Thursday 17 June 2010

Notoriously popular Puccini

Tosca, ENO, Coliseum, London

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is a notoriously popular composer. Popular, in terms of sheer numbers of admirers during his lifetime and enduring resonance with audiences today; tellingly, he actually enjoyed the revenue from his work whilst still alive. Notorious, in that he attracted accusations of both proto-fascism and, more seriously, musical superficiality and a too keen, tokenistic desire to please. And notoriously popular perhaps more in the spirit of his predecessor Verdi (1813-1901), in that it seems an instance of an artist having a large following during his lifetime is often seen to have something a little suspicious about it. Yet unusually for an opera, and this is further one of a handful without an overture, the most recognisable musical line of Tosca isn’t heard until the final act.

First premiered in 1900 to the smart red boxes and broad floor of the Costanzi Theatre in Rome, itself a bustling cultural centre during this period, Tosca was performed to cries of encore for a receptive and loud audience comprising amongst others both the Queen and Prime Minister. Royalty and other important figures were more common sights at the main events of the Italian capital at this time, whilst it could be argued opera was verging on something of a national art form in a way classical music has scare existed in Britain - either institutionally or more informally.

But this is about more than just ‘the music’. The opera’s bloody story comes from the French playwright Sardou, the outline of which would have been familiar to many if they’d already seen Sardou’s play in Europe, and also as the same stories further tended to rigorously be ‘doing the rounds’. Importantly, this was no shockingly new subject or unpredictable narrative shape.

And yet, aside from the great drama and high emotion, the heady visual displays and poised actions of the performers, this opera concerns a very real and pressing piece of Italian history. It is generally considered one of Puccini’s attempts at the verismo - or ‘realistic’ - style that had broadly established itself following the demise of romanticism in Italian opera at this time. Verismo broadly aimed towards depicting life as it really happened to everyday folk; it differed from earlier operas in significantly rejecting stories taken from mythology or roughly those that centred around the upper classes, and was associated variably with ideas of both naturalism and a more free-flowing score.

Today, Tosca is considered one of the most popular works in the genre’s history, whilst it’s almost ironically its sweeping, passionate arias that have become individually well-known through various recordings and performances - most notably those of the late Luciano Pavarotti. 

Of these, the famous E lucevan le stele (‘the stars shone’) is the most musically memorable, and comes in the final act. It is sung by Cavaradossi, an artist, as he waits alone high on castle battlements for the firing squad which will end his life. In the ENO’s new production, the set at this point is a self-consciously contemporary half-pipe stood centre stage, painted white, and to the backdrop of a starry and galaxy-ridden sky. Cavaradossi walks to and fro.

A wondering but firm solo clarinet melody, the only sound in the hush of the expectant hall, floats up from the orchestra. The tenor voice begins simply, quietly, each line sung on the same note whilst the clarinet weaves between the singer’s expansive pauses.

Soft, pronounced chords on the strings underpinning the end of each phrase slowly drive the piece forward. Cavaradossi takes up the clarinet melody, he is shadowed by the orchestra; there is noticeably no separate musical accompaniment. All is melody.

The scoring is shockingly simple, the musical effect immediate. Passion, communicated through absolute restraint, a sort of inability to escape the musical line - and by this point, for the characters to escape the plot - which constrains and is about to consume them:

My last hour has flown, and I die, despairing.
And never have I loved life so much,
Never have I loved life so much!

The pleasing tenor tone of Julian Gavin reverberates in practiced delivery to the ENO’s wide and enraptured auditorium, followed by loud spontaneous - and deserved - applause. This is a brutally honest celebration of human mortality, man meeting his own death unafraid - and without hope.

But Cavaradossi’s words here reflect more than simple despair at his own death come too early just as he has his faithful Tosca and the promise of an artistic career. More distant to contemporary, maybe even British audiences, they resonate with the ultimately dashed hopes of the young Italian republic also quashed in its infancy. This scene darkly and valiantly foreshadows the fate of the rest of revolutionary Europe.

For Cavaradossi is a Republican sympathiser, this is Italy at the turn of the nineteenth century, and Nelson has advised the returning Bourbon powers to issue harsh punishments to their former detractors. Even though we hear of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo in 1800 in act two, Cavaradossi’s executioners still have power and are troops loyal to the old ruling elite. He has been caught helping his fleeing friend, the former Republican consul Angelotti (based on an actual consul), in his escape from the papal prison by letting him hide in a well on his property.

