November 11, 2019

Il Postino: a tale of two tenors


One of the most familiar tropes in operatic libretti is an early scene in which the tenor sings ardently of the soprano he loves. The first and last operas of Virginia Opera’s current season employ this device with Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” in Tosca and the famous solo “Celeste Aida” in our closing production. Off the top of my head I can list others: The Barber of Seville; Un Ballo in Maschera; Manon Lescaut; and many others. It’s a “thing” in opera.
"Desnuda" (photo courtesy of Virginia Opera)


Does Il Postino follow suit? Yes, but with one big – and significant – difference. The first aria is given to Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. As one might expect, most of Neruda’s solos are settings of selections from his poems; the first one is “Desnuda” (Naked), in which the character praises the beauty of his wife Matilde:
Naked, you are as simple as your hand,
Smooth, earthy, minimal, round, transparent,
You have lines of moonlight, paths of apple,
Naked you are like slender naked wheat.
Naked, you are blue, like a night in Cuba,
Vines and stars decorate your hair.
Naked you are tiny,
Naked you are rotund and golden, grandiose
Like summer in a golden temple.

Daniel Catán’s musical setting is ardent, tender and a touch exotic. But for all its attractiveness, the aria is also a definite break with tradition.  In the other operas listed above, the soprano character who is the object of the tenor’s affection is the female lead; the prima donna. However, the leading female role in Il Postino is Beatrice, not Matilde. Matilde proves to be a minor character. Veteran operagoers may thus be confused, expecting Matilde to be the focus of the story arc, when she proves to be a minor figure.

What accounts for this unconventional aspect of a conventional trope? There are a couple of explanations. One is born of practical considerations while the other has to do with the character of Mario Ruoppolo, the postman of the title and the other tenor role.

It’s well-known that the role of Neruda was created for, and with the collaboration of, tenor Placido Domingo, who sang it at the world premiere production in Los Angeles in 2010. Given that a new opera by a composer who was not a household name would not automatically generate box-office success, it seems clear that the chief draw would be Domingo’s superstar status. Logically, his name alone could be counted on to tempt those who are often wary of contemporary works to buy a ticket. 
There are people who would pay good money to hear a superstar singer walk out on a stage and just recite the white pages of the Norfolk phone book. Thus, Pablo Neruda gets the lion’s share of arias in Il Postino with four substantial solos in addition to ensembles. The L.A. audience came to see Domingo, thus: give the people what they want.

But why could Catán not have begun the show with an aria for Mario rhapsodizing about Beatrice? Neruda could still have sung all of his solos, after all. The reason is simple:

Mario wasn’t ready.

The opera is Mario’s coming-of-age journey. He begins as a shy, inarticulate, unemployed, uneducated young man drifting and dreaming through life. He lacks self-confidence; he worships women from afar but can’t summon up the gumption to speak to them.

He is not given an opening aria because, at this point, he has nothing to say. As noted in my previous post, his initial courtship of Beatrice is by proxy, relying exclusively on lines of Neruda's love poems. Once Neruda's influence on Mario begins to fade, his vocal writing gains in eloquence until, by the bittersweet finale, we discover (as noted in my previous post) a grown man who has found his path in life -- and has something to say.

Under different circumstances, the expected vocal casting might have suggested a baritone for the role of Pablo Neruda: an older man, scarred by life's adversities and speaking with more maturity and gravitas than the man-child Mario Ruoppolo. Yet the collaborative partnership of composer and celebrity tenor dictated yet another unconventional choice. Neither mild departure from theoretical "norms" have prevented Il Postino from having made its way into the repertoire since its debut in 2010.

Will it still be a repertory item in 20 years? 50? 100? The odds are against any particular opera having long-term success; the percentage of all operas ever written that have enduring popularity is statistically insignificant. But Catán’s wistful romantic comedy has been given every chance.

