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English National Opera Guide : Puccini :…
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English National Opera Guide : Puccini : Tosca (1982)

by English National Opera, Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), Luigi Illica (libretto), Nicholas John (Series Editor), Victorien Sardou (original play)

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Here is one of Puccini's greatest hits, in an affordable version for complete orchestra. This story of love, art and death in Rome during the Napoleonic wars is today considered a classic for such arias as "Vissi d'arte" (I lived for art; I lived for love), but at its premiere in 1900 it was denounced as "a shabby little shocker," for things like Baron Scarpia's lechery and Tosca's termination of him with extreme prejudice. Be aware that Dover's scores are reprints from other companies that are now out of copyright; that means that they're older versions, and lack such amenities as English translations.… (more)

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Giacomo Puccini

Tosca

Calder, Paperback, 1990.

8vo. 80 pp. Illustrated. English National Opera (ENO) 16.

First published, 1982.
Second Impression, 1990

Contents

List of Illustrations

Manifest Artifice Bernard Williams
The Music of Puccini's 'Tosca' Bernard Keeffe
Historical Perspectives on 'Tosca' Stuart Woolf

Thematic Guide

'Tosca' Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after the play by Victorien Sardou
English translation by Edmund Tracey


Act One
Act Two
Act Three

Discography
Bibliography

==================================================

As ENO guides go, this one is quite a mixed bag.

Even the complete libretto, for which I normally give half of the maximum rating by default, has some exasperating errors. A short prefatory note boasts completeness which includes everything set to music by Puccini, but this really is not the case. In addition to some words when the final "o" is missing, there are several occasions on which whole short phrases are omitted; one particularly annoying example is the last words from the Act 1 love duet in which the jealous Tosca urges Cavaradossi to change the blue eyes of the woman he had painted to dark ones ("Ma... falle gli occhi neri!"). None of these slips is essential for the action or especially detrimental to the sense, but all are annoying and often confusing while listening. On the other hand, the libretto does contain the short exchange between Scarpia and Tosca in the second act, immediately after her famous aria, which is often cut on the stage as well as on record.

The English translation, as always, is a very free translation commissioned by the English National Opera for a special production. Thus it is actually designed, not for reading, but for singing. It makes sense and it's easy to understand, but be careful when you are trying to improve your Italian with it. Sometimes the translation is indeed very free, but to a fine dramatic effect, as for example in Tosca's last words in Act 2 where the name of the notorious Roman emperor Nero is adroitly included; the parallel with Scarpia more than justifies such inclusion. All stage directions are the original ones, referring to no special production, and are given only in English, printed in italics and in brackets in the middle of the page, in between the two columns of the line-to-line translation.

The essays, again as usual, vary greatly in quality, ranging from perceptive passages of considerable value to arrant nonsense of no use except to exasperate one.

Bernard Williams falls almost completely in the latter category, although he does have several fine points. He starts promisingly by suggesting that Puccini is generally not taken seriously by opera commentators, and in the few cases when he is he receives a rather scathing treatment. Mr Williams observes shrewdly that the immense popularity of Puccini's operas in general, and Tosca in particular, is "not enough of a rejoinder" to the critical onslaught, but it does raise a demand for "more understanding". Unfortunately, Mr Williams is thoroughly incapable of providing any such understanding. From his third paragraph onwards he starts building up an enormous amount of rubbish. And he never stops for the next five pages or so.

Mr Williams' main point of argument, as one might gather from his title, is that Puccini's operas are "manipulative", full of self-conscious applying of dramatic tricks in order to keep the attention of the audience. Of course, Mr Williams hastens to add, this is not enough to secure Puccini's overwhelming popularity. He grudgingly admits "melodic gifts, orchestral ingenuity, a sense of atmosphere, and a talent for compression." And then he continues the bashing. Finally and ironically, at least to my mind, Mr Williams neither offers any plausible explanation of Puccini's success with the public nor supplies anything worth considering as regards his stature as an artist. But since I am not at all sure that I understand the author's turgid and far from lucid style, here is a selection of his major points with as much context as necessary. Read and judge for yourselves:

Puccini's immense success is connected with the fact that the pleasure of opera, particularly in the Italian style, is in any case involved with an obvious and immediately presented artifice.

[...]

The idea which Puccini carries further than any other composer is that of securing an effect through the audience's consciousness that that is what he is doing. In exploiting this idea, he transfers to the level of musical and dramatic invention something that is always inherent, to some extent, in opera, and the performance of opera; and that is why one can acknowledge the truth of his talent to the nature of opera.

