A Shocker In Real Time: Puccini's 'Tosca'

From The Theatre Antique in France

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Tosca and Cavaradossi i

Tosca (Catherine Naglestad) with her politically subversive lover, the painter Caravadossi (Roberto Alagna). Photo Grand Angle Orange hide caption

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Tosca and Cavaradossi

Tosca (Catherine Naglestad) with her politically subversive lover, the painter Caravadossi (Roberto Alagna).

Photo Grand Angle Orange

The Hit Single

The biggest hits in Tosca are easy to choose; it has two of the best-known arias in any opera. In Act Two, as Tosca (soprano Catherine Nagelstad) is being blackmailed by Scarpia, she sings ‘Vissi d'arte,’ saying that she's always lived her life for art, and for love, and this is where it's gotten her.

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The B Side

The tenor's big moment comes in Act Three. As he's awaiting execution, Cavaradossi (Roberto Alagna) sings "E lucevan le stelle" -- "How the Stars Shimmer." He looks back on his life, and his love for Tosca, and how it has all come to nothing. He'll die, he says, in desperation.

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In TV's hit series 24, one of the key elements is seen — and heard — before and after each commercial break. It's a ticking clock, to keep track of how much of time has elapsed in the episode's story as the viewers were "away" watching advertisements. The clock is essential because the story takes place in real time: 24 episodes equals 24 hours.

In opera, things are generally quite different. In some operas, as the audience enjoys a drink or two in the lobby between acts, decades can pass in the opera's plot line. Still, there is one type of opera that does employ a sort of real-time story telling, though not so rigorously as on 24.

The style is called verismo, and two textbook examples of it are Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Both are single-act operas with stories that take place in one day, and plausibly in real time, as well. But there is another composer often associated with verismo who is surely the most famous of them all: Giacomo Puccini.

Whether Puccini can truly be described as a "verismo composer" depends on who's doing the describing. But many of his operas do share elements, and a distinct but hard-to-define aesthetic sensibility, with the verismo style — and with TV's 24. One of those operas is Tosca, which not only takes a realistic approach to the passage of dramatic time, but also shares 24's tendency toward scenes of physical and psychological torture.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Tosca from one of opera's most fascinating venues — and one that emphasizes opera's reliance on real-time action. The performance was staged at the Théâtre Antique, in Orange, France. It's an ancient Roman theater built in the first century A.D. to seat some 10,000 spectators. It still seats nearly 7,000, and as you might expect, the stage is huge — more than 200 feet wide.

So, the theater actually has a tangible effect on the performance itself — one that can even be heard on the radio. There are key passages in Puccini's opera where the music is meant to underpin specific bits of onstage action. And in Orange the characters carrying out that action have to cover a lot of stage in the process. So when the tempos in the performance seem a bit more stately than usual, it's only to keep the actors from having to sprint to hit their marks!

The stars in the production from Orange are tenor Roberto Alagna as Cavaradossi, baritone Falk Struckmann as the villain Scarpia and soprano Catherine Naglestad in the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Tosca'

Tosca At Theatre Antique i

The gargantuan Theatre Antique in France, built in Roman times, seats 7,000. Photo Grand Angle Orange/Photo Grand Angle Orange hide caption

toggle caption Photo Grand Angle Orange/Photo Grand Angle Orange
Tosca At Theatre Antique

The gargantuan Theatre Antique in France, built in Roman times, seats 7,000.

Photo Grand Angle Orange/Photo Grand Angle Orange

Who's Who

Catherine Naglestad ……….. Tosca

Roberto Alagna ………. Cavaradossi

Falk Struckmann ………….. Scarpia

Wojtek Smilek ………..….. Angelotti

Michel Trempont ………… Sacristan

Christophe Mortagne ….. Spoletta

Jean-Marie Delpas ……. Sciarrone

Radio France Philharmonic

Chorus of the Capitole of Toulouse

Mikko Franck, conductor

BACKGROUND: Puccini based his opera on the 1887 play La Tosca, by the French writer Victorien Sardou. The composer secured operatic rights to the drama immediately after he first saw it and began composing his own Tosca in 1896.

Puccini called it, "an opera that I need." It's easy to see why. He always took a "no holds barred" approach to his operas, so the story was a natural for him. He turned the play into a sensational, some would say distasteful, roller-coaster of an opera.

ACT 1: The opera's three acts are all set in Rome, and the action begins in the Church of San Andrea. An escaped political prisoner named Angelotti sneaks in and hides in a side room. The Sacristan appears, then the artist Mario Cavaradossi. He's working on a painting of the Madonna. When the Sacristan leaves, Angelotti greets Cavaradossi. The two are friends — and they are both political revolutionaries. Cavaradossi promises to help Angelotti evade the authorities.

