What Puccini Wrote

My Cute Engineer, who actually has a theatrical director in his family, likes to quote a proverb about a show so good that even a talented director can’t ruin it. To that limited pantheon of properties I would readily nominate Puccini’s Tosca. Hardly a character in it is anything other than naive or venial — with the exception of Angelotti, the political prisoner whose escape puts the major characters on a collision course — but it has the fascination of a train wreck.

I’ve been clutching Web-bought tickets to a reprise of the production from the Met’s 2010 HD season — one broadcast only. Bumped an evening of clients, stuck the passes to the back of my front door like Luther’s 95 theses on their way out. Some people go out and witness for the Gospel; I drag people to concerts and operas. Tosca‘s second act is relentless and musically seamless — even the obligatory tenor and soprano sock-knocker arias just escape the preserved aroma of the set-piece — and concludes with just about the creepiest bit of silent stage-business in the history of theater, lifted neat from Sardou’s play and provided for explicitly in the score.

So, okay, I will forgive the Met the bit of shock-jockery in the first act, wherein the publicly pious police-chief Scarpia, exhilarated at the thought of simultaneously recapturing a political prisoner and getting a shot at the diva Tosca (for he is secretly a mighty horndog), forgets himself during a papal procession and — snogs a statue of the Madonna that happens to be handy? Hello? Can we say high school? Never mind. Just close your eyes and listen to the Te Deum.  Likewise the little trio of popsies — ballerinas on their night off, possibly — infesting Scarpia’s office in the beginning of the second act. I always thought there was a dramatic tension involved in Scarpia’s pretending, even to his closest lieutenants, that he is a ruthless buzzsaw of righteousness, even though dialogue in the first act makes it clear that his abuse of his office is known all over Rome. Popsies exited before the real action began, and if they were the price I had to pay for a first act that built up a believable dynamic between the idealist tenor-hero Cavaradossi and the farcically jealous Tosca, I was ahead so far.

Then the recording crashed.

I shit you not. Right at the moment Cavaradossi is released from torture — just before he learns that Tosca has bought that release by admitting to Scarpia that he is hiding the escaped Angelotti — the broadcast started to hiccup and pixelate and a text overlay informed us that “A portion of this performance is unavailable due to signal loss.”

And then the action skipped directly to Scarpia’s signing of the deceptive safeconduct that Tosca thinks will get her and her lover out of the city.

I have to assume that this “unavailability” was known when the tickets went on sale; the recording has been in the can since fall of 2009. It is kind of like broadcasting the Gospel story without warning viewers that the Last Supper and the Gethsemane scene are missing, and it was like having a gorgeous dinner set before you — because the singing and acting were truly celestial, this is after all the Met, forgodsake —  and then snatched away. Here is what got left out, from about 3:35, in a more traditional staging.

An omission which pretty much cuts out the bleeding heart of the whole opera — Cavaradossi’s reckless fist-pumping chest tones, Scarpia’s hymn to lust, Tosca’s gliding prayer Vissi d’arte (not to mention all the dialogue which explains what the feck is going on in Act III). And for a final insult, once Scarpia was dead, the whole explicitly scripted ritual which follows — Tosca places a crucifix on his chest, and candles at his head and feet — went out with the bath water, recklessly discarding the impact of what Puccini wrote.

I paid twenty bucks to get sucker-punched?

I don’t think I’ve come so close to losing it in a public place since junior high. There are stories that in a long-ago Tosca featuring the immortal Callas, a man stood up in the orchestra seats at her cry of Assassino! and then dropped stone dead of a heart attack, but I am trying to imagine the Arlington police dealing with this: “We don’t know what happened, officer. We were screening an opera from last season and she just suddenly started tearing the stuffing out of the seats and threw a sneaker right through the screen.”

I was about to walk out on the third act before something like that actually happened but the director and the soprano paid me for getting a grip on myself; just before Tosca throws herself in despair from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo, she turns at the top of a stone staircase with a come-and-get-me gesture to the chief turnkey, kicks him in the chest when he gets close enough, and only then leaps off into the void borne on a full head tone. Scarpia! Avanti a dio!

I gotta love me a Tosca who can kick. It will give the leg workout today a whole different spice.

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7 thoughts on “What Puccini Wrote

  1. You should get your money back!

    But I love the debate about directorial license. I saw a modern day Fem Dom Taming of the Shrew a while ago. If you wanted pure Shakespeare you’d be really upset but as an evening’s entertainment in it’s own right it was top notch.

    • I rather enjoy some riffs of that type (I saw a Love’s Labours Lost with a 1960s American South flavor, the clowns as trailer trash, pretty riotous). I just make a distinction, and I suppose everyone draws their own line, between the gratuitous and the witty.

      In a realistic production you beg belief when a character like Scarpia smooches a statuary saint lasciviously in full view of a Papal procession — you can’t fob it off as some sort of expression of his inner thoughts and you can’t convince me, at least, that even the most feared Chief of Police could or would do something like that without igniting a reaction. Imagine Reinhard Heydrich or Beria doing the equivalent.

      And eliminating the candles and crucifix to show Tosca simply fanning herself (with the fan that was used to draw her into the hunt for Angelotti) just seemed like “Nyah nyah, everyone’s always done it that way so we’ll do something different.”

      But oh, that kick. It psyched me so much I went into the gym with the aircon barely limping on a hundred-degree day and blew up six hundred pounds on the sled press. A little Spanish guy kept watching me nervously, apparently afraid I might explode, or drop it or something.

      Anyway, some benefactor of cash-strapped opera-loving humankind was sneaking video in the opera house, so while it’s imperfect, it looks like the missing stuff is all on YouTube:

      And here’s the come-hither and kick, admittedly blurry, at 2:50.

  2. Oh-oh. Going through the video sequence now. “Gia mi struggea” (the one I want to hear this Scarpia do, goddammit) is still missing and “Vissi d’arte” is.. well, the crappiest interpretation I’ve ever seen at the world class level, if that specification makes sense. Maybe there’s a reason there was “signal loss…”

  3. That is pretty cool. I like the way she beckons him up the steps, if I’m seeing correctly.

    Your use of the term gratuitous is spot on. Different for the sake of being different can be really boring and worse is when someone thinks they can make a masterpiece more relevant by editing or reinterpreting. Like when Wotan doesn’t wear an eyepatch but still has to explain to Fricka why he only has one eye.

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