When opera gets criticised, as it often does these days, for killing its sopranos, Tosca is almost always at the top of the list. A virtuous, beautiful, talented, charismatic heroine, manipulated and tormented through no fault of her own, and forced by her scriptwriters to end it all every night of the week in a fatal leap from the top of a Roman landmark. Why? What’s the point being made here?
As I’ve written before, we need to take care when addressing this soprano-killing question. To recap: the death of a character is not the same as the death of the singer playing the character – in fact, death scenes are some of the most rewarding to act, and dying on stage should come at no personal risk to the actors involved; and the climactic death of a character very often greatly increases her importance to the narrative – contrast Tosca’s death with that of Cavaradossi, or even more so, with poor old Angelotti’s.
Having said that, Tosca’s death does seem particularly brutal and unjustified. One could end the show after Act 2 and have a very different, and perfectly satisfactory, story, with a different moral to be drawn. Act 3 arguably seems to subvert the idea of a moral entirely – it feels like a bleakly amoral story, with an almost nihilistically hopeless conclusion.
In fact, even the far-from-faint-hearted Puccini balked at Tosca’s death. His preference was for an extended mad scene, Cavaradossi’s execution pushing her over the edge mentally rather than architecturally. It was Sardou, author of the play on which the opera is based, who dug his heels in and insisted that only a suicidal denouement would do the job as intended.
Tosca is essentially a story about the clash of the contrasting world-views of its three main characters. Cavaradossi: a Voltairian, anti-religion, anti-authority, free-spirited, liberal. (In Dungeons & Dragons we’d have labelled him Chaotic-Good.) Scarpia: brutal, authoritarian, willing to turn the machinery of State and Church to his own ends of maintaining order and increasing his own personal power. (D&D: Lawful-Evil.) And caught between them, Tosca herself: pious, law-abiding, altruistic. (D&D: Lawful-Good.)
I’ve just arrived in beautiful Inverness, where we’re touring Anthony Besch’s classic 1980 production of the piece, which updates the action to the summer of 1943. Scarpia and his henchmen are black-shirted, jackbooted fascists, in case anyone was in any doubt whose side we’re supposed to be on. The updating was innovative and not without controversy when Besch and his designer Peter Rice first deployed it; by now it seems a familiar idea. But having said that, this time around (this being the third revival I’ve been involved in since I started my professional career here with Scottish Opera in 2004) there seems to be a certain added energy and edge to the concept, and to the audience reactions. At first we wondered why that was; I suspect at least part of the answer might be found by opening any current newspaper.
One of the many remarkable things about this piece is the tautness of its construction – Act 2 in particular hangs together with the undeviating tension of a piano string. Scarpia and Tosca initially meet in the Roman church of Sant Andrea della Valle, where in this production Rice made sure that the mural of St Andrew being crucified in saltire formation is unmissably upstage centre. A canny piece of subliminal wooing of his Scottish audience, perhaps. From that first moment, Scarpia zeroes in on two aspects of Tosca’s personality – her piousness and her jealousy – to manipulate her into unwittingly leading him to the hiding place of the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Given that he is being concealed by Cavaradossi, Scarpia also concocts a plan to use the latter’s legal predicament to blackmail Tosca into granting him sexual favours.
This plan is essentially watertight – during Act 2, Scarpia even gives Tosca a tour of the various strands of his spider’s web, demonstrating to her that she is comprehensively snared. He fails to identify her one viable escape route – the one she eventually uses – because he assumes that, being a devout and orthodox Catholic, she won’t murder him (even if he believes her physically capable of such an act in the first place), since in her mind it would undoubtedly condemn her to Hell. He thinks nothing of abusing her piety against her, but fails to appreciate that her relationship with God is far more direct than the average Roman’s, and that she feels He might be willing to bend the rules in her case. In fact, the clues are there in Act 1, when Scarpia chides her for swearing in church, and she replies that God will make an exception for her. For Scarpia it’s a fatal and uncharacteristic oversight, but presumably his mind is on other things at this point. Either way, he underestimates her.
If we’re to get to the bottom of this story, it’s crucial to recognise the nature of Scarpia’s power. He is not superhuman, is not physically stronger nor necessarily more intelligent than his opponents. What he does have is the entire machinery of State and Church at his disposal, and an absolute lack of any moral or ethical restraint in using them to satisfy his own desires. On an individual level, Tosca does find the physical and moral resources to defeat him, and if we ended the opera after Act 2 we’d go home thinking this was all that was required. But the moral of the story, if we choose to look for one, is this: it’s not enough to depose, imprison or even kill a tyrant. It’s the system that gets you, and an individual can’t fight an entire tyrannical system and win.
And so, as we face a generational struggle with the question of authoritarian tyranny and how to oppose it, Tosca tells us that while it’s tempting to focus on the individuals at the top of their authoritarian trees – that, after all, is what their egos demand of us – if we are truly to defeat them, we need to take care to restrain, reform or even dismantle the systems which put them there, and which they would use to keep us under their tyranny.
Let’s not allow her nightly deaths to be in vain.