[If you have any idea what that might mean, please let me know. Anyway, in the next paragraph, after the brief recitation of Puccini's talents mentioned above, Mr Williams continues:]

But, granted all that, the peculiarity of his talent does specially define the nature of the popularity that he had achieved. In particular, it affects what it is like to see one of his operas with which one is already familiar. With a very great work, to hear it for the twentieth time gives the chance, not just to hear something one has missed, but to understand something new. That is not the point with Puccini, and everybody knows that it is not the point. The aim is, rather, to see him do the trick again; the better one knows the whole thing, and the more familiar the trick, the greater the pleasure, just because the pleasure lies in complicity with the artifice.

[...]

The special characteristic of Puccini's operas are that they are manipulative - that in place of the direct address of those works, [Beethoven's Fidelio and Verdi' Rigoletto] for instance, or indeed any work of Verdi's, there is a calculated, and indeed displayed, contrivance to produce a certain emotional effect.

The highly conscious and self-referential character of his method is a very modern feature of Puccini's work, and he could not have stood anywhere but at the end of the tradition of Italian opera, extracting the last drops from it by the method of openly exploiting our consciousness of the ways in which it produced its effects.


Mr Williams evidently suffers from the COS (Charles Osborne Syndrome), namely a deep-seated preconception that Puccini is not really worth bothering too much with. He is clever, yes, his operas are very effective stuff in the theatre, but he is certainly not a genius and his talent has nothing to do with anything like genuine greatness. It is not surprising that the author should also rely on the laziest practice of the critics: comparisons. Well, neither his praising Puccini at the expense of Richard Strauss nor his degrading him at the expense of Verdi is of any use. Still less does one profit from the extremely hackneyed putting of Puccini in the same league as the "Hollywood studios in their best days"; no details are given when these days happened or which movies Mr Williams is supposed to have in mind. He immediately adds that this is not to be regarded as an "insult on Puccini", but that's precisely how it sounds.

But let me take a closer look at Mr Williams' points, at least as much as I can comprehend them, and try to show why I think that in the above passages he wrote nothing but stupendous nonsense.

Mr Williams is quite correct that the Italian opera has a long tradition in applying "manifest artifice" on the stage. What he completely fails to be convincing about, is that Puccini used the method any more strenuously or self-consciously than his predecessors. Indeed, the method has been the basis of Italian opera since Mozart's time; whatever the deep origins of the music in the composer's mind might be, the libretto is always consciously designed for achieving the maximum dramatic effect. Compare the terrifying entrance of the Commendatore in the finale of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Scarpia's entry in the church in the middle of Tosca's first act. Take for another example Verdi's Rigoletto. It is full of deceiving situations in which the audience is taken into complicity against the characters on the stage: the courtiers who think they have stolen Rigoletto's mistress until he reveals that Gilda is his daughter; Rigoletto's carrying the sack under the impression that it contains the dead body of the Duke; Rigoletto's being fooled by the courtiers that they are going to abduct Countess Ceprano when it is Gilda that they really take away. No matter how fanciful or improbable these situations may be, I really don't see how they are a bit more self-conscious or contrived than anything in Puccini.

Mr Williams' point about the repetitive attending of an opera by Puccini just to "see him do the trick again" hardly needs a refutation. Only a man who is entirely unresponsive to Puccini's music can make such a claim. There is nothing essentially wrong with such lack of response. But I certainly don't see the point of such man's writing about the subject. I have seen Tosca live on stage only a few times but have listened to it complete on record, and have seen it as a movie, at least twenty times. I have never been able to bother myself with the "tricks" pointed out by Mr Williams and I have never ceased to discover something new about the characters, the action, the historical background, the orchestration, the leitmotivs - in short, about anything but the "tricks".

Needless to say, I completely disagree with Mr Williams' claim that Puccini's popularity rests chiefly on his cinematic ingenuity for stage effects. For my part, it is Puccini's dramatic music and masterful characterization that are responsible for his lasting, and if anything increasing, popularity for more than a century now. The characters in his operas may be simplified - indeed, which is this opera character who is not simplified? - but they are human and they are alive. I think Puccini in his music addressed and expressed powerfully, and with rare subtlety and insight, some of humanity's deepest passions. If there is a great deal of melodrama and violence in these, we have only ourselves to blame.

