Ryan McAdams on Tosca

By: Noelle Talbot

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Conducting Tosca, with its molten intensity, is like an opulent form of wilderness therapy. The great Austrian maestro Herbert von Karajan once remarked that all conductors should perform Tosca once a year to satisfy their primal instincts. Yet beyond its histrionics, the score is a mine of meticulous character detail. These details obsess singers and conductors alike: Tito Gobbi claimed that he dressed up as Scarpia hundreds of times in his house in front of three mirrors until every aspect of his character – each eyebrow arch, cape flip, and snarl – was in his control. Through his exacting, revealing specificity, Puccini asks profound questions about the nature of fascism and explores how we maintain our authenticity when fighting against corruption.

A few details I found meaningful during our creative process:

-In one of his few direct changes to Illica and Giacosa’s libretto, Puccini changed Scarpia’s Act 2 line to Tosca “Tu mi odii?” (“You hate me?”) to “Come tu m’odii!” (“How you hate me!”). From a moment that could be construed as a question or a challenge, it unmistakably becomes a moment of relish. That small adjustment reveals so much about Puccini’s understanding of Scarpia: not merely violent or ambitious, but one who experiences cruelty and dominance as pleasure, one for whom being hated and being loved are synonymous.

-The tiny indication of triste (sad) in the score that Puccini wrote over Cavaradossi’s line in Act 3 about his simulated death: “Don’t be afraid, for I will fall instantly and naturally.” The triste indication gives the actor just enough legitimacy, if he chooses, to play the final scene as if he knows that Scarpia would never let him live, that Tosca’s hope is a fantasy. With all his wonderful specificity, Puccini is still providing options for the performer’s imagination; here, for the actor to decide how to play his last moments of musical and emotional unison with Tosca.

-The sudden and brief Act 2 reappearance of the Act 1 theme of the statue of the Madonna. These two lonely, heartfelt measures find Tosca at her most vulnerable, on the verge of capitulation. Her return to faith is poignant, especially coming so soon after “Vissi d’arte,” an aria about the abandonment she feels from God after a lifetime of charity and devotion.

-Far from a detail, but I am always overcome by the eleven bells that ring out across Rome at the beginning of Act 3. Each bell captures the sound of a specific church heard from the top of the actual Castel Sant’Angelo, and each with Puccini’s fastidious description of how close or far away they should sound.

Ryan McAdams, Conductor

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Production photos by Cory Weaver for LOKC, 2015.