The Dallas Opera: Tosca and Her Church Bells

Classic Arts Features   The Dallas Opera: Tosca and Her Church Bells
The Dallas Opera's production of Tosca begins performances March 7. Conductor Anthony Barrese discusses the dramatic and musical significance of the bells in Puccini's score.

In his Memories of the Opera the famous impresario Giulio Gatti-Casazza wrote: "The celebrated orchestral leader, Leopoldo Mugnone, was an intimate friend of the Great Maestro [Verdi]. Mugnone, a raconteur of color and warmth, as a true Neapolitan should be, told me that in the summer of 1899 he was at the Springs of Montecatini at the same time as Verdi. One day, Verdi asked him why he had been going so much to the neighboring town of Pistoia.

'Why, Maestro,' said Mugnone, 'I go there to supervise the casting of the bells for Tosca, Puccini's new opera, which will be given this winter and which I shall conduct.'

'What's that? The bells of Tosca? How many bells are there and what are they used for?'

'They will be used in the third act, which pictures the awakening of Rome with the chimes of the various churches, and there are eleven of them.'

Verdi gave a start of astonishment and exclaimed, 'Eleven bells! Impossible!'

'Yes, yes, Maestro. Really eleven, you may be sure of it.'The old composer left Mugnone, murmuring as he went 'Eleven! Eleven! Per Bacco! It seems incredible.'

Some days passed, when, one morning at the Tettucio Spring Verdi inquired, 'How are your eleven bells getting along, my dear Mugnone? I believe there are eleven‹am I right?'

'They are coming along well and there are really eleven of them.' The conductor responded.

'And to think,' said the Maestro 'that when I composed Il trovatore I was so much perplexed as to whether or not I should introduce that one poor bell in the Miserere! It seemed to me that all the impresarios of that period would hurl their curses at me, so that I really don't know how at that time I decided to let it stay there. There's nothing more to say except that the world has progressed‹at least the operatic world!' "

While it is impossible to vouch for the veracity of this anecdote, we do know that an obsessive search for theatrical effects and local color in Tosca plagued Puccini almost from the beginning of his conception of the opera.

He wrote to Guido Vandini, his childhood friend in Luca, looking for a few verses in Latin to be murmured by the congregation during before the final Act I Te Deum.

When no reply was forthcoming, Puccini redoubled his efforts in another letter: "I said I wanted some words to be murmured, therefore I want them.... Tell the Bishop to invent something for me. If he doesn't, I'll write to the Pope and have him fined like an imbecile clerk!"

Not satisfied with these threats he wrote a series of postscripts to the letter in an increasingly mock hysterical tone: "Get the words for me or I'll become a Protestant!" "If you don't send me these prayers I'll compose a funeral march for religion!" And even: "Either you'll get these verses or I shall blaspheme for the rest of my life!"

Puccini also turned to priest and friend Don Pietro Panichelli, then residing in Rome. To Panichelli, Puccini confided that he knew full well that it was not usual to say or sing anything before the solemn Te Deum. What mattered, from Puccini's perspective, was seizing any available means to heighten the scene's dramatic impact.

Panichelli provided him with some verses which were "very beautiful but lacking in the phonic accents needed to penetrate the sound of the organ and church bells." In the end, Puccini sacrificed authenticity for dramatic effect, using a biblical patchwork selected from Psalm 46, Genesis, and the Doxology.

The most important "effect" in Tosca, however, is the use of church bells in their various manifestations. Puccini consistently uses bells both as a structural building block in the music and as dramatic coloring. Accompanying the Sacristan's recitation of the Angelus in Act I, a single pitch, F, serves simultaneously to paint a religious atmosphere for the drama, and as a pedal around which distant tonalities can be explored.

In Scarpia and Tosca's Act I duet, the bells come in and out‹periodically stating a typical bell "toll" which the orchestra takes up and develops melodically. Dramatically, they serve to invite the congregation to Mass.

In Scarpia's famous monologue preceding the Te Deum, Puccini elaborates on the compositional devices first explored in the Angelus. Now, two bells (B-flat and F) are hammered into the aural consciousness of the listener for 73 measures allowing Puccini an even greater freedom to delve into tonally distant areas; slithering around the two anchor points as the depth of Scarpia's lust for Tosca is revealed against a backdrop of sublime religious solemnity. Adding to the fervor, two very distinct B-flat and A-flat bells ring out during the Te Deum proper, as the chorus reaches its most pronounced display of religious ecstasy.

Shortly thereafter, Scarpia blasphemously declares one of the most famous lines in all of opera: "Tosca you make me forget God!" However, given the cannon shots, chorus, organ, and full orchestra, the effect of these two bells is oftentimes drowned out completely.

Roman Dawn

As mentioned above, the third act of Tosca calls for eleven different bells during the depiction of the "Roman dawn" (Much later, four strokes on a single bell will indicate 4 a.m., the assigned time for Cavaradossi's execution.). More often than not, in modern performances, Puccini's specificity is either altogether ignored or relegated to a pre-recorded sound effect. The great conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni famously lamented that the positions are often "ignored out of laziness, or lack of space in the wings caused by the accumulation of other stage props, or through the lack of assistant conductors." Puccini's vagueness in matters of spatially placing the bells does not help matters