I wonder how Mr Williams could appreciate Verdi at all after his statement that the enjoyment of Italian opera "grows tightly around enjoyment of a technique, a manifest technique" [his emphasis]. This is a very amateurish point of view that can be taken by somebody who has no real understanding of what opera is all about. I do not claim that I have, but I do claim that as soon as one is aware of things like "technique" - or, more often, lack of such - one has already failed to get the best opera can offer. Mr Williams' claim is slightly supported by the tradition to applaud at the end of great arias and duets, and sometimes I wonder what portion of the audience accepts opera as it should be accepted, as a superb piece of musical theatre concerned with drama and characterization, and what portion is concerned only with largely irrelevant issues like brilliant top notes. But the argument is a false one all the same: the fact that an applause happens does not necessarily make it appropriate. And "Italian opera" is a pretty loose term. It's one thing to shower applause after "Casta Diva", it's quite another story to do it after "Vissi d'Arte".

In support to this ludicrous notion of his, Mr Williams quotes the perfectly idiotic statement of W. H. Auden that "in a sense, there can be no tragic opera". Do you know why? Because "the singer may be playing the role of a deserted bride who is about to kill herself, but we feel quite certain as we listen that not only we, but also she, is having a wonderful time." All this passage shows is that Mr Auden didn't have any idea what opera really is about, either. Apparently he had never seen on the stage a great singer who also happens to be a great actor - admittedly, a very rare thing. It is only natural, therefore, that he, like Mr Williams, would place technique at the top of his "operatic values", far above mundane by-products such as drama or characterization. But technique in opera, as in any other art, is merely the means for achieving certain ends. No matter how impressive it may be, it cannot make up for the lack of artistry. Those who think it can do so at their own peril.

What has Mr Williams to say specifically about Tosca? Just about the same rubbish as about Puccini in general. He starts with some flaws. Tosca's aria from the second act "is not a very interesting piece" and Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle" from the third one "leaves a desultory impression". Neither of them contributes to the action, and Cavaradossi's aria, being "simply too short", sounds like "one shouted sentence rather than any revelation of character." The second act "many have found disturbing and disagreeable" and the major reason for this is that Puccini's "sadistic imagination pulls too strongly on what is indeed one of his most carefully structured pieces of artifice." So, in short, that "there should be something nasty at the centre of Tosca is the result of Puccini's method when it goes beyond the bounds of what it can handle."

All this, again, is such junk that I wonder what's the point of refuting it. Mr Williams' only fairly sensible point is that Cavaradossi is engaged in the drama more for personal than for political reasons. But that is obvious to anybody who takes the trouble to read the libretto; the politics form the background only, whereas Puccini is much more interested in the characters. As can be expected, Mr Williams is quite incapable of appreciating that, even in the most tautly constructed music drama, mere action is not enough: the characters must be brought to life, too. To point out to Mr Williams that Tosca's aria is a welcome relief from the hectic drama of the second act and that it adds very important nuances to her psychological make-up (e.g. deeply shaken belief in God) would make no sense; he wouldn't understand. Nor could he appreciate the zest for life so poignantly expressed, and so dramatically effective before the execution, by Cavaradossi's "shouted sentence". As for the "nasty" second act, well, this is the usual bunch of priggish and prudish prejudices so often raised against Puccini's masterpiece. What such moral scruples have to do with the value of great art I cannot for the life of me understand. After all, if you are afraid of bears, what are you doing in the forest?

After so much tosh written with such aplomb, the essay by Mr Keeffe is a delicious gulp of fresh air. He makes no bones that "within its terms of reference Tosca is a masterpiece." And it shows in his writing. Just about the most negative thing he has to say is that he doesn't think much of Scarpia's solo outburst in the beginning of the second act. I disagree, of course, since I think this an excellent preparation for what is going to happen later in this act, but there is too much to enjoy in Mr Keeffe's essay to be bothered with such tiny details. The title is a little misleading since half of the piece deals with the composition history and the relationship between the libretto and Sardou's original play. But once he reaches the music, Mr Keeffe is often very insightful indeed.

After reading Charles Osborne's crusade against Puccini's music in general and his dramatic sense in particular, it is an immense pleasure to read something written by somebody who could appreciate Puccini's masterful orchestration, unerring sense for orchestral and dramatic effect, his tone-painting, and his superb use of thematic transformation for unifying, yet also diversifying, the whole music drama. As a general rule, Mr Keeffe discusses the use of various leitmotivs in a manner which is perfectly understandable for the layman. Only a few times does he slip into some arcane changes of tonalities or special chords which I at least find more difficult to hear and appreciate.

