Opera for the People

“Puccini’s shabby little shocker.” Thus critic Joseph Kerman dismissed Tosca in his book Opera as Drama, echoing to an extent George Bernard Shaw’s description of the play itself as “an old-fashioned, shiftless, clumsily constructed, empty-headed turnip ghost of a cheap shocker.” For Kerman – whose narrow criteria for great art made no room for Don Giovanni or Così fan Tutte – a vulgar play like this was hardly material for an opera, and Puccini’s inconsistent handling of his subject matter only made matters worse: “Puccini’s faint emotionality is directed out over the footlights.”

In other words, Puccini wrote with the public, not the critics, in mind. Puccini himself, no doubt, would have been delighted with this description of his art, as he once said, “I compose only to a successful and
sensational drama; it is the best way to catch success.” For him, an immediate emotional response from the audience was far more important than praise from the critics for his compositional skills.

Tosca is certainly one of the most immediately accessible operas ever written. Just as the play on which it was based was a star vehicle for French actress Sarah Bernhardt, the opera offers three roles that any singer in the required voice ranges longs to sing – a dashing heroic tenor, a villainous baritone, and a passionate dramatic soprano. Beyond the characterizations, there are great dramatic tableaus. In particular, the finales of the first two acts are unsurpassed in the entire repertoire in dramatic intensity.

If one looks more deeply at the opera, however, one will notice Puccini’s increasingly sophisticated use of the orchestra as a means of telling the story, continuing the trend that was observed in La bohème. Unlike composers who came before him, Puccini did not simply use the orchestra to accompany the singers. In fact, one of the most memorable melodies in the entire opera – that used in the finale of Act II – is never sung.

For some reason, Tosca has been the source of some of the most bizarre anecdotes in the annals of operatic history, many of which may fall into the category of urban legends. Among them are tales of Tosca stabbing Scarpia with her fan when the stagehand forgot the knife, firing squads drawing real blood due to improperly prepared stage rifles, or mischievous stagehands substituting a trampoline for the mattress used to break Tosca’s fall, causing the singer to bounce back into view after diving to her death. One narrative tells of a group of extras playing the firing squad who were absent from the dress rehearsals and as a result pointed their rifles at Tosca rather than Cavaradossi in the final scene; moreover, having been told to “follow the principals” offstage, they followed Tosca instead of Spoletta and disappeared over the parapet in an unintended mass suicide. In the early days of supertitles, Tosca’s admonition to Cavaradossi to paint Mary Magdalene with dark eyes was once translated as “give her two black eyes,” adding an extra touch of violence to an already violent story.

Such stories simply serve to highlight the larger-than-life quality of this opera, which has never fallen out of the standard repertoire since it opened over a century ago. It may not meet some people’s criteria for great art, but it is nevertheless great entertainment.

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