Tuesday March 12th, 7:30 p.m.
An opera in three acts
by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
after the play by Victorien Sardou
Premièred at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 14 January 1900
A 2009 production from Oper Zürich
Direction by Robert Carsen
Set and costume Design by Anthony Ward
Lighting Design by Davy Cunningham
Chorus and Orchestra of Oper Zürich
Childrens's chorus of Oper Zürich
Conducted by Paolo Carignani
Although the following synopsis is reproduced from the programme booklet from Oper Zürich and follows the settings intended by Puccini, this production actually used different settings created by the director, Robert Carsen, who chose to set Tosca as a theatre-in-the-theatre production, in modern times (see photo right):
As Act 1 opens we look into a theatre from the back of the stalls towards a deep red and gold curtain, with Cavaradossi decorating the auditorium with a large painting of Mary Magdalene. Programmes bearing Tosca’s image are on chairs, and autograph seekers wait for her. As an off-stage choir intones the Te Deum, the curtain of the theatre-within-the-theatre finally goes up to display Tosca in full stage regalia.
For Act 2 we move behind the safety curtain to a smoking Scarpia (as a sadistic opera house director) in a virtually bare (back-)stage.
In Act 3, Cavaradossi sings about his loneliness to a pitch-black auditorium from the naked stage. Stage lights silhouette Tosca as she leaps into the darkness singing her final words, “Scarpia, we meet before God!” She then takes a solo with curtains parted and two large bouquets of red roses.
Interior of the Church of Sant' Andrea della Valle
Cesare Angelotti, a political prisoner who has just escaped from the Castel Sant’ Angelo, furtively enters the church to hide in the private chapel of his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti. The sacristan enters and is surprised to see that the painter, Mario Cavaradossi is not at work. Cavaradossi arrives and attempts to resume his work - a painting of a blonde blue-eyed Mary Magdalene, inspired by the Marchesa Attavanti, whom he has seen praying in the church lately. Cavaradossi compares the dark beauty of his beloved Floria Tosca, the most celebrated Prima Donna of her day, with the fair Magdalene.
The sacristan leaves. Angelotti, believing the church to be empty, steps from his hiding place and is discovered. He is relieved to recognize Cavaradossi, who agrees to help him. Suddenly Tosca’s voice is heard, and Angelotti hides once again. The jealous diva enters, convinced that Cavaradossi was with another woman. Preoccupied with Angelotti, Cavaradossi quiets her suspicions, and they plan a rendez-vous later that evening. As she is about to leave, Tosca sees the painting, and jealously recognizes the Marchesa Attavanti. Cavaradossi persuades her that his model is simply an unknown worshipper, and they part.
Angelotti emerges just as a cannon shot signals the discovery of his escape. Cavaradossi offers to hide him in his nearby villa, and the two men flee together. The sacristan returns, accompanied by members of the choir. All are excited by the latest news: Napoleon has been crushed at Marengo. There is to be a victory celebration that evening at the Farnese Palace, where the choir will sing a new cantata, with Floria Tosca as soloist.
Suddenly, Baron Scarpia, chief of the Roman police, enters. He and his agent Spoletta have traced Angelotti to the church. After questioning the sacristan, Scarpia surmises that Cavaradossi, a suspected Republican sympathizer, has aided the fugitive’s escape. Tosca returns to tell Cavaradossi that she cannot join him later. Scarpia, who desires her, seizes the opportunity to arouse Tosca’s jealousy, and to discover Angelotti’s hiding place. He shows her a fan he has found bearing the Attavanti crest. She is consumed with jealousy and leaves to confront her lover, with Scarpia’s spies following her. Scarpia gloats over the impending realization of his double goal - Cavaradossi on the gallows and Tosca in his arms. Swept up in his vision, he declares that Tosca has made him forget God.