It is worth noting - and I do it with considerable pleasure - that Mr Keeffe's unsourced reference to one commentator that "has sneered at the lack of 'strange' harmony' here" (in Cavaradossi's aria "Recondita Armonia") is surely an attack on Charles Osborne and his musical assassination of the composer in The Complete Operas of Puccini (1981). Mr Keeffe shows clearly that Mr Osborne "has missed the point". In fact, at one place in the aria ("E bruna, Floria") Puccini has ingeniously combined the melodic motifs of Countess Attavanti and Tosca, quite appropriately as Cavaradossi compares their different types of beauty and how they are merged in his art.

Some of Mr Keeffe's more technical points may be hard to grasp for the musically illiterate, but they do make it clear that Puccini was a superb craftsman for whom, as for any other great composer, composition was essentially an act of diversification of one, or in opera perhaps several, major themes. One of the most imaginative among Mr Keefe's discoveries is that the "Scarpia motif", the one that opens the opera magnificently, was reversed and a little expanded to give the beginning of the second act and express one of Scarpia's more expansive moods as he is sitting at the table and having dinner. Another striking thing is the harmonic similarity between the "Angelotti's motif", the one which follows the "Scarpia" one immediately in the beginning, and the sequence of notes that is associated with his sister, Countess Attavanti. How much of this Puccini did consciously and how much his musical unconscious took care of is a matter of endless, though rather futile, speculation. What's certain is that he was a far greater musical dramatist that Mr Osborne has given him credit.

Another fascinating detail pointed by Mr Keeffe which can be heard by anybody but it's hard for the layman to discern without assistance is the sequence of chords that is first heard when Cavaradossi mentions to Angelotti the well in the garden of his villa where he can hide in case of emergency. The same chords, "with shifting nebulous harmonies as though the tonality were dissolving", are heard in the second act when Tosca finally breaks down before Scarpia's sadistic methods of interrogation and confesses where Angelotti is hiding. The conclusion to draw from such instances is that one should think twice when a musical motif in Puccini's scores appears to be rather carelessly "plugged in" (to use Mr Osborne's memorable phrase). For this motif might just turn out to play more important role than you suspect.

Mr Woolf's essay is a somewhat dryly written account of the historical events that became the basis of Sardou's play, and how they were handled by the French dramatist and by Puccini's librettists later. On the whole, though he sometimes leaves me at sea taking for granted historical knowledge I don't possess, Mr Woolf seems to be of the opinion that in both works the historical background is deftly and plausibly used. Of course there are some distortions for additional dramatic effect. Thus the "real" news about the Battle of Marengo which plays such a vital part in the second act rings true, even if the celebration of the "false" news in the the first act is rather exaggerated. Most fascinatingly, in the end of his essay Mr Woolf addresses a question which I have always found worthy of study: the strong vein of anti-clericalism in Tosca. Somewhat disappointingly, however, the author is rather perfunctory on the subject. Still, he at least mentions that Puccini's education had been rather liberal, and thus the anti-clerical attitude of Sardou's original play was probably welcomed by him.

The "Thematic Guide" is rather disappointing. It consists of forty musical examples, all of them numbered and included in square brackets in the libretto where the corresponding motif occurs. This is fine, in theory at least, and so is the fact that most of the themes are not given any names (for it is a dangerous business to label something as ever-changing and versatile as that). Most of the themes are given complete with the words from the libretto on which they are sung and can thus be located easily. However, for a number of instrumental motifs there is no other indication than the tempo and dynamics; the instrumentation is almost always omitted which makes the identification harder. But all these are minor drawbacks which can be fixed with a certain, not very substantial, amount of application by the reader.

Worst of all, however, is the relationship between the "Thematic Guide" and the libretto. It is wonderful that Mr Keeffe's invaluable insights - most, if not all, of them - are accompanied with the numbers of the discussed motifs from the "Guide", but it would have been most helpful if these had been incorporated into the libretto as well. Strangely enough, pretty much all of them are not. When one takes a careful look at the text, one realises how superficial and inadequate the "Thematic Guide" is. This is perhaps inevitable, considering the great complexity of interrelated motifs, yet Puccini deserves much better than that. To take but one shockingly obvious example, exactly before Cavaradossi's "Vittoria" in the second act (that is immediately after the "real" news from Marengo), there is a tremendous outburst from the full orchestra of a theme that is often encountered throughout the work. Yet no number in square brackets accompanies the stage directions in the libretto. I will have to try to determine myself when this theme occurs for the first time and whether it is included in the "Guide" at all or not.

