Friday, January 27, 2012

Tosca, An Unlikely Masterpiece

Looking at the matter from our perspective, that is to say of over a hundred years since the premiere in 1900, it seems impossible to imagine that anyone couldn't like Tosca. In fact there was long contemplation on the "how of it " from the composer, he spent seven years just thinking about it and then four trying to finish it. Arguments between the librettist, the composer and his publisher seemed to never end. Where Giacomo Puccini was obsessed and intent, the writing team of Giacosa and Illica, were in no way in agreement. One thought it could be pulled off with the proper amount of work and radical alteration of the Sardou play written for Sarah Bernhardt. The other thought it hopeless and frankly hardly worth the bother. Shaw seemed to say it all when he dubbed it famously "an old fashioned, shiftless, clumsily constructed, empty- headed turnip ghost of a cheap shocker". Well, he hadn't heard Vissi d'arte, let alone Callas and Gobbi, so we can cut him some historical slack.
The magical translation from word and stage to opera house and music is an object lesson in, well, you just never know. It isn't that Shaw by modern standards is wrong, who would know of the play today without Puccini, but rather that the composer was right for his purposes. Incredibly he found the musical and architectural language, something between a wildly inventive recitative, so close to real speech and yet not. And more importantly the essential and crucial short hand that could communicate character, mood and endless forward action all at once. In the four vocal pillars of the work, Vissi d'arte (Tosca) purity and dedication in art as moral instruction to character; the Te Deum in the church, with organ no less (for Scarpia) mixing the sacred and the profane, lust and moral transgress that mocks religiosity and finally Mario Cavaradossi's two tenor home runs both romantic and idealistic. Recondita Armonia and E lucevan le Stelle are still being hummed after over a hundred years, all respect otherwise to Mr. Shaw. Then there is the quicksilver orchestration in which moods bel canto would have spun out in vast scena rendered in somersaults of emotion, like cinematic jump cuts and yet retain their lyric integrity. That the supposedly impossible is done and even has the sense of a living, breathing organism, is perhaps one hallmark of a masterwork and the talent of a great artist. Such is Puccini's Tosca; so good that it even shows up in movies!
Tune in this Saturday at noon for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Tosca, here on KPAC and KTXI .
by Ron Moore

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