Saturday, December 06, 2008

Puccini's "Tosca" on DVD, with a "provincial" performance


Giacomo Puccini, to my ear at least, brought grand opera closer to the idea of symphony (that is opera-symphony or choral symphony) than Verdi, at least in latest operas with calculated climaxes that are totally symphonic.

Tosca
has a number of DVD’s, and Netflix offers the 2000 recording at the provincial Arena della Vittoria, with Francesca Patane as Tosca, and Jose Cura (as Cavaradossi ) and Renato Bruson as Scarpia. The original play is by Victorian Sardou and the libretto is by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The director is Enrico Castiglione. Peirgoioro Morandi conducts the Province of Bari Symphony Orchestra.

The story, while rooted in European religious history around the time of Napoleon, seems a bit like soap opera, with the characters going in their own directions. Cavaradossi tries to shelter a political dissident in the church Sant’Andrea della Valle (to today’s moviegoers, that brings to mind Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna), when all the complications will follow. Tosca is actually jealous of the portrait of Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi paints, which again to today’s viewers brings to mind Dan Brown and Da Vinci. (It also raises the "schizoid" problem of falling in love with a "perfect fantasy" rather than a real person -- a theme common in Oscar Wilde.) While the painter even keeps the dissident away from the comic sacristan, the real problem is Scarpia, from the church police, who is called a religious bigot in the libretto. Eventually, Tosca will resist Scarpia’s advances and stab him, and then watch a fake execution of her lover (again embroiled with the politics of European history), which turns out not to be fake, to her great grief and sudden horror. So she jumps off the cliff. There was a “similar” scene recently in the soap “Days of our Lives” where a character Melanie, running from a cornered boyfriend jumps, but she actually survives.

But it’s the music that fascinates us, with Puccini’s mature style. He starts with scale-like motives of progressive chords, and these morph into the soaring arias and choruses of the opera. The “chills and fever” climax occurs in the Church at the end of Act I, with an execution that you expect in a formal postromantic-to-modern symphony. The music (composed largely just before 1900) often revolves around the tonalities of E-flat Major and Minor (like in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony), with lots of chromatic and whole tone scales, and a curious mixture of French impressionistic and Viennese “schmaltz” harmonies and string passages. The style is truly international. See the Indiana University copy of the piano score here.

Speaking of “romanticism” I wanted to mention Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastien (1911) based on a play by Gabriele D’Annunzio – the full five movement “incidental music” which is really like an Oratorio-symphony, with, for all the impressionism, some stirring climaxes, particularly as Leonard Bernstein recorded it in the 60s.

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