The Bibliography is short and perfunctory, apparently not updated for this Second Impression at all (except for the addition of Mr Carner's 1985 Cambridge Opera Handbook dedicated to Tosca). I am gratified that it omits Charles Osborne's tendentious, not to say scurrilous, volume. Mosco Carner's Puccini: A Critical Biography (1974; now the "Definitive Third Edition" from 1992 is available second-hand) is highly recommended as a work which "combines rare psychological insight with musical scholarship." Well, after reading Mr Carner's liner notes on (Karajan's) recordings of Tosca and Turandot I have grave doubts about both his psychological and musical analyses.

The Discography is a baffling affair. This is not unusual for the series, but in this particular case ENO have reached new heights of sloppiness. There are 13 recordings listed, all of them complete, in Italian and ''in stereo unless asterisked''. Well, only one of these 13 is in mono and it is definitely not asterisked. Conductors, orchestras and singers in the three principal parts are given, but no years of recording. In each case catalogue numbers for releases on ''disc'' and ''tape'' are given, including complete recordings and excerpts, both in the UK and in the USA. In this respect the Discography is, of course, badly dated, but I guess it is asking too much from Martin Hoyle (the compiler) to predict in 1990 that a time would come when Internet would make such Atlantic separations useless. The same goes for the listing only of recordings available in these two countries. Frustratingly, but expectedly, there are no live or video recordings mentioned. Last but not least, the missing name from the Rescigno recording is Mirella Freni, who, incidentally, is wrongly identified as Tosca in Davis' recording (the correct name there is Montserrat Caballe). Below, as an appendix, I provide a fuller, though by no means exhaustive, discography.

The book is illustrated with 25 black-and-white photographs, mostly rather small and of inferior quality. Nevertheless, there are many compelling images among them. As a frontispiece, for instance, we have Maria Callas, face distraught with grief, during the 1964 production by Franco Zeffirelli at Covent Garden; further in the book there is one memorable shot of Callas and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia from the same production. (By the way, the second act is available on video and well-worth watching, despite that in 1964 both Callas and Gobbi were in vocal decline.) Other memorable images include a small portrait of the legendary baritone Antonio Scotti as Scarpia, a role which he sang at both the London and the New York premieres of Tosca. Other notable Scarpias include Mariano Stabile at La Scala during the 1920s and Otakar Kraus at Covent Garden in 1953. Among the Toscas names, and faces, like Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, Ljuba Welitsch, Linda Ester-Gray and Renata Tebaldi stand out. It is interesting to observe how the older the production is, the more flamboyant Tosca's dress and hat become.

By far my greatest favourite among the photographs is one from the 1960 Sadler's Wells production showing Marie Collier as Tosca placing the crucifix on the chest of the dead Scarpia (Peter Glossop). The photo occupies nearly a full page and it is of excellent quality in comparison with most others. I must also say that Tosca, wearing a dress with a most generous décolletage, is quite a splendid sight as she bends over Scarpia. She is extremely seductive yet perfectly in line with the events from the second act. This is a photograph worthy of poster.

All in all, apart from Mr Keeffe's essay, this ENO guide is rather a disappointment. Mr Williams' dismissing of Puccini as a trickster is not worth reading at all, and Mr Woolf's essay on the historical background is hardly worth reading but once. The libretto is quite useful yet often sloppy, missing whole words and phrases that can be heard on many a recording. The "Thematic Guide" is of limited use, mostly as a mere starting point; many of the motifs whose numbers are integrated into the libretto are the most obvious ones and by no means all of their transformations are marked. It will bear a number of pencil notes.

As so often happens with great art, the insight lies inside. A careful listening, following closely the libretto, to a fine complete recording of Tosca - don't waste your time with the horrendous stagings and the mediocre singing in modern opera houses - will tell you a great deal more, and will continue to do so with every re-listening, than most of this ENO guide. There are also several excellent video productions available, both live performances and lip-synced films, for those who prefer to experience opera visually as well.

Appendix: Discography
[Year - Tosca, Cavaradossi, Scarpia - Conductor - Label.]

