Puccini – Tosca / Magee, Kaufmann, Hampson / Zurich Opera 2009 (2)

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As noted, this is a production of Tosca which does not let you forget the theatricality of the story. Neither does it ignore the role religion plays in the drama – as the libretto indicates, Mario is a freethinker, Tosca is very pious, and Scarpia is a nasty hypocrite. Even though the stage for Act I is more theater than church Mario’s painting of Mary Magdalene is definitely a religious painting. (This is a minor point that doesn’t matter, but with all Mario says about how Tosca is ‘bruna’ it’s hard not to notice that Magee/Tosca’s hair is a terrific Agent Scully shade of red).

And at the end of act I we get something that appears at first glance to be a little bizarre. When “va, Tosca” has come to an end, the audience/chorus of theater patrons turns to the closed curtain at one side of the stage. Scarpia also turns. The curtain is drawn back to reveal a kind of tableau vivant of Tosca as – well, it looks like Tosca as the Virgin Mary. She’s dressed in blue and white, wears a crown, and has an armful of lilies. This is the end of the act.

There is a sense in which this is not nuts. This is an opera that plays around with the virgin/whore idea – after all, one of the first things we see on the stage in nearly any production is Mario’s painting of Mary Magdalene, which he has modeled on Angelotti’s (presumably) virtuous sister. Similarly, Tosca might be a ‘fallen’ woman in the strictest sense, but the story stresses that she is a ‘good’ woman too – not just pious, but also loving and loyal and all that.

If I had to take a guess, I’d say that the little tableau is about Scarpia more than anyone else. Scarpia’s thing is power – he doesn’t want to seduce Tosca: as he says, consent is so boring. Coercion is more fun! He wants to make her submit – no more pride for Tosca. This is about knocking her off her pedestal – turning her from inaccesible virgin (in a sense, obv.) to whore.

But as Mario points out in Act I there is a secret harmony between Tosca and Mary Magdalene; it’s this figure, not the Virgin Mary, that Tosca most resembles. And in Act II his painting is leaning against the wall and Tosca is dressed in blue, like the figure therein depicted. Scarpia keeps touching it; ultimately he stabs it, rips it up and knocks it to the floor, and when Tosca seems to be about to submit to him, it’s on the wreck of the painting that she lies down. This is about power – specifically, the power to degrade, humiliate and destroy.

So, you can read the production’s handling of the religious imagery as a way of talking about the sort of roles (theater!) women can play in relation to men. Interestingly enough, once Tosca has killed Scarpia she doesn’t leave candles or a crucefix – rather, she leaves a rose, and a picture of herself, one of those programs. Throughout this whole production there is this deliberate blurring of religion and theatricality. Saints, for example, carry flowers sometimes, or are left flowers – just like divas. The people in Act I are in a space that is sort of a church and sort of a theater. Is the idea that stars are kind of like religious icons, representing the types of things that saints used to? Tosca masquerades as Mary – and she also has this sort of movie star glamour (in act I we see her signing an autograph, and donning dark sunglasses before her exit, and again there are those programs with her face on them everywhere, even in ‘church’). Given the ending, or I should say the ‘ending’ with Tosca’s in character bow – given this, and given those eternal little programs, is this whole thing just Tosca’s manufactured story about herself? When Mario is given permission to write to her before his execution, he doesn’t write a letter but rather draws a great big eye on the wall: he’s watching her – everyone is watching her? (Sauron is watching her? I mean, call me a nerd, but — well, yeah. Never mind.)

I am not sure. (Although the idea that the Nazgûl have gotten to Cavaradossi is kind of intriguing, interpretively.) Possibly a go at the actual performances will provide some insight.

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