November 4, 2019

Il Postino: Mario, sittin' on the dock of the bay

Daniel Catán
Virginia Opera's season began, you'll recall, with a production of a classic: Puccini's Tosca. This opera opened with, in place of a prelude, five fortissimo chords in the full orchestra; they were powerful, dramatic, and more than a little ominous. As the action played out, we came to realize they were characterizing not only the villainous nature of Baron Scarpia, but the tyrannical Bourbon monarchy of which he was an agent.

In addition to identifying Scarpia, that sequence of chords also foretold the overall character of the opera itself: dramatic, intense, violent, passionate.

In the same fashion, the opening music of Act 1 of Daniel Catán's Il Postino also provides a wealth of information about the drama to come, in just thirty-odd seconds of orchestral scene-setting music:
(You can hear about half of the introduction as the opening 17 seconds of the Postino montage at this link.)

This music actually tells us three important things about the opera to come:
  1. In the mild harmony and spare texture of the music, we can infer what life is like on Calla di Soto, the island off the coast of Italy on which the story takes place. We will soon discover that the only "industry" on the island is fishing, but we can already tell that the pace of life there is serene, tranquil, and simple. No traffic jams, no high-powered corporate businessmen, - just life on the water.
  2. The music also describes the character of the central character Mario Ruoppolo. Now the music strikes us as dreamy (in fact, Mario will express the dream - however unrealistic - of moving to America some day). He is unemployed (fishing makes him seasick), largely uneducated, and sorely lacking in self-esteem.  As we meet him in Act 1, he might have sung along with Otis Redding:
    Sittin' on the dock of the bay,
    Watchin' the tide roll away;
    Sittin' on the dock of the bay,
    Wastin' time...
    Above all, however, Mario is a gentle soul. In his growing wonder at the discovery of poetic language; in his soft-spoken pursuit of the woman he loves, even in his moments of despair, his essential nature is that of a gentle soul.
  3. And that word "gentle" is key to the entire opera! There is a gentleness and wistfulness to the opening orchestral music that serves to characterize all of Il Postino. There will be no murders, suicides, plunging daggars, screams of agony or other remnants of Tosca here. It's a coming-of-age story tinged with hopes, dreams, disappointments and bittersweet romance. 
In fact, the final adjective in the final phrase of the libretto is "gentle".

Two climactic scenes demonstrate the fulfillment of the promise of the introductory music. In Act 3, Mario, having won the love of the barmaid Beatrice (in the course of three gentle, lyrical love duets), is dealt a crushing disappointment. Pablo Neruda, the man Mario came to regard as friend, mentor and father-figure during the weeks when he delivered mail to the poet, has written him from Chile. Expecting a warmly personal message, Mario is devastated when it proves to be merely an impersonal announcement from Neruda's secretary. Mario reacts with restrained, resigned sadness:
Admit it… Why should he remember me? As a poet, I’m not much good… As a postman? As a Communist? Not even that. It’s quite normal. Tomorrow we’ll send the rest of his things off.

A moment like this is a challenge for an operatic composer. To set these words properly requires the skill of writing music that allows the listener to feel Mario's pain as acutely as he does. Catán rises to this challenge with a finely-wrought expression that, however sorrowful, retains the character's implicit gentleness. Note especially the passage beginning at 2:20 in this video.

"Gentle" is also the best word to describe the closing scene of the opera. Neruda, returning to the island years after the period of his exile there, learns of Mario's untimely death. It becomes clear that the impersonal cruelty of the letter from Chile was, ironically, a blessing to the young ex-postman. Stripped of his idealized image of Pablo Neruda, Mario is forced to stop clinging to the poet's metaphorical coattails. Fairly worshiping Neruda, Mario arrested his own development in relying on the writer's words rather than finding his own voice (His courtship of Beatrice using images from Neruda's love poems places Il Postino squarely in the tradition of stories like Cyrano de Bergerac and the film recently awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Green Book.)