Audio recordings (studio):
1953 - Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi - De Sabata - EMI.
1957 - Milanov, Björling, Warren - Leinsdorf - RCA.
1959 - Tebaldi, Del Monaco, London - Molinari-Pradelli - DECCA.
1962 - Price, Di Stefano, Taddei - Karajan - DECCA.
1965 - Callas, Bergonzi, Gobbi - Pretre - EMI.
1967 - Nilsson, Corelli, Fischer-Dieskau - Maazel - DECCA.
1972 - Price, Domingo, Milnes - Mehta - RCA.
1976 - Caballe, Carreras, Wixell - Davis - PHILIPS.
1976 - Vishnevskaya, Bonisolli, Manuguerra - Rostropovich - DG.
1978 - Freni, Pavarotti, Milnes - Rescigno - DECCA.
1979 - Ricciarelli, Carreras, Raimondi - Karajan - DG.
1981 - Scotto, Domingo, Bruson - Levine - EMI.
1990 - Te Kanawa, Aragall, Nucci - Solti - DECCA.
1990 - Freni, Domingo, Ramey - Sinopoli - DG.
1992 - Malfitano, Domingo, Raimondi - Mehta - TELDEC.
2001 - Gheorgiu, Alagna, Raimondi - Pappano - EMI.
2003 - Cedolinis, Bocelli, Guelfi - Mehta - DECCA.

Audio recordings (live):
1954 (Rio de Janeiro) - Tebaldi, Di Stefano, Taddei - de Fabritiis - Walhall.
1956 (Metropolitan) - Tebaldi, Tucker, Warren - Mitropoulos - Myto.
1957 (Covent Garden) - Milanov, Corelli, Guelfi - Gibson - ROH.
1958 (Brussels) - Tebaldi, Di Stefano, Bastianini - Gavazzeni - Myto.
1959 (La Scala) - Tebaldi, Di Stefano, Gobbi - Gavazzeni - Opera d'Oro.
1962 (Metropolitan) - Price, Corelli, MacNeil - Adler - SONY.
1990 (Rome Opera) - Kabaivanska, Pavarotti, Wixell - Oren - RCA.

Video recordings (film):
1976 - Kabaivanska, Domingo, Milnes - Bartoletti - DECCA/DG.
1992 - Malfitano, Domingo, Raimondi - Mehta - TELDEC.
2001 - Gheorgiu, Alagna, Raimondi - Pappano - BBC/Opus Arte.

Video recordings (live):
1961 (Stuttgart Staatsoper) - Tebaldi, Tobin, London - Patane - VAI.
1964 (Covent Garden) - Callas, Cioni, Gobbi - Cillario - EMI (Act 2 only).
1978 (Metropolitan) - Verret, Pavarotti, MacNeil - Conlon - DECCA.
1985 (Metropolitan) - Behrens, Domingo, MacNeil - Sinopoli - DG.
1985 (Arena di Verona) - Marton, Aragall, Wixell - Oren - Kultur.

Postscript: On the Cambridge opera handbook

Amazon is kind enough to let me have a Look Inside the volume dedicated to Tosca in the Cambridge opera handbook series. What I have found convinces me that the book is hardly worth reading. For it contains the same type of Puccini bashing I am already familiar with. The critical onslaught, of course, is mostly targeted on Puccini's promiscuous use of his leitmotifs, apparently without any relevance to the drama. As it might be expected, the notorious finale of Tosca is much under fire, with the wise words of Joseph Kerman quoted far more often than they deserve: "Tosca leaps, and the orchestra screams the first thing that comes into its head, E Lucevan le stelle."

Most of the volume is written by Mosco Carner but there are few chapters contributed by other writers, including one by the legendary baritone Tito Gobbi, one of the finest Scarpias on record. Here I would like to address the essay "Analysis: Act 1 in perspective" by one Roger Parker. My aim is to show that Puccini is by far not the musical idiot his commentators make him out. I am unfortunately ill-qualified for the task, but I am so dismayed by the presumptuous and high-handed tone of these people, that I am compelled to write the following lines. Here are some of Mr Parker's salient points in his own words, interspersed with my commentaries which try to explain the issues, not so much from my own point of view, but from Puccini's:

...on occasion Puccini seems to disregard any previous association and employ themes as part of a purely musical structure. The results can be confusing, the interpretations difficult and not always to Puccini's credit. A most notorious example, one for which the composer has been frequently anathematized, is the reprise of 'E lucevan le stelle' in the final moments of the opera. [...] The theme is that of Cavaradossi's soliloquy earlier in the third act; Tosca has had no opportunity to hear it; what we see and what we hear seem out of joint. As always, a number of ingenious explanations are available to the commentator; he might try as follows: the plot revolves around three characters, all of whom Puccini wishes to recall in these closing moments. Hence we see Tosca, the words refer to Scarpia (Tosca's final are 'O Scarpia, avanti a Dio'), and the music recalls Cavaradossi by means of his most extended aria. But few will be convinced by such an interpretation: its subtlety is quite at odds with the music, which in these closing moments is uncompromising in its blatancy. As Mosco Carner has pointed out, the overwhelming reason for the reprise has nothing to do with fine dramatic detail: it is done to leave the 'big' tune of Act III ringing in the audience's ears as the curtain falls.

Overwhelming reasons, indeed! I know of few examples of intellectual laziness more telling than this one: the theme doesn't fit our own dramatic notions, so it must be there for purely musical reasons. In earlier parts of the book Mr Carner even remarks that this moment has "troubled" him "for years". I am honestly amazed by the authors' superficiality. What, for example, does it matter that Tosca has never heard the theme? Leitmotifs can refer to anything - character, situation, emotion - and there is no reason why they should not be used throughout the whole opera in as subtly suggestive a manner as the composer can manage - provided, of course, that there is somebody in the audience to appreciate that. Mr Parker's "triple" explanation, though far-fetched, is not that fanciful. Yet it doesn't quite fit the music, much as I disagree about the "blatancy" of the latter. But there is a much easier and not at all that tenuous explanation.

As I have argued while discussing Charles Osborne's The Complete Operas of Puccini (1981), Cavaradossi's extremely emotional soliloquy refers to his love of life and desperation of death, certainly, but it is also highly erotic and in this respect it does refer to Tosca as well, indeed to both of them. Since Cavaradossi has just been shot and Tosca is committing a suicide, it seems to me perfectly justified that the theme from "E lucevan le stelle" should sound in a stirring arrangement for full orchestra. I really don't see how this conclusion is less appropriate than any theme from the love duets; indeed, these are less appropriate, for they celebrate life and on the stage we have death. Nor do I think that the ominous "Scarpia theme" would have made a better finale. The villain is, of course, the major reason for the tragedy, but he is by no means more prominent a character than Tosca or Cavaradossi. Commentators on Puccini are evidently people of very limited imagination still under the illusion that Puccini's leitmotifs are of the "calling cards'' type: if Scarpia is mentioned in the text, he must be referred to in the music; if Tosca hasn't heard a theme, it can't be used in relation to her at all. I do not subscribe to so shallow a point of view. Nor do I agree with Mr Parker on his next point:

Consider for example the opening theme of the opera. [...] No one has any doubts in labelling this the 'Scarpia' theme, [...] and most of its appearances in Act I fall easily under such a rubric. Cavaradossi's venomous description of Scarpia is underpinned by a fivefold repetition of the theme [...] and Scarpia's own entrance is marked by a further four repetitions. [...] With such prompting, the emphatic statements in the beginning and end of the act are easily understood as references to Scarpia's controlling influence over the action. The remaining two statements in Act I are, however, more problematical. The first marks Angelotti's success in finding the key to the Attavanti chapel [...] the second (in which the whole-tone descent is extended and filled in) accompanies Cavaradossi's directions to a secret hiding place near his villa. [...] In both cases, the particular musical nature of the theme might seem programmatically appropriate, but in neither is the idea of Scarpia any more relevant than in a dozen other passages. Again, as with the reprise of 'E lucevan le stelle', we have to ignore the immediate dramatic relevance of the theme, and look instead at the larger musico-dramatic context.

The "larger musico-dramatic context", not surprisingly, leads Mr Parker nowhere at all. Again, his easy dismissal becomes easily explained if we assume that leitmotifs are used in their true Wagnerian sense; they don't just refer to this or that; they comment on everything. I must also say that I do not accept speculations of the type "it is equally relevant at many other points." A composer is innocent until he is proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The question we have to answer is "Why did Puccini use this theme at this particular place?", not "Why on earth didn't he use the same theme at ten other places?" I believe one of the chief characteristics of great art is a communication with a great mind. That's why I always try to discover what Puccini did say in his music, not what he might have said but didn't. But to do that one must first take Puccini seriously, and regard him as an outstanding musical and dramatic genius. I am willing to take my chances on that.

