As opposed to Priscilla Frank, writing for the Huffington Post with both lazy epithet and sublime ignorance, believing Opera has “…evolved far past the La Bohème you dozed off to on your middle school field trip”, Fred Plotkin conversely; at his most ebullient, in a recent Operavore blog writes a wonderful piece about how visiting physical landmarks and locations (i.e., Rome, Seville etc.) where opera storylines are set, can give opera lovers a more nuanced appreciation of how place, setting and time may have been a catalyst in inspiring an opera composer in his work. Two widely divergent approaches to Opera criticism: one elucidating why the artform doesn’t need to ‘move on’, eschewing the ignorant presumption that progress is a mandatory requirement of the art form. The other is, well…just cheap and shoddy journalism, the consequences are inveitable.
Morevover, Mr. Plotkin includes an apposite example from the 1992 live television production of Tosca to reinforce his perspective. The location is the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea della Valle where the great, Ruggero Raimondi, in the role of Baron Scarpia, Roman Chief of Police, sings the famous Act I conclusion “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Dio!” (Tosca, you make me forget God!).
As a sidebar: the most disconcerting aspect of this video is the subtitles: written out as a type of English paraphrase and entirely devoid of the poetic depth of sub-textual intention of Giacosa and Illica’s libretto. Actually, It’s a major problem really, and not confined to this opera or this production. My advice: just watch Raimondi – it’s just devastatingly clear what is ‘really’ going on.
OK, but before we get to the real gist of this discussion, I need to make one further observation about Ms. Frank’s article: none of her ’14 Artists Who Are Transforming The Future Of Opera’ have come close to writing anything near as perfect as this little 4:00 minute excerpt from Tosca (that “shabby little shocker” with all the melodrama of an episode of Breaking Bad or an ep. from season 1 of the British House of Cards). So, when they haven’t attained at least this level of sophistication, through no fault of their own, thus far, how can they be transforming the future of Opera? Ignorance, regrettably, whilst never a virtue, is amplified when journalists get caught out writing about something they don’t understand.
More than just appropriating the real physical location of the plot’s setting, what I think this video (in fact the whole filming of this production) does even more brilliantly, is show how a television director (in this case it is the best bloke in the business: Brian Large) can get to the very heart of illuminating the creative musical imagination and expression of the composer, albeit aided by the baton of a theatrically incisive conductor (in this case Zubin Mehta).
So, now, whilst your watching the video, I’m going to explain – if only to give Ms. Frank a lesson in musical theatre dramaturgy – why Puccini (the composer under the microscope here) is not responsible for children (much maligned in my view) or anyone else for that matter, ‘dozing off’ on apocryphal school excursions to the theatre to see a production of La Bohème, Tosca or any of Puccini’s marvellous operas.
The video excerpt starts at Rehearsal 80 of the score (it’s marked: ‘Andante mosso’) four measures before the Finale proper. But note how Mehta takes these four bars close to the ‘Largo religioso sostenuto molto’ tempo of the Finale that follows to underpin and convey Scarpia’s suspicions about Tosca and how he is going to find out the truth. So, the score is ‘moderated’ appropriately with neither the ‘tutta forza’ energy as marked in the score, nor the extreme diminendo dynamic marking as prescribed – because its intensity is not needed on a film close-up of Scarpia. Raimondi’s acting tells you everything he is thinking (and it’s not pleasant!) Conversely, in a stage production, the music is written this way to ensure you ‘get’ Scarpia’s suspicions re: Tosca from beyond the apron of the stage.
Next: Raimondi and Michel Sénéchal, in the role of Spoletta (one of Scarpia’s police agents) sing a short, accompanied, recit., so the vocal rhythm, as executed, is conversational and not rhythmically precise to the score. In other words, it sounds (literal to the score only) ‘sloppy’ (Mehta moves ahead). Many ‘old-school’ opera conductors and teachers “doth protest too much” that the score must be performed rhythmically as written but, in fact, singers almost invariably and instinctively work around this, realising that dramatic impetus and conveying meaning to the listener is more important. Ostensibly, Puccini understands the equivalent of contemporary musical theatre ‘conversational’ or speech-rhythm singing’ (and better composed IMHO). Sure, I know there are differences with performing Mozart and Janácek (sic) etc., but, like everything else, there are exceptions to every rule!
