A Nerve-Rending Melodrama
Giacomo Puccini’s Opera Tosca
Even by operatic standards, Baron Scarpia is a villain of epic proportions. Not only does the Chief of Police in Puccini’s Tosca represent clear political interests and know how to promote them with a system of informers and official power, his character is also sinister. He celebrates the moments in which he inflicts pain and suffering on others; he devises cruel plans with relish. Sadism is the driving force behind his actions. In Tosca’s jealousy he recognizes the means to achieve his political goal, the apprehension of republican opponents such as Cesare Angelotti and Mario Cavaradossi. He has Cavaradossi tortured (offstage), in order to revel (visibly and audibly onstage) in Tosca’s anguished compassion. And Puccini knew what he was asking of his public with such a display of overt sadism: “With Tosca we want to arouse the people’s sense of justice and tax their nerves a little,” he wrote to his librettist Giuseppe Giacosa.
During the first few years after the premiere, the public was bewildered by this unexpected show of maliciousness; thus, people did not expect the opera to be a resounding success: “In thirty years,” one critic wrote, “Tosca ... will be an obscure and uncertain memory of a time of confusion in which music was subtracted by the logic of history from its own dominion, from its own laws, and from common sense.” It was already clear shortly after the premiere in Rome on 14 January 1900 and at the other performances that quickly followed throughout Europe that this prediction would not prove to be correct. Nevertheless, it is interesting to ask what left Puccini’s contemporaries so confused. A critic who attended the London premiere on 12 July 1900 provides a clue; he thought that Tosca was “too artificial ... when the composer wishes to be most intense, there is little save irritating noise – much sound with little musical sense”.
The critic alluded to the fact that Puccini was actually aiming at a particular layering of sound, an acoustical game of deception with foreground and background. Within the musical texture Puccini makes various backdrops audible, against which the individual figures can succinctly delineate themselves. A key example of this is the finale of the first act. Scarpia and Cavaradossi come into conflict in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, and the power-hungry Scarpia immediately senses the potential he can exploit from this encounter. He begins his campaign of political and sexual conquest with strategic calculation. First a soundscape is heard: the Te Deum, with which the (supposed) military victory is to be celebrated. Puccini put a great deal of effort into staging the tonal sphere of the church as realistically as possible. In a letter to his friend Guido Vandini he asked Vandini to make a copy of the “Ecce sacerdos magnus”: “Go to some priest or monk and copy it. Please ask as well what the priests say when a bishop moves from the sacristy to the high altar with a grand procession to begin the Te Deum for a military victory. I plan to have the entire cathedral chapter or even the congregation in the church murmur the ‘Ecce sacerdos magnus’.” Another tapestry of sound is added to this eulogistic monotony, giving the scene its harmonic foundation: two bells, alternating between B flat and F for several minutes. The cannon shots, which are fired from the Castel Sant’Angelo to signal Angelotti’s escape, complete this almost noisy sound backdrop and at the same time provide an aural representation of the political power structure: the church and the political system united in their demonstration of power and their relationship to the people, who in audible uniformity are helplessly dependent on the belligerence and military success of the powerful.
Against this backdrop, the Chief of Police is acoustically isolated during his monologue, which contrasts with the murmuring. A perceptible tension results, which is focussed on Scarpia and his claim to power. Given the spiritual tone of the soundscape, “this demon gets caught up in a grand religious ceremony” (Carolyn Abbate). On the one hand, the hymn of praise excites him to fantasies of power with himself at the centre as “high priest” and combines his blasphemous impulse with sexual desires. While he hears the “Ecce sacerdos magnus” in the background, he lusts after Cavaradossi’s lover: “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (Tosca, you make me forget God!). As though the people are responding directly to this blasphemy, the Te Deum acoustically forces its way in between and intensifies the audible music to the limits of noise: “Just when you imagine things couldn’t get any louder, the full orchestra then blares forth Scarpia’s leitmotif (full of evil tritones, rasping brass and cymbals). When the curtain comes down, you almost expect the stage fabric to fall with a crash” (Abbate).
Puccini frequently works with this technique of noise and sound layering in the rest of the opera as well, interweaving acoustically “authentic” material with his own. This was too much for his contemporaries: “The sonatinas and cantatas from the wings, and the organ, and the Gregorian chant, and the drums that announce the march to the scaffold, and the bells, and the cow bells, and the rifle shots, and the cannon fire, which at times constitute essential elements in the development of the opera, are not enough to fill the holes left by the lack of music.” Incidentally, a “lack of music” of sorts is also found in the vocal parts of Tosca. At dramaturgically significant moments Puccini takes the voices to the threshold of noise and speech.
In the second act, when the plan that Scarpia began to hatch in the previous act takes shape, there is another remarkable example of playing with spaces, with acoustic vanishing points. In the Palazzo, moments of great aesthetic pleasure (Tosca’s singing) and scenes of cruelty (Cavaradossi in the torture chamber) occur simultaneously, each at an invisible but audible level. They form one layer, while the stage provides the space for the other, where the protagonists react to the invisible but audible events on the first level. The invisible event also draws the audience’s attention to its own imagination, and at the same time it becomes a witness to the characters reacting on the stage: Scarpia, whose desire is intensified by Tosca’s singing, and Tosca, whose suffering escalates beyond all bounds at the sound of her lover’s cries of pain in the torture chamber – suffering which amuses Scarpia, however. Puccini works with sharp contrasts here, for example, when Scarpia and Cavaradossi publicly exchange insults with harsh rhythmic contours during the (invisible) melodious cantata sung by Tosca. In the acoustic layering principle, the confrontation of emotions becomes as tangible as the aestheticized cruelty of Scarpia. Sadism, according to Georges Bataille, “appears as the radical negation of the other, as the denial of the social principle as well as the reality principle”. The fact that Puccini chooses precisely the latter, however – the audible relationship to reality, compositional verismo – to depict the drastic character of Scarpia down to the last detail explains the immediacy and nerve-rending effect of this melodrama.