Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tosca at the Gaiety

Tosca is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, yet it’s appeal isn’t immediately obvious. Tosca isn’t charming like La Bohème or heartbreaking like La Traviata; you don’t hear the faintest echo of the voice of God like you do when listening to Mozart, nor do you come away from Tosca trilling the tunes like you do from Carmen.

Luciano Pavarotti chose Tosca as his last ever opera (at the Met in New York in 2004) even though the tenor role, Carvaradossi, is a bit on the watery side. Floria Tosca herself isn’t the most appealing heroine in the repertoire either, yet all the greats have sung her.

Everyone comes back to Tosca for two reasons. The first is the quality of the drama which, after a slow-burning start, is as tight as any operatic drama can be. And the second is Baron Scarpia, the villain of the piece, who is the greatest original villain in opera.

Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma,” Tosca says of Scarpia at the end of the second act; before him, all Rome trembled. Scarpia is the chief of police in Rome at the start of the 19th century. What Scarpia wants, Scarpia gets, and he’s not too fussy how he gets it. And what he wants tonight is Tosca herself. He’s a bit of a buck that way, Scarpia.

The opening chords of the opera, are Scarpia’s theme, a motif that’s repeated throughout the piece. Scarpia dominates the opera just as Tosca says he dominates Rome and the story of the opera is how his uniquely evil shadow falls on the lovers, the painter and revolutionary Mario Carvaradossi and the opera singer Floria Tosca.

The first act is frustratingly complicated, but the drama really begins when Scarpia makes his sudden entrance half-way through, announced by his theme. This is the moment when you know if the opera will be a success; the singer playing Scarpia must carry the role or else the whole show falls apart.

You quickly find out if he can as, after a few minutes to con the flighty Tosca into thinking that Cavaradossi is cheating on her, Scarpia gets to sing his great set piece, Va, Tosca, against the Te Deum that the church choir sings to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon as first act finale.

There are other great arias in Tosca – Tosca’s own Vissi D’Arte, Cavaradossi’s E Lucevan Le Stelle – but nothing matches the Te Deum. The music builds up as Scarpia’s lust for Tosca contrasts with the religious music of the Te Deum itself until Scarpia becomes aware of his own damnation – because religion and faith, good and evil are strong themes of the opera – at the climax of the piece when he sings “Tosca, you make me forget God!” A fantastic exposition of what makes opera great as an art form, and worth the price of admission alone.

For those going to see Opera Ireland’s Tosca, the final production before the establishment of the new Irish National Opera, here’s a treat to whet the appetite. It’s the brilliantly bug-eyed Ruggero Raimondi singing the Te Deum in a TV Tosca from 1992 that was sung live in real time from the historical locations in Rome in which the opera is set – the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Staggering.