Scarpia's apartment in the Farnese Palace
Scarpia is dining in his apartment, savouring the prospect of satisfying his desire for Tosca. He knows that she is singing before the Queen of Napels in another part of the Palace, and sends a note asking to see her. Spoletta enters and reluctantly reports that he followed Tosca to Cavaradossi’s villa, but could not find Angelotti. He quickly adds that he did find Cavaradossi, and has brought him for questioning. The painter denies any knowledge of the escaped prisoner, and Scarpia orders him tortured. Tosca arrives and Cavaradossi manages to warn her to say nothing before he is taken into an adjoining room. Tosca skillfully evades Scarpia’s questions until her lover’s cries of pain are heard. Tosca pleads for Cavaradossi. Unable to bear such agony, she reveals Angelotti s hiding place. Cavaradossi is brought out and denounces Tosca for her betrayal. Sciarrone, another of Scarpia’s agents, enters to report a reversal at Marengo - Napoleon has won. Cavaradossi shouts his elation in defiance of Scarpia, and is taken away. Left alone with Scarpia, Tosca attempts to offer him money in exchange for her lover’s life. Scarpia names his price: Tosca herself. Her hatred only intensified his desire. Scarpia persists, and Tosca finally agrees to submit to him in exchange for her lover’s life. Scarpia explains that he cannot simply free Cavaradossi; a mock execution must be staged. Tosca demands that Scarpia write a safe-conduct letter for Cavaradossi and herself. When Scarpia finishes, he advances to claim his prize. Instead Tosca stabs him to death ... She departs at the sound of a distant drum-roll.
Ramparts of the Castel Sant' Angelo
Cavaradossi awaits his execution. Musing sadly on Tosca’s beauty and their love he writes her his farewell. She enters and tells him of their safe-conduct letter and of Scarpia’s death, explaining the need for the mock execution. The firing squad approaches. The soldiers fire and Cavaradossi falls. Tosca waits impatiently as the soldiers leave, and then runs to him. To her horror, she sees that he is dead and realizes that she has been tricked. Scarpia’s agents attempt to arrest her, but before they can reach her, she leaps to her death, crying: Scarpia, we will meet before God!
Emily Magee as Tosca
and Thomas Hampson as Scarpia
Click here for a brief video preview of this production
Robert Carsen and Regietheater
Carsen’s work is often categorized as regietheater (director’s theatre) because, like most other European-based directors working today, he prefers to stage operas in time periods and locales that are different from the composer's original, specific intentions and from how they have traditionally been staged.
The intention of these directors is to connect the opera with situations and locations of which the original composers and librettists could not have conceived, thus setting the story into a context to which the contemporary audience can more readily relate.
Carsen's stage setting for Act 1 of Tosca, plainly showing his theatre-in-the-theatre concept
(photo from his original 1996 Antwerp production)
Even so, it’s evident that Carsen pays careful attention to the music, something one can’t always assume with directors. “I’m passionate about music, and I care deeply about the score in doing an opera - otherwise there’s no point for me in directing opera. The music completely shapes how the piece is told. The way you feel the work emotionally is conveyed by the music.” Having studied piano for many years, he reads the scores, and never lets his stagings obstruct the music … well, hardly ever.
Yet even when it appears that he is sacrificing the music for a dramatic effect, it inevitably turns out that he is actually illuminating the music. As an example he mentions how, in his production of Alcina with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, when Renée Fleming starts singing the extended aria 'Ah, mio cor' , she is at the back of the stage in a dark corner with her back to the audience. You can barely see her, but you can certainly hear her. As the lights gradually come up, she moves forward. It’s very effective — and moving.
Carsen has this to say about his personal process when he starts working on a new opera:
"First, I must dive into the world of the given piece, I try to understand what it is about and why the composer wanted to compose it. It is interesting to discover what the relationship of composers to their libretti and librettists was. Some of them are constantly in conflict, while others are trying to find work that is challenging and exciting for them. The key to the emotional grip of music is to understand what the libretto meant to the composer, why he wanted to create a sound landscape around a particular story.
"Then, of course, I start to work with a set designer. The story of the opera is not necessarily what is happening in the opera, so if you want to tell a story for a certain place and a certain time, you have to try to find out what it really is about and what it really means. I understand the staging as a bridge between the audience and the performers, so the performance is a way to attract the audience as close to the opera as possible. Directors are storytellers, I try to retell a story that someone else wrote. I am always interested in how to keep the story from becoming something else. Otherwise, I'd write my own opera. The audience is like a child and a bedtime story – they know the story but they always want to hear it time and time again to experience the same excitement as the first time, but you have to tell them in a very strong way."
NEXT MEETING: Tuesday April 9
René Pape in the title role of this Munich 2015 production was "utterly absorbed in the role of Mefistofele", said Norman Schwarze on bachtrack.com, while Joseph Calleja (Faust) "was the star of the show. He sang … with lovely strength, just as Boito’s opera requires."