magee, Kaufmann, Hampson / Zurich Opera 2009 (1)

  1. The idea that Tosca is so rooted in time and space that little variation is possible is a compelling one. A few months ago I asked Paul Curran if he found that a constraint and his response was to list off a score of ways in which Puccini’s setting is geographically or historically inaccurate. Not the least of these being that there were no female opera singers in Rome in 1800! It rather surprised me then when his production followed the traditional version pretty much to the last dot and comma.


    1. Neat – I knew that there had been a ban on female opera singers in Rome, but not as late as 1800. (Out of curiosity: what else did Curran say was inaccurate? My knowledge of Roman geography is a little rusty – I remember where Sant’Andrea is and where the Castel Sant’Angelo is in very rough terms but that’s all.)

      There is another production of Tosca that I keep meaning to see, a slightly more regie version from the 90s with Terfel and Malfitano which is definitely not set in any recognizable version of Rome in 1800. My working theory is that if the production is upfront about the fact that this is not Rome in 1800 in any literal way the drama can still work – but as yet this is just the working theory. (This would track with there being inaccuracies in Puccini’s setting – if he was using Rome and 1800 to evoke a set of associations or political issues to color the drama and the music, without worrying overmuch about detail, then those associations/issues can probably be got at via less traditional productions too.)


      1. I don’t remember all the details but I think there is a discrepancy around when the news of Marengo reached Rome and certainly problems with the layout of Sant’Andrea; no private locked chapels? Also I gather jumping off Castel Sant’Angelo isn’t very practical.

        I’d like to see what Malfitano would do with it. She’s a subtle director; not exactly what one could call Regie, but not without ideas.


        1. How much fact-massaging credit to Puccini, and how much to Sardou?

          I’m not fundamentally regie-averse, but I have yet to see a non-trad Tosca that doesn’t lose a lot in the process of being cut loose from its (considerable) moorings. One might even argue that decontextualizing turns it into more of a period piece.


          1. I can see the argument for that (decontextualizing turning it into more of a period piece) – a non traditional setting might well end up highlighting all the things about the drama that are very much of their time. I’m going to have to dig up some less traditional versions of the opera and see how they work.


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