The wispy, as yet unsubstantiated nature of the heady Republican idealism of this time, which was in reality only gripped in the main by an educated, liberal few, is communicated as Angelotti is scarce shown on stage and is always running away, depending on others for both aid and sustenance. It is the real-life Church of Sant Andrea della Valle in Rome in which he seeks refuge in act one, and he spends most of his time unseen, hidden in the chapel.

As the extensive programme notes, here a short essay by Philip Reed, offer a helpful summary: ‘Liberalism and republicanism were welcomed only by the intellectual minority, and threw the ruling governments into the same opposing camp as the deeply religious peasantry’ (p8). It is this rough and neatly light-touch tension between the offhand though heavily Catholic culture and ideas that pervade the play (represented by the worldly-wise Sacristan and imposing Priest, and perhaps at a push also the romancing of Tosca and Cavaradossi), coupled with the more modern influences of the mostly absent Angelotti’s idealism and ever-present Scarpia’s ruthless pragmatism, which give this story its subtle double-meanings, flow and depth.

Even the opening scene sees Cavaradossi painting a commissioned picture of the Madonna on the Chapel wall, yet it is based on the real face of the Marchessa he has just seen, observing her in secret avidly praying to the virgin (she is in fact Angelotti’s sister, requesting his safety). Even our most ideal artistic visions are based in some reality, Puccini - or Sardou - seems to be saying.

So, on hearing Cavaradossi being tortured in act two, his lover, the lauded and suitably vain opera singer Tosca (again, a real opera singer playing a diva), made a deal with the manipulative and lusty head of police, Scarpia. She tells him Angelotti’s hiding place and makes a deal that Cavaradossi will not be executed, but his death faked and the two escape. However, Tosca, in her rage, kills Scarpia by plunging a knife into him (with the famous Vissi d’arte), as he goes to claim her on his expansive writing desk, effectively annulling their bargain. We also find out that Angelotti has killed himself rather than being caught.

At this point, towards the opera’s close, unaware the execution will in fact be real, she has faux-comically spent the last five minutes instructing Cavaradossi how to conduct a fake fall correctly when he hears the gunfire, and he in turn has praised her for such deep theatrical knowledge. This awareness of artistic conceit, the self-conscious construction of the characters to depict something real, and in turn their own play-acting and the overarching authority of the plot, the position in which this puts the audience - is both noticeable and starkly modern. As you watch and listen, you realise the characters- and by extension people in general - have really nowhere else to go but death if their grand plans fail.

The guns fire. Cavaradossi crumples to the ground, beautifully. After exclaiming on the veracity of his fall as the soldiers file slowly away, their shots reverberating, the truth gradually dawns. Her lover dead, Tosca hurls herself off the battlements to her death.

The end of the opera is at once deeply tragic and movingly. Yet the choice of staging for this act, coupled with the relative strength of Scarpia compared with Tosca in this performance, seems unfortunately to not quite have the desired effect. Indeed, this is partly as in both acts one and two the setting is superb; especially the sumptuous use of light and shadow in the second act - set solely in Scarpia’s study - communicates something profound about the characters, with the effect almost of watching a moving Old Master painting sing you its story.

It is the struggle between Scarpia and Tosca that is that ultimately lies at the heart of this opera; significantly, she appeals to God and sings how she lives only for love and music, in comparison he can come across as a manipulative would-be rapist.  Both Angelotti and Cavaradossi - the two Enlightened idealists - are offstage, effectively helpless, removed from the main action. It is Scarpia who is the main actor in this story; he compares himself to Iago in the first act, arousing Tosca’s jealousy that Cavaradossi may have another lover to set his plot in motion.

And in the second act, it’s the deep moral and emotional complexity of Scarpia shines through clearly. Here, Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Scarpia is not a simple cold-hearted and evil sadist, but a truly passionate man - albeit not in the usual romantic sense. He comes across as genuinely charming, almost a shy schoolboy declaring his desire for Tosca, and he sings of his desperate need for new experiences, new conquests. His Gia mi dicon venal (‘they say I’m venal’) is genuinely arresting. The sentiment rings somehow more true than the romancing sentimentality of Tosca and Cavaradossi, which can sometimes seem almost mawkish by comparison. 

Unfortunately, the ENO’s practice of producing foreign-language works in English translation lets this one down. Not only does the translation sometime jar with the musical line - though perhaps this is an inevitable problem - but the English words are not clear enough to come across without need to recourse to the written translation running above the stage.

But overall, this is a strong production, and both Anthony Michaels-Moore and Julian Gavin deserve special praise. Hopefully, a more considered exploration of Puccini’s work, and the historical context which gives it depth, might reinvigorate the appeal and standing of the popular appeal of Italian opera.


Till 10 July 2010


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