With the direct influence of Neruda no longer guiding him, Mario was forced to grow up; to live his own life; in short, to find his own voice. Beatrice recounts his awakening to corruption in local government (represented by the sleazy pol Di Cosimo) and his ensuing political activisim, culminating in his losing his life at a public demonstration.

In the final moments of the work, Neruda reads from a letter Mario left for him, a letter in which he shyly writes that, at last, he has written a poem:
I’ve been asked to read it in public. It’s about the sea, the sea you taught me to love, the sea of Italy. It’s dedicated to you, Don Pablo, from your friend Mario. It’s a song. Don Pablo, if you hadn’t come into my life, I would never have written it. It’s for you. And if my voice trembles, it’s the sea’s gentle tears.

This link will take you to a video of Mario's farewell. With the limitation of keyboard accompaniment in place of Catán's luminous orchestration, note how the affect of that opening orchestral introductory music returns. Now, in the context of all that has happened, we understand at last that in addition to serenity, simplicity and gentleness, this music was always tinged with melancholy as well.

Also note the final adjective in the quoted text. The opera ends as it began, having taken Mario and you and I on a journey of discovery: of poetic language, of romance and personal growth.

Is it a sad ending? By no means. I can think of nothing sadder than going through life with no self-esteem, no goals, no meaning to one's time on earth - no voice. Though Mario did not live to see the birth of his son, he packed a lot into his shortened life: he discovered the power of language; he wooed and won the love of his life; he found meaning in activism. He found his destiny.

The photo of Daniel Catán is by By PaulWie1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48774776






October 30, 2019

Il Postino: when a production is unintentionally timely

My chief daily paper is the Washington Post. Lately the Post has published several stories about political unrest in the nation of Chile. As I write this, my attention was grabbed by a story with the headline: Chile cancels international conference, in which President Sebastián Piñera announced that the conference, scheduled for Nov. 15, has been scuttled due to a wave of protests. Previous stories have detailed peaceful protests in the capital city of Santiago in which as many as 1,000,000 citizens gathered to demonstrate against "issues of inequality". It is said that other demonstrations had turned violent, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency.
Pablo Neruda (d. 1973)

So why am I providing this recap of current events in a land some 5,000 miles away? In an opera blog?

Because the timing of this news couldn't be more conspicuously timely and relevant to Virginia Opera's soon-to-open production of Daniel Catán's Il Postino.

The opera, of course, is a fictional account of a period of exile during which the Chilean poet and statesman Pablo Neruda found himself persona non grata in his homeland. Chile has, for generations, been a hotbed of political strife; democratically elected governments (such as that led by the Socialist Salvatore Allende) have alternated with ruthless authoritarian regimes like that of Augusto Pinochet.

In the opera, Neruda, living on the (fictional) island of Calla di Soto off the coast of Italy, receives word from Chile of a terrible event: a peaceful demonstration by miners was disrupted by government forces with violent gunfire, leaving many dead.

As he processes this catastrophe, Neruda sings an aria with text by Catán, who is his own librettist. Here's an excerpt:
Chile, the blood of your children once again has been spilled.
Dead, so many dead...
tied, wounded, bitten, buried.
Tell me, Earth, tell me, Sea,
How much blood will be spilled?
How many tears will be wept?

It is, perhaps, uncanny that an opera on this theme, an opera chosen by Virginia Opera's management long before the events of recent days, would be staged at such a time when Art and Life coincide and imitate each other.

Or is it?

Aren't injustice, inequality and the repression of human rights always appearing and reappearing at every moment of our times? Of every time period? During the whole of human history?

Darn right they are. These same concerns were the driving issue of the events dramatized in our most recent production, Puccini's Tosca. Cavaradossi and Angelotti, remember, were fighting with the same passion toward the same end about the same societal wrongs.

It is, after all, the function of Art to be a mirror of human nature and human society.