From the outset of this sequence, Puccini establishes one of his most common musical devices of the long sustained climax pedal point over alternating II and V root notes, in this instance in the scale of Eb major – and yes, the huge Eb resolution chord eventually does come after an increasingly intensifying, if not terrifying, 78 bars of build up – but more on this sublime moment later. Then against this pedal, he uses a series of inverted augmented chords that underpin the textual imagery of himself as a falcon swooping and diving over Tosca wherever she goes; progressively laid out by triplet quarter notes in the strings and winds, rising and falling (emulating a now common film-scoring device of panoramic camera fly-over sequences). It’s truly a brilliant piece of writing to emphaisze the sociopathic sense of overarching power that Scarpia exudes as the head of the secret police.
Interestingly, as an aside, Frank Wildorn uses exactly the same compositional device, albeit with less sophistication (but not less knowledge) in ‘Falcon In The Dive’ from The Scarlet Pimpernel, but we digress.
The twelve sacristans (Basses) now start to intone Psalm 124 – which, by the way, is all about ‘keeping’ and ‘guarding’. Over this Scarpia intones his real interest in Tosca – to possess her (or ‘keep’ her). Oh, Giacomo, you are too subtle, really! Added to this is a theatrical tip-of-the-hat to the ‘Dies Irae’ motive in the organ, oboes and english horn just fleetingly for good measure (so very David Lynch and Twin Peaks like!) Our flying figurations continue and now Puccini adds a new contrapuntal theme in the cellos, horns and english horn (5 after rehearsal 84) that he will use later in the opera in music for Tosca.
But it is at Rehearsal 84 that the harmonic genius of Puccini comes to the fore. Without shifting from the II and V root notes of Eb major (the composer can’t do that because we’re held in the same physical location and time in a dramatic holding pattern) and by superimposing music in the key of D minor for 8 bars landing momentarily into Dbmajor/Bbmin, the music starts on a crawling, pseudo-amorous, entreaty from Scarpia as he literally oozes with unctuousness (almost creepiness) suggesting that his desire now has two aspects: seducing Floria Tosca and re-capturing the ex-consul, Angelotti, who Cavaradossi (Tosca’s lover) has secreted away to his villa. More importantly, seducing Tosca is the more important of the two!
OK, let’s look at all this now, up to this point, in tandem with the video from 00:00 to 02:08 and see how well the television production, under the camera direction of Brian Large, supports the foregoing from a camera movement perspective.
Just a quick caveat: telecasting this performance of ‘Tosca’ live apparently involved more than 90 crew (so I recall). Keeping the crew out of camera shot was an impediment to available camera movement. Consequently, the results are even more impressive given the constraints imposed.
We start in close-up of Scarpia, who issues instructions to Spoletta. Then at “Va, Tosca!” the camera starts to pull back as Scarpia begins to move down the central aisle of the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea della Valle. It’s important to recognise from the direction here, even if only subliminally, that it is in fact Scarpia who is at the head of the procession – led by the Cardinal – underpinning the Chief of Police’s own sense of all-encompassing power in Rome. As the camera reveals more of the imposing cupola of the church, the shot holds Scarpia in shot whilst it tracks backwards but then zooms in on Scarpia, framed within the cupola, or crown, of the building. Subtle isn’t it!
At three before rehearsal 83, Scarpia sings “Nel tuo cor s’annida da Scarpia” (Trans: sort of like “Scarpia is nesting in your heart”). Right at this moment the Swiss Guard come into frame with their halberds pointed upwards. The device of how this seemingly immediate inocuous line is made manifest to be utterly threatening is made plain by the upward camera movement.
Then, at Rehearsal 84, with the camera having pulled back to put Scarpia in frame with his eyes 1/3 down from the top of the screen, but still pointing upwards – making Scarpia look his most imposing (it’s the Transformers camera shot), and over the top of the chorus of Priests (whose first entry is very late in this performance btw!) he sings, “A doppio mira tendo il voler, nè il capo del ribelle è la più preziosa” (Trans: something like “The force of my desire is now divided between the rebel’s head and something even more precious”) So, just as we’d like to linger on this shot, the camera does a ‘volta face’, so to speak, and shows us what Scarpia himself is seeing (the entrance to the cathedral) revealing how what has been thus far internalised is now going to be actioned in the world beyond the safety of the cathedral. Simply brilliant televsion.
In Part 2 of this discussion, we’ll look in-depth at the second half of the video and relate it to Puccini’s incredible dramatic conception of drama. So, Ms. Frank, you see we’re two minutes into a 4 minute excerpt and everyone is on the edge of their seat to see what happens next. Are you?