Angelotti hides again when Floria Tosca arrives. She's Cavaradossi's lover — a famous opera singer who is also famously jealous. She stakes out her romantic territory in a love duet — after seeing the face of a purported rival in Cavaradossi's painting. When she leaves, Angelotti and Cavaradossi make plans, and a crowd gathers at the church for a grand Te Deum.

Along with that crowd comes one of opera's truly great villains, Baron Scarpia, Rome's notorious Chief of Police. He sustains his power, and satisfies his desires, by whatever means necessary. When Tosca returns, he interrogates her, hoping she'll betray information about Cavaradossi's subversive activities. When she leaves, he has her followed, and his interest in her is plainly more than professional. While the grand religious ceremony proceeds, Scarpia vows to have Cavaradossi shot, and to have Tosca for himself.

ACT 2: The middle act of Tosca takes place in Scarpia's palatial offices, and it's one of the most intense acts in any opera.

Spoletta, one of Scarpia's henchmen, tells his boss that he's been unable to find Angelotti. But he has captured Cavaradossi, one of Angelotti's cohorts. He's sure that Cavaradossi knows Angelotti's whereabouts and they suspect Tosca may know as well. Cavaradossi is dragged in and grilled, but he refuses to say anything about Angelotti.

Scarpia begins the next part of his scheme. He has sent for Tosca, and when she arrives he sends Cavaradossi off to a nearby room to be tortured. Tosca can hear her lover crying out in pain as she's being questioned. Cavaradossi's blood-curdling screams are too much for her, and she reveals Angelotti's hiding place.

As Cavaradossi is brought back, Napoleon's victory at Marengo is announced. Cavaradossi rejoices with defiant cries of "Vittoria!" Scarpia has heard enough, and has him hauled off to a cell. But he still has plans for Tosca and, as usual, he'll do whatever it takes to get what he wants. He tells Tosca that Cavaradossi is being sent to the firing squad and she's the only one who can save him.

Defiantly, she asks Scarpia, "How much do you want?" After all, she is a famous and wealthy woman. Scarpia laughs: "How much!?" Tosca is a beautiful woman, he says, and a beautiful woman can give him something far better than money. Tosca is left with little choice. Resigning herself, she sings one of the most famous of all operatic arias, "Vissi d'arte." She has devoted her life to art and love, she says, and this is where it's gotten her.

Scarpia calls for Spoletta and, supposedly, arranges for Cavaradossi to get a fake execution — a firing squad with blank bullets. He then writes a letter of passage. He says it will get Tosca and Cavaradossi safely out of Rome. As he's writing, Tosca takes a knife from his dinner table. Leering at her, Scarpia holds out his arms, saying the beautiful Tosca is finally his. As he reaches for her, she stabs him. Scarpia falls, crying for help. Tosca mocks him as he bleeds to death, screaming at him, "Choke on your own blood!"

After he dies, Tosca places candles at Scarpia's head and feet, and a lays a crucifix on his chest, then quietly leaves the room.

Full cast onstage i

A painting, created by Tosca's (Catherine Naglestad) lover Cavaradossi (Roberto Alagna), dominates the set. Photo Grand Angle Orange hide caption

toggle caption Photo Grand Angle Orange
Full cast onstage

A painting, created by Tosca's (Catherine Naglestad) lover Cavaradossi (Roberto Alagna), dominates the set.

Photo Grand Angle Orange

ACT 3: Cavaradossi has been sentenced to death by firing squad. He's being held in chains atop the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the starlight, Cavaradossi sings the wrenching aria, "E lucevan le stelle," knowing his fate is to die in desperation.

Suddenly, Tosca appears, seemingly triumphant. She tells him what she's done, and shows him the letter of safe conduct that Scarpia wrote for them before she murdered him. She explains that the firing squad will be a sham — the gunners are using blank bullets. Always the actress, she gives him careful, professional advice on how to fall in a realistic manner, so his fake death will be believable.

The music in this sequence seems hesitant and uncertain — as though telling us that Cavaradossi is skeptical and resigned to his fate. Still, he reassures Tosca and takes his place before the firing squad as she waits in the shadows, watching.

The gunners fire and Cavaradossi falls. Pleased by his convincing performance, Tosca calls his name excitedly. But when she runs to him, she's horrified to find that the execution was real after all. Cavaradossi is dead, his chest riddled with bullets.

Soldiers rush in, accusing Tosca of Scarpia's murder, but she defies them. Tosca climbs high up on the castle wall, and leaps to her death.



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