Of course, in an ironic finale to Il Postino, the once-hapless, formerly inarticulate dreamer Mario Ruoppolo, the postman of the title, becomes awakened to corruption and injustice in his corner of the world, represented by the sleazy and corrupt politican Di Cosimo. In a flashback sequence, we see how Mario suffered the same fate as those Chilean miners eulogized in Neruda's lament.


A word about that aria. It appears to me to have been modeled after a passage from Verdi's Otello, specifically Otello's monologue "Dio, mi potevi scagliar". In that solo, Otello, having been tricked by Iago into believing that his wife is unfaithful, is in a black hole of despair, asking God why he has been given such an unbearable burden. Here is a searing performance by Placido Domingo (who also created the role of Neruda). Note two features in particular:a short repeated 4-note figure in the strings:
  1. a short repeated 4-note phrase in the strings: 
  2. the halting nature of the vocal line in the opening phrases, as if Otello was in such distress that he gasps, unable to catch his breath.

In Neruda's grief-stricken solo, Catán employs similar devices. (Unfortunately, an audio example is not yet available to provide here) A solo cello plays a short repeated figure, now three notes instead of four; Neruda sings in halting, gasping phrases at the outset.

Both solos rise to shattering climaxes. 


October 19, 2019

Catán's Il Postino and the curious state of Spanish opera

Quick - name your five favorite Spanish operas.

"Easy", you think, and start to rattle off titles: Carmen, The Barber of Seville, Il Trovatore, The Marriage of Figaro...


Stop!  Sorry to interrupt, but I didn't mean operas set in Spain; I meant operas written in Spanish by Hispanic composers.

And we're not counting zarzuela, a music drama tradition that international houses generally neglect. I mean operas intended for an international audience.

Now it gets tricky. Virginia Opera actually has staged a Spanish-language opera before: Thea Musgrave's Simón Bolívar, presented in 1995. But that should only count for a half-credit; the Spanish version was a translation of the libretto, and Ms. Musgrave is a native of Scotland. If an American sets a poem of Goethe to music, that doesn't make it a German lied, at least in the normal sense of the term.

Thus, Daniel Catán's Il Postino (2010) will be the company's first truly Hispanic opera. Catán, a Mexican, adapted the film of the same name about the Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. (While the title retains the Italian title of the popular Italian-language film for its marketing value, the libretto - also by the composer - is in Español.)

It's interesting to speculate on the reasons for the lack of a body of international operas from Spain and Mexico, especially in light of the fact that, just a few centuries ago, Spain was a global super-power.

One factor may be tied to geography. While Spain is part of the European continent, where opera flourished first in Italy but not long after in France and Germany, it's somewhat isolated from those regions by the barrier of the Pyranees as well as the Basque country. As the Basque people have been described as the least assimilated community of Western Europe, their culture has been something of a buffer between Spain and France.

As a result, Spanish culture absorbed other influences, such as Morocco (its nearest neighbor), Arab culture and the sizeable Sephardic Jewish population that was found in Spain prior to the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Beatrice, the lead soprano role in Il Postino, sings an aria called "Morenica", a setting of an ancient Judeo-Spanish wedding song; it's text, about a girl whose skin has been darkened by the sun, is said to be traceable back to the Song of  Songs of the Old Testament. Daniel Catán himself was of Sephardic Jewish descent.

These influences help to explain why the most characteristic Spanish instruments (guitar, castanets) are folk instruments rather than those belonging to the European symphonic tradition.

The big irony in the lack of Spanish operas suitable for international opera companies like the Met (and Virginia Opera) is that the Spanish language is very grateful to operatic vocal production, possibly more than French with its sometimes nasal properties and German with its gutteral consonants. Like Italian, Spanish features bright, open vowel sounds that help enable forward vocal projection.

By the way, here are the operas you might have named at the top of this post: de Falla's Atlàntida, Granados' Goyescas, Bretón's La Dolores, Ginasteras' Bomarzo and another work of Catán's, Florencia en el Amazonas.  Florencia was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major American country, premiering at the Houston Grand Opera in 1996. It has been produced over a dozen times since then and may prove to enter the standard repertoire.

