Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Tosca: Set and Gesture

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In the years surrounding the advent of the twentieth century, when staging/direction became a hot topic in operatic debates, Tosca became the hottest item, at least at the Met, in the raucous tug-of-war between the traditionalists, at one extreme, and the devotees of European Regietheater, at the other. And when Peter Gelb kept his early promise to drive Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved dinosaur into extinction, the tug-of-war devolved into a pitched battle. Zeffirelli’s Tosca, newborn in 1985 and still kicking in 2006, was supplanted in 2009 by Swiss Luc Bondy’s severe riposte to his predecessor’s opulent decors and astounding scenic gestures. Bondy’s parry was drowned in boos that reverberated in furious notices. The noisy reception of those seated in the orchestra and the galleries, and even on Lincoln Center Plaza staring at the giant screen, could not be ignored. The audience was quick to exercise the prerogative of booing that is the signature privilege of operagoing (see our article, “Boo Who?” in the New York Times, September 26, 2009). 

The Tosca pendulum has swung once again. This year’s new production, directed by David McVicar (it can be seen “Live in HD” on January 27, 2018), returns to a conventional evocation of Roman sites and to the conventional gestures of the well-worn melodrama. Principal among the familiar trappings is, arguably, the knife with which Floria Tosca stabs Baron Scarpia to death, a moment fans await with anticipation at every performance. When and how will the soprano eye and wield her weapon?

No Tosca is better remembered at this riveting juncture than Maria Callas who, on November 25, 1956, performed the murderous act before an extraordinary public. Millions of spectators were witness to her gesture when she appeared live on U.S. network television. The Callas Tosca was so newsworthy that Ed Sullivan, host of the most popular variety show, allotted a full sixteen minutes to the Greek-American singer and Canadian baritone George London for the Act II duel-to-the-death of the antagonists. The video clip below preserves the crackling encounter of these two singing-actors, as compelling today as it was more than a half-century ago. Tosca has agreed to the police chief’s proposal to free her lover in exchange for sexual favors. To steady her nerves, she drinks a glass of wine; her hand grazes a knife; she understands what she must do; she hesitates, then plants the weapon in his heart. Callas is in her most incisive voice as Tosca hurls her fury at the dying Scarpia.

Eight years after the Ed Sullivan segment, in 1964, near the end of her operatic career, Callas sang Tosca in a Zeffirelli production mounted for her at London’s Royal Opera. Her baritone was longtime colleague Tito Gobbi. Here, again, are the final moments of the Tosca-Scarpia clash. The lascivious Scarpia, writing the deceptive safe-conduct pass for Tosca and her lover, eroticizes his quill pen. Callas has further refined her resolve to attack her nemesis. She sees the knife, stares fixedly at the blade, and at the last moment, she turns to deliver the fatal blow.

The power of these familiar bits of stagecraft, executed with so much conviction and originality by Callas, George London, and Gobbi, put to shame Luc Bondy’s directorial eccentricities: Scarpia kissing a statue of the Virgin on the mouth in Act I; three prostitutes ministering to Scarpia’s pleasures in Act II; Tosca remaining onstage at the end of Act II rather than making her stunning exit, in tandem with Puccini’s musical cues.

Due in large measure to the widely publicized feud between world-class divas Callas and Renata Tebaldi, opera in general and Tosca in particular enjoyed a high media profile in the late 1950s. The title role figured prominently in the repertoires of both stars. Tebaldi, costumed as Tosca, made the cover of Time (November 3, 1958) in celebration of her Met opening night in the Puccini work; Callas had her own Time cover (October 29, 1956) just prior to her New York debut.

TIME Magazine Cover: Maria Callas - Oct. 29, 1956 - Opera - Singers -...

We have chosen Tebaldi’s rendition of Tosca’s famous aria. “Vissi d’arte (I lived for art)” offers a contemplative interlude amidst of the unremitting tension of Act II. Why, the distraught heroine asks, has God so unjustly rewarded her devotion and good works? Among the legendary interpreters of Tosca was Maria Jeritza. She owed her 1922 meteoric ascension to New York stardom to a stunning invention: she sang “Vissi d’arte” face down on the stage floor. In 1975 it was Magda Olivero’s turn. She tracked the arc of the music: first bent backwards over a divan, she stood and reached her full height as the climactic phrase attained its peak, then fell to her knees as she begged for Scarpia’s mercy (see our posts of September 9 and September 16, 2014). Still, most sopranos rely on minimal gesture and let Puccini do his work. This is Tebaldi’s way. She intones the broad swaths of the composer’s melody with the famously warm timbre that serves the fervor of Tosca’s prayer. The clip that follows is drawn from a 1959 U.S. television program.

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