… is Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini.In my forthcoming thriller, Opera, characters go to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to a Gala performance. So, not only have I been seeking out performances of Tosca (see Shivering in the Park with Tosca ) but also images connected with it.
To begin with the original play, La Tosca, by Victorien Sardou, which premiered in 1887, starring Sarah Bernhardt as the diva. Bernhardt often appeared in Sardou’s historical dramas and they were always promoted using posters by Alphonse Mucha, usually depicting Bernhardt herself. But here she is (left) standing over the prone body of the evil chief of the secret police, Baron Scarpia, on a postcard. Postcards like these were relatively recent innovations and very popular at the time.
Bernhardt toured with La Tosca, across Europe and the Americas, to great acclaim, but today the play has largely been forgotten, other than as the original upon which Puccini’s opera was based. The first performance of the opera was in 1900 in Rome and the poster was by Adolfo Hohenstein who also designed the stage sets. It is very much in the Art Noveau style of Mucha and features the same scene as the Bernhardt postcard, a scene which was to feature again and again in images of the opera. The pious Tosca sets candles at the head of the Baron, whom she has just killed ( in self-defence, as he has just tried to rape her ) and places a crucifix on his chest.
When Tosca was first performed it wasn’t that well received by the critics, although the public loved, and continues to love, it. This divergence has continued, to an extent, with the American musicologist Joseph Kerman calling it a ‘shabby little shocker’ in the 1950s. Its continuing success with audiences, conductors and performers has, to an extent silenced the nay-sayers, but it is sometimes still regarded as too florid, melodramatic and insufficiently high-minded.
Many of the more modern images are explicit about the subject matter and the link the opera makes between sex and death (see left). The dagger is a recurring motif, as is blood – red is the most popular colour. The Castel Sant’Angelo appears too. Tosca herself, as in Bernhardt’s time, is often the the central image, although other posters prefer to concentrate on Scarpia, like that for Florida State Opera (right). Only a few depict Cavaradossi, the hero. Ordinarily one might say that this is an example of ‘the devil has all the best tunes’, except that in the opera itself, it is the tenor arias, belonging to Cavaradossi, which are most memorable.
So, aside from a performance occurring in Opera what else does Tosca have in common with my book? First, the action of it, like the opera is set in close to ‘real time’ and in ‘real places’. Tosca was unusual for an opera in that it was set on specific days, the afternoon and evening of 17th and the morning of 18th of June, 1800. In it, the forces of repression, including Baron Scarpia, believe that Napoleon has been defeated at the battle of Marengo, on June 14th, only for news to arrive that, in fact, there was a rearguard action and Napoleon prevailed. Good news for Cavarodossi, the democrat and his lover, Floria Tosca. There is an ongoing battle in Opera, but it isn’t of the traditional sort.
Opera is also about democracy under attack and it too involves the world of spies and secret police. My heroine, Cassandra has to confront her own Baron Scarpia. More on the parallels in a later post.
Opera will be published by Claret Press on 5th September 2022.