As for the "problematical" references to the "Scarpia" theme, Mr Parker, ironically, supplies a most plausible answer himself: they merely refer to Scarpia's controlling the action; neither Angelotti's hiding in the chapel nor his flight to Cavaradossi's villa has any other reason but Scarpia's persecution. Besides, Mr Parker's remark that the motifs are not quite identical may be more significant than it seems. I wouldn't be surprised if a more thorough analysis of the score shows a much more complex use of different variants of this motif. Mr Parker's next point is also easily explained if one searches just a little further than one's own nose:

(Omitted passages refer almost exclusively to Mr Parker's quoting some arcane figures, perhaps the exact bars where the references occur; occasionally to digressions and comparisons without much relevance to the present discussion.)

Ex. 25j is a further case in point. Its appearances in the Act I love duet ('Quella donna...' [...] and 'Quei passi') [...] might tempt us to label it as a 'jealousy' motif. [...] But in fact the initial statements of this idea occur in the brief meeting between Cavaradossi and Angelotti which immediately precedes the love duet. There, it is a dominant musical image, its appearance in the beginning and end of the scene framing the action and, by its alteration of mode and dynamic, underlining the swift progression from triumphant recognition ('Voi Cavaradossi') [...] to subdued parting ('Presto... Grazie').[...] Its function is thus structural; it is only later, as Tosca repeats the idea referring to her half-heard impression of the meeting, that it acquires an added layer of semantic richness, symbolizing not just one moment of jealousy, but the emotion itself.

Perfect nonsense! Significantly, when a repetition of certain motif does not satisfy the author's previous labelling of it, it never crosses his mind that it might be he, not Puccini, who is mistaken in the first place. Tosca's jealousy is clear from her behaviour and her words. Why should it be given a musical motif of its own? In fact, it isn't. This is a marvellous example of using leitmotifs as a subtle commentary on the action. In this case the motif reminds us of what we already know: Tosca's jealousy is unfounded, because Cavaradossi is hiding Angelotti, not some other mistress of his.

In his next paragraph Mr Parker has some equally foolish stuff to say about "one of the themes associated with the Marchesa Attavanti". It never occurs to him that this theme may have a much broader context and thus be used in a number of instances, referring indirectly to numerous things. After all, the countess is not a character in the opera at all, and it would make no sense to have so much music dedicated to her. On the other hand, she is Angelotti's sister and has arranged his hiding place in the church. This in itself suggests that any music associated with her may well refer to several other factors, all of them of much greater importance for the drama. But this, of course, would require a painstaking analysis I am incapable of; if Mr Parker is, it doesn't show in his essay. Instead, he finishes with this charming example of regal condescension, not to say confused obscurity:

One can continue dissecting themes, but perhaps the point has been sufficiently stressed. Sooner of later, one must confront the obverse of the coin, and consider the extend to which all these themes may be organically related. The level at which an individual commentator will feel justified in suggesting derivations from one theme to another is a matter both of training and of the extent he feels organicism to be a necessary state for a musical drama. But the dangers of such an inquiry are manifest. There is what one might term an occupational hazard: that one's desire to reveal organic unity along symphonic lines will allow the eye to lead the ear.

Even more charmingly, Mr Parker then quotes one example from Mr Keeffe's essay in the ENO companion to which I have referred above (the one about the inversion of Scarpia's motif), arguing that it is not audible. Well, audible or not, it is a fascinating relation and it is there, no matter whether Puccini did it consciously or not. But this is missing the point and digressing unnecessarily. Mr Parker and I were discussing dramatic relevance of leitmotifs which are clearly audible, not organic unities in the score visible only for specialists. As I have said before, I am ready to believe that Puccini might occasionally have used certain motifs for purely structural purpose, especially in the background. But I cannot for the life of me accept that he used in this way melodic fragments which are clearly audible and, indeed, can be identified even by untrained ear (the finale being a prime example).

All I can say, to say the very least, is that I find neither Mr Parker nor Mr Carner, still less Charles Osborne, convincing about their fantasies. At best, their superficiality is amusing. At worst, their accusations are scurrilous. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jan 25, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
English National Operaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Giacosa, Giuseppelibrettomain authorall editionsconfirmed
Illica, Luigilibrettomain authorall editionsconfirmed
John, NicholasSeries Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Sardou, Victorienoriginal playmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Keeffe, BernardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tracey, EdmundTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Williams, BernardContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Woolfe, StuartContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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