Continuing my review of the Metropolitan Opera production of Tosca in the current season. Which I was able to watch in my local movie theater Live in HD. 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 worked our way to the end of Act I. Chief of Police Scarpia has hatched a plan to learn the location of the fugitive he is hunting, member of the Republican Party Cesare Angelotti. We, the viewers, know that Angelotti is hiding out in Mario Cavaradossi’s private villa. Scarpia also knows this, but he doesn’t know the exact address of the villa. Yet. We viewers know one other thing that Scarpia doesn’t yet know: We know that Mario has instructed Angelotti the following: If worse comes to worst, and the police do find the villa, then there is a super-secret hiding place inside the garden well. All Angelotti has to do is climb down the well, roughly halfway, and there is a little cave where he can hang out indefinitely. Somebody was really thinking ahead, when they built this villa!
Scarpia’s plan to find the villa (whose address Mario has kept secret, in his concern to protect the reputation of his lover, Floria Tosca) consists of using Floria’s main personality flaw against her: Her sexual jealousy. Scarpia explicitly compares himself to Shakespeare’s Iago. Just as Iago used a handkerchief to stoke Othello’s jealousy, so Scarpia uses the fan belonging to Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti. Marchesa had left the fan for her brother, as part of a disguise he could use, the classic dressing in woman’s clothes to escape Rome gambit. But Cesare carelessly left the fan behind when he fled to Mario’s villa. And the fan is stamped with the Attavanti family logo! Scarpia shows Floria the fan, along with the portrait of Marchesa that Mario had been painting. See, in the backstory Mario had seen this lovely stranger sitting in the church, and had surreptitously used her blonde countenance as the model for his picture of Mary Magdalene. Aside from that, they never met, and there was nothing going on between them. But Floria doesn’t know that and is easily manipulable. Sure enough, under Scarpia’s prodding, her violent jealousy flares up. She instantly convinces herself that Mario is having an affair with this beautiful blonde, and she rushes off to the villa to confront the lovers in the act. Scarpia sends his main henchperson, Spoletta to follow her in a carriage, and this is how Spoletta finds the villa. Pretty good police work, no?
Intermezzo – Stuff not shown on stage
In between Act I and Act II, some stuff takes place offstage that we are not privy to. This may be the reason why critics at the time panned the opera for having a confused plot. But the plot is actually not confused at all, it’s just that Puccini did not have the time or space to show us everything that happened in the story. And he left this big gap. This is typical of most operas, where the plot gaps have to be filled in by exposition. Wagner is famous for his lengthy expositions. Puccini not quite as wordy as Wagner. We learn (through quick exposition and inference) that Floria had rushed to Mario’s villa (which is not very far from the Church, in fact, and easily accessible on foot). If Floria had paused to look over her shoulder, she probably would have seen Spoletta following her closely in his horse and buggy.
Arriving at the love-nest, Floria burst in, ready to exclaim: “Aha! Caught you two in the act!” But instead of catching Mario with another woman, she catches him with another man — with Cesare Angelotti! After some confusion, Mario explains everything to Floria. This is most likely the moment where she is brought into the conspiracy, and she is cool with the fact that her boyfriend is a Rebel. In fact, she is so relieved that he isn’t having an affair, she wouldn’t even care if she had learned he was a serial killer. I reckon that the two lovers are reconciled and enjoy some sweet moments together… Until the police arrive at the villa and kick the door down….
At which point, Angelotti scurries into the well and hides. Spoletta conducts a thorough search of the villa, doesn’t find Angelotti, returns to his boss empty-handed and expecting to be punished. But, surprisingly, Scarpia is not all that upset: He has detained Mario and Floria, and has already moved on to Plan B.
Act II: Torture In The Palazzo
So, Act II takes place in a very specific and very real location: Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese, which — irony of ironies! — is currently serving as the French Embassy in Rome. According to wiki, this palace was designed in 1517, the height of the Italian Renaissance, for the powerful Farnese family. In 1534, Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III and employed Michelangelo to re-design some of the architecture. Lots more history happened over the centuries, and by Tosca time (1800), the Palazzo had been inherited from the Farnese family and was now the property of the Bourbon King of Naples. Recall that the King of Naples is the bad guy in our story. Only a bad guy would hire a monster like Scarpia and provide him with a lavish apartment in a space that was touched by the divine hands of Michelangelo!
When we see Scarpia inside his flat, he is eating a delicious steak dinner. And using a very large steak knife to cut his meat. Please remember this steak knife, because it obeys Chekhov’s Gun Law. Scarpia never gets to finish his steak. First Spoletta arrives, tail between legs, expecting to be chastised for his failure to find Angelotti inside the well. Next Mario Cavaradossi is dragged in, by a different set of minions, to be interrogated by Scarpia. When Mario refuses to spill the beans on Angelotti’s location, Scarpia has him taken into an adjoining torture chamber (possibly also designed by Michelangelo). The torture consists of the following: The minions place a metal vise around Mario’s head. Every time he refuses to talk, they tighten the screws a bit more. The screws start to pierce his scalp ever deeper, drawing blood and causing unbearable pain. One would think that eventually a screw would penetrate his skull or a vein, probably killing him! On the other hand, these professional torturers probably know how to drag out the pain as long as possible without causing fatal injury.
While this torture is going on, Tosca herself is also brought into Scarpia’s flat, once again interrupting his dinner. Tosca is not under arrest, there are no charges against her. Scarpia just wants her to hear Mario screaming with pain in the adjoining room. Sure enough, it doesn’t take much to break her. Within a few minutes Floria dishes out that Angelotti is hiding in the well. Spoletta slithers out to arrest the fugitive. One is reminded why Masons were forbidden to tell secrets to their wives and girlfriends: Women break so easily, especially when somebody they love is being tortured.
Recall how, earlier, I had characterized the opera Tosca as a piece of political propaganda. The thought being that any great work of propaganda gets the readers or viewers to identify with a specific very sympathetic person. This person starts off as a-political or non-engaged, and then becomes engaged, or radicalized, into the correct set of beliefs. This is exactly what happens to our heroine, Floria. Not only was she not originally pro-Jacobin — at the beginning of the story she was even planning to sing at the big concert bash to celebrate Napoleon’s military defeat at the Battle of Marengo — that was before they soon come to learn that Napoleon actually won Marengo. It was one of those complicated battles where Napoleon first lost, and then won, thus explaining the confusion of the authorities in Rome. First they had to schedule this big victory concert, and then, just as quickly, cancel it. But my point being, that Tosca was a political whore who would have sung arias for either side — she simply didn’t care about politics.
Until now… Seeing her beloved boyfriend Mario with his head in a vise, Tosca intuitively grasps the oppressive nature of The Regime…
And yet she doesn’t have the steel in her veins that a True Jacobin requires. She has already betrayed Angelotti to the police. In her famous aria, Vissi d’arte, Tosca bargains with God and tries to understand why a good person like herself should even have to encounter this type of reality:
[to be continued]