October 6, 2019

"Tosca" and Puccini's fondness for tone poems of dawn

Puccini's three masterpieces created with librettists Illica and Giacosa (La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly) have various elements in common. For instance (as I noted in a recent post) in all three works the lead soprano character is heard off-stage before making her entrance.
Bell tower in Rome
(photo by Jorge Royan)

But did you ever notice that in all three, the third act begins with a musical portrait of dawn? I can't tell you if this was a theme dictated by Illica (who constructed plot lines) or if Puccini enjoyed composing atmospheric early-morning music and requested these scenarios.

Act 3 of Bohème begins at dawn with workers entering the outskirts of Paris with goods to sell while the orchestra paints a delicate and graphic depiction of frosty temperatures, icy snowflakes and a suitably bleak atmosphere for the sad break-up of Rodolfo and Mimi that soon follows.

Butterfly's third act (in the 3-act version most commonly staged) has a fully-developed orchestral tone-poem describing the first stirrings of life in Nagasaki as night passes to day. This includes the use of recorded bird calls, a feature that contributed to the colossal failure of the premiere performance when the audience broke into derisive laughter.

I've always enjoyed the particularly effective touch of the distant voices of sailors lading cargo onto ships in the harbor, their voices calling out the Italian version of "heave-ho": o-eh, o-eh. o-eh. (Confession: whenever I hear those sailors, it makes me think of the army of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: "o-ee-o, o-EEEE-o". But I digress...)

As for Tosca, Puccini's procedures are interesting; he did a lot of research and took great pains to present an authentic depiction of Rome at break of day. Here's a run-down on the chief points of interest. I'm providing a link to the Callas/Di Stefano audio recording of Act 3. The timings indicated refer to that recording.

  • A distant song in dialect. (1:26) Puccini again utilized the device of a far-off voice to create the early-dawn ambience he wanted, this time in the form of a young shepherd boy tending sheep in one of the seven hills surrounding the city. This is the one moment in the opera NOT written by the librettists. The composer wanted a text in authentic Roman dialect. After asking around, he selected the writer Luigi Zanazzo (who went by the irresistable nickname "Giggi") who supplied something appropriate.
  • The eerie orchestral introduction to that song (1:00) This is one of the coolest moments not just in Tosca, but in all of Puccini. It's a masterstroke of subtle musical meaning. The orchestra alternates playful, whimsical figures in dotted rhythm - a foreshadowing of the boy's solo about to begin - with a sotto voce sequence of three chords: 
As marked above, those three chords happen to be the chord progression associated with Scarpia's motif as well as (as posited in an earlier post) the musical symbol of the combined power of the Bourbon monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, which Puccini portrays as agents of tyranny and oppression.

Here's the thing, though: at this point Scarpia has been dead for a few hours. Tosca murdered him the previous evening in his apartment at the Farnese Palace.

So what are these chords doing here? The shepherd begins his solo moments later. Is he an evil, tyrannical shepherd boy, oppressing his flock? Denying justice to his sheep?

Of course not. What's happening is a master-stroke. The presence of the Scarpia chords, heard in such a whispered, fragmentary form, drained of all their intimidating sonority, clearly suggest this:

Scarpia's malevolent spirit is hovering over Rome this fateful morning in the sense that his schemes will come to pass even after his death. He remains in control, his will outlives him. His essence, contained in these chords, hangs suspended in the mist.

He lied to Tosca. The firing squad will not use blank ammunition. Cavaradossi will die. The presence of these chords can produce chills when heard in context. 

