Continuing my review of the Metropolitan Opera’s excellent production of Tosca in the current season. This production stars, as the three leads, Sonya Yoncheva (as Floria Tosca), Željko Lučić (as Baron Scarpia), and Vittorio Grigolo (as Mario Cavaradossi).
In the previous installment, we discussed the political backstory to the drama. “Tosca” fits into the genre of “political engagement” propaganda fiction, in which the a-political or politically innocent character (in this case, Tosca) becomes radicalized in the course of the story. As events conspire to make her realize that one of the parties engaged in the conflict is corrupt, brutal, and in the wrong.
The Political Conflict
We touched on the main political conflict forming the basis of the drama: the pro-Republican underground vs the brutal regime of the King of Naples. The Republicans had governed Rome for 3 years (1796-1799) under the benevolent gaze of Napoleon Bonaparte. But when Bonaparte (temporarily) left Italy, the reactionaries came back into power in Rome and proceeded to hound and repress their opponents. But the reactionaries never feel completely safe, knowing that the Underground is still out there, having secret meetings in their Masonic Lodges, and possibly even finding refuge in Catholic chapels sometimes. Police Chief Scarpia is a particularly cunning and ruthless opponent of the scattered Republicans. Who are just biding their time and waiting for their hero, Bonaparte, to return. (Which he does, eventually, but, Spoilers, too late to save our intrepid Scooby-gang.)
Previously we stipulated that our young hero, Mario Cavaradossi, is around 21 or 22 years old at the time of the action (1800). Which would make him old enough to have participated in the former Republican government, at least as a supporter, and now as a member (or supporter) of one of the underground cells. When he encounters the fugitive Consul Angelotti in the church, he doesn’t even hestitate: “I will save you.” Angelotti, with the conniving of his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, has just made his daring escape from the fortress prison Castel Sant’Angelo. The fugitive makes a beeline for the nearby church of Sant’Andrea, where his sister keeps a private chapel. She left the key to the chapel under the feet of the Madonna Statue. Angelotti wasn’t expecting anybody to be in the church, so was startled to encounter Mario there. And — irony of ironies — Mario was busy putting the final touches to his portrait of … Angelotti’s sister! Whose visage he was using as the model for his Mary Magdalene.
After a moment’s confusion, Mario recognizes the former Republican Consul. It doesn’t seem like they were close friends back then, but certainly they knew each other, and are ideological comrades. Mario heroically swears that he will save Angelotti.
At this point they are interrupted by the entrance of Mario’s lover, Floria Tosca. Angelotti scurries into the chapel to hide from her. Floria has come to visit her boyfriend at the workplace, to inform him of the good news: She is free that night, so he should expect her at his secret love-nest villa, where they can make passionate love all night long. The horny Mario is delighted to hear this, but also wants to hustle Tosca out of the church, so that he can proceed with rescuing Angelotti.
At this point in the drama, Tosca is still an “innocent”. She is not involved in any of Mario’s political activities, and it is not even clear that she has any political views of her own. But right away we learn a few things about her character: She is kind and loyal, she helps the poor whenever she can; and she very pious. We also learn one negative aspect of her personality: She is extremely jealous. Like, Othello-level jealous. She blazes up when she sees that Mario has been painting the likeness of another woman. Mario is not so concerned about Floria’s jealousy: He knows he is faithful to her, and he is confident that he can calm her down. It is, rather, her piety that worries him. As he later explains to Angelotti, he cannot bring Tosca into their conspiracy, because she confesses everything to her priest.
Mario’s concerns are not empty. One of the real dangers facing Italian political conspirators was the tendency of Catholic priests to abuse the privacy of the confessional. This is one of the plot points of the famous revolutionary novel The Gadfly, set in Italy of the 1840’s. A confession told in private to a priest, goes straight to the Police. I should also mention here the famous Masonic attitude towards women (as laid out artistically by Mozart in his opera The Magic Flute), namely that women simply cannot be trusted with political secrets. Because they will either blab to their Confessor, or blab to each other, or blab just on general principle. Hence, the Duty of Manly Silence. If you want a secret to remain a secret, then never tell your wife or girlfriend!
As we are to see, Tosca does turn out to be a blabbermouth, and her loose lips get former Consul Angelotti killed. But that isn’t until Act II…
Angelotti’s escape is discovered soon enough, and the Fortress cannons shoot off while he is still conversing with Mario. Later, Scarpia is to admit that firing the cannons (to alert of the escape) had been a mistake. Without that warning, he could have captured Angelotti right there in the church. Tosca has just left, hustled away by Mario. When Mario and Angelotti hear the cannon go off, they realize they need to hasten the plan. They don’t even have time for Angelotti to put on the woman’s dress that his sister left for him: Mario simply hustles him out the back and leads him on foot to his villa (offstage). In the process, Angelotti accidentally drops a part of his costume, the lady’s fan. Which, conveniently enough for the police detectives, is stamped with his sister’s family seal!
When Scarpia arrives at the church and finds the fan, along with the portrait of the Marchesa, he instantly deduces what happened, and where Angelotti is hiding: In Mario’s villa. I am deducing that Scarpia has Mario on his list of “usual suspects” as a former subversive, and has his movements tracked by his small army of minions. The only thing that Scarpia doesn’t yet know is the location of Mario’s secret love-nest. But he has a plan to get that information: He will manipulate Tosca’s jealousy and use her as his “falcon” to hunt down the prey.
In a radio interview, Lučić explained his approach to this show-stopping scene: He did not want to portray Scarpia as a frothing-at-the-mouth villain. But rather, as a calm, quietly sinister character, yet one who is genuinely in love with (or at least, obsessed by) this beautiful young woman. “Va, Tosca,” he practically whispers. “Go, Tosca!” The baritone also explained that Scarpia’s words are meant to be an “aside”, an internal monologue, no matter how loudly enunciated. These are his personal thoughts, unheard by the members of the chorus.
And thus Act I ends with the famous “Te Deum” scene which thrilled audiences at the time with its sacrilegious piquancy. While the entire Met chorus intones the words of the Catholic mass (“Thou, Lord”), Scarpia belts out his crazed plan to execute the rebel and possess the body of the diva.
I couldn’t find a good youtube of Lučić doing the famous “Va Tosca/Te Deum”, but here is an equally great perfomer, Bryn Terfel, giving us his amazing interpretation:
[to be continued]