And one more item of interest in our tone-poem of daybreak:
  • Bells! (2:33) Once the shepherd is out of earshot, nearby Roman churches greet the dawn with a gentle cacophony of chimes, bongs and dings. For this effect, Puccini took pains that few composers would have bothered with, all for the sake of authenticity.
Bells are percussion instruments; every orchestra carries an arsenal of them, ranging from gongs to sleigh-bells at Christmastime. But generic bells would not recreate the specific sounds of the specific bells of the specific cathedrals that can be heard from the Castel Sant'Angelo in early morning.

So Puccini traveled to Rome. He listened. He took notes: pitches, timbres, the way in which they all combined in a mass sonority. Since borrowing the bells was clearly out of the question, he brought his specs to a foundry and ordered bells made that would duplicate the real things.

This was an extravagance! Giuseppe Verdi was thunderstruck; the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (never a Puccini fan) was contemptuous, referring dismissively to the opera's "tintinabulation".

The bells die down. The jailer bluntly informs Cavaradossi he has one hour remaining to live. The sun has arisen on our hero's final moments. 

By the way, for all the attempts at natural, authentic realism throughout this piece, the jailer's pronouncement "Vi resta un'ora" is puzzling in light of the inescapable fact that Act 3 has a running time of less than thirty minutes. I guess his watch was running slow. Better get that thing repaired...

The photo above is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

September 29, 2019

What are they fighting about in "Tosca"? A bit of Italian history

It's perfectly fine to ignore all the politics and talk of Napoleon when taking in a performance of Tosca. You can easily boil it down to this:

Scarpia is a bad guy, Cavaradossi is a good guy, Angelotti broke out of jail and Cavaradossi hides him. At first Cavaradossi's side loses, then his side wins, but he's doomed anyway. The end.
#FakeNews

Then again, you may find yourself a little curious as to what was so important that torture, suicide, execution and murder resulted. The libretto, based on Victorien Sardou's 1887 play, refers to historical events without explaining much about them; it's assumed you already know.

So, if you don't know, here's a short summary of what all the fuss was about.

The French Revolution ended in 1799 with the execution of Louis XVI, replacing the monarchy with a military government led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon fully intended that revolution would not stop there; he was determined to march into the Italian peninsula and bring the ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité to Rome, replacing the Papal states with a republican government.

Opposing Napoleon was Queen Maria Carolina, an Austrian noble who married King Ferdinand IV of the kingdom of Naples. Ferdinand was a useless good-time Charlie, uninterested in affairs of state. Maria Carolina, on the other hand was shrewd, ambitious and scared.

Scared of what? Well, her sister happened to be an unlucky royal named Marie Antoinette.

Marie's fate prompted Maria Carolina, who initially favored an enlightened approach to governing, to make an about-face, violently opposing any hint of revolution in Rome. The actions she took included utilizing the Austrian army to oppose French forces at the French-Italian border, and hiring thugs from Sicily to come up to Rome as hired goons, giving them license to stamp out Roman revolutionaries by any means necessary. (Scarpia represents that aspect of her efforts.)

She also sought the support of the Roman Catholic Church, traveling to Rome for pow-wows with church leaders. The Church recognized Napoleon as an existential threat to its power, making them eager to ally themselves with her plans.

One of Napoleon's generals, Gen. Berthier, did set up a Roman Republic as early as 1798, but it wasn't popular with the citizens and the Queen's resources caused it to fall in 1799. One of it's leaders had been a certain Signor Angelucci, who becomes Angelotti in the opera.

But Napoleon was not to be deterred by this first setback. He began marching towards Italy (which was not yet the unified Italian nation we know today, but a collection of Austrian territories and city-kingdoms).

He was opposed by his Austrian counterpart, General Michael Melas. They met near the town of Marengo, in the Piedmont region right at the French border. This battle was waged on June 14, 1800. The Battle of Marengo is the galvanizing event that drives all the action in Tosca.

The opera begins on June 17, just as reports from the battlefield are trickling in. Without wire services or cable news, news of the battle trickled into Rome via couriers on horseback. If you know the opera story, you'll recall that the Sacristan enters in the middle of Act 1, agog with excitement. He's just heard the result he was hoping for: that scoundrel Napoleon was sent packing! Woo-hoo!

This was in fact good news for most Romans, who were content to live their lives in the warm (if suffocating) embrace of the Church. The majority would have regarded men like Angelotti as terrorists. This is the impetus for the final scene of the act, a spectacular service of thanksgiving to God for delivering the city from the evil French army. This is the Te Deum that brings down the curtain.

(Reality check: this Te Deum could not have been organized as quickly as the opera depicts. There really was a grand Te Deum when that Roman Republic fell in 1799; St. Peter's square was lined with 4,000 soldiers!. That takes some time to arrange logistics. But never mind, it's a great scene.)

At this point, I will point out a more recent event of history that is similar to the confusion of the Battle of Marengo: the American presidential election of 1948. Early returns favoring New York governor Thomas E. Dewey led the Chicago Tribune to publish an edition with the banner headline: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

As it happens, Harry S. Truman had the last laugh, as the final vote count landed him in the White House. The photograph (shown above) of Truman gleefully displaying an iconic example of #FakeNews is a reminder of the adage about counting unhatched chickens.

Melas's apparent victory is the great #FakeNews of Tosca. Napoleon rallied his troops at the last stages of the battle, pulling out a dramatic victory. Puccini and his librettists, fully recognizing the dramatic potential, used Sciarrone's announcement that "Melas has fled" to bring about a moment of potent theatrical effectiveness: Cavaradossi, weakened after having been tortured to try to force him to disclose Angelotti's hiding place, staggers to the horrified Scarpia for a moment of "IN YOUR FACE". (That's my updated loose translation of the Italian "Vittoria! Vittoria")

The upset win by Napoleon had the effect of a bomb going off, both in Rome and in Scarpia's apartment at the Farnesi Palace. It literally brings about the doom of all three principal characters. Scarpia's rage at Cavaradossi's gloating leads to the order to execute him. That in turn leads to Tosca and Scarpia's negotiation for her lover's freedom, resulting in the police chief's murder and the diva's suicide.

The Battle of Marengo instigated a half-century or so of instability in Rome and the rest of the Italian region that waxed and waned until unification was finally achieved in 1870.

Thus, Tosca was written as a centennial observance of the events of a century earlier. As is often the case, the point of view of the opera's events has more to do with changing perceptions of a later time than how those events were seen as they were happening.

For Puccini, the alliance of Church and State was an entity of oppression, tyranny and evil. As noted above, however, Roman citizens had a far different view.

By the way, another aspect of the Battle of Marengo is Chicken Marengo, a dish that has come down to us today. French supplies were running low, so Napoleon had his troops forage for food in neighboring villages. They returned with the ingredients for a recipe calling for chicken, garlic, tomato, eggs and crayfish. Want to taste history? Here's a recipe from the New York Times that substitutes mushrooms for crayfish. It must be authentically French - the author's name is Pierre. Can't get more French than that...

Bon appétit!

September 23, 2019

Fiddle-dee-dee: Tosca, Scarlett O'Hara and their lost worlds

My last post dealt with the villainous Scarpia and his similarities (however superficial) to the Iago of Verdi's Otello. Now let's clarify Floria Tosca's circumstances by linking her to another character from literature:
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

Katie Scarlett O'Hara, the central figure of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

This analogy really works, and I know because it's confirmed by Tosca's entrance music in Act 1, which implies the characteristics she shares with everyone's fave Southern belle.

Tosca's entrance is like that of other Puccini sopranos, namely Mimi and Butterfly. In all three cases, we hear them before we see them. This simple device creates anticipation in the audience, not to mention upping the chances that she'll be greeted with applause when she finally appears.Tosca's irritated cries of "Mario! Mario! Mario!" come in response to finding the doors to Sant'Andrea delle Valle locked.

Her entrance theme is lovely, but that's the least important thing about it. You can listen to it in this vintage recording starring Dorothy Kirsten as Tosca. The theme in question begins at 9:57. Listen all the way to the end of the passage at about 11:33.

Now, Tosca doesn't initially sing that theme; it's just heard in the orchestra. She's far too distracted by jealous suspicions that her lover Cavaradossi is unfaithful to be attuned to the affect of her theme.

The theme communicates simplicity, serenity and a kind of spiritual bliss. Here it is if you can't listen:

What does this tell us about Tosca and the life she's been leading? Her life has been idyllic: she's beautiful, talented and widely admired - a celebrity in the Rome of 1800. She spends her days singing music. She is the one Catholic in the opera who is NOT corrupt and hypocritical; she is devout. She has a child-like faith, bringing flowers to the Madonna daily. Her lover is a handsome and successful artist. 

Life is great. But war, brought about by Napoleon's plan to march into Rome and end the stranglehold of the Bourbon monarchy and the Church, will destroy her idyllic life of music, love, flowers and the Virgin Mary with the force of a bomb. 

Tosca's doom ends not just her personal happiness, but that of pre-war Rome as well. Most Roman citizens enjoyed a certain complacency of daily life just as she did. Revolution was not desired; the vast majority of Romans were happy to bask in the comfort of a life dominated by the Catholic Church.

And what of Scarlett O'Hara? Just substitute "Antebellum South" for "Pre-war Rome" and the two women's circumstances are remarkably similar. Scarlett has been living an idyllic existence as well; her biggest concerns were which fabulous dress to wear to the next ball, flitting from barbecue to barbecue and letting young men fight over which one could bring her a dessert.

This lifestyle is aptly described in the opening crawl in the film version of Gone With The Wind:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South...  Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind...

The complacency of the Old South was obliterated by war, just as Tosca's simple concerns were taken by men and their wars.

But what Puccini does with Tosca's theme takes one's breath away with the craftsmanship and insight of a master dramatist.

The theme makes just one more appearance: it forms the greater part of Tosca's iconic aria "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" midway in Act 2. Here's a video of the aria sung by Sondra Radvanovsky. The theme in question begins at 1:03

By now, Tosca and Cavaradossi have endured intolerable adversity including the harrowing torture of the latter, Cavaradossi's ill-advised gloating upon the news of Napoleon's surprise victory at Marengo; Scarpia's order to have him shot at dawn; and Scarpia's demand of sex with Tosca in exchange for her lover's life.

What a choice - permit Scarpia to rape her or watch as Mario faces a firing squad. The awful reality hits her hard. While Scarpia awaits her decision, she registers an acknowledgement that her innocent religious faith may have been for nothing:

I lived for art, I lived for love: 
never did I harm a living creature! 
Whatever misfortunes I encountered I sought with secret hand to succour. 
Ever in pure faith, my prayers rose in the holy chapels. 
Ever in pure faith, I brought flowers to the altars. 
In this hour of pain, why, why, oh Lord, why dost Thou repay me thus? 
Jewels I brought for the Madonna's mantle, 
and songs for the stars in heaven that they shone forth with greater radiance. 
In this hour of distress, why, why, oh Lord, why dost Thou repay me thus?

What, then does it mean that these words are set to the same melody that previously defined her perfect life? It signals that she knows that life is over; she sings the melody as one clinging to a prized possession, aware that it's slipping away, no longer available.

THAT is why the aria is beautiful; not because the music is "lovely" or "pretty" or "ear-candy", even though it's all that as well.

And in fact, life in Rome was never the same, just as in Scarlett's post-war Georgia. Scarlett's world became a world of uncomfortable race relations, poverty, carpetbaggers and other new realities. As for Rome, the entire Italian peninsula embarked on a difficult path towards unification as a single nation in place of the old order of city-states, kingdoms and Austrian satellites, a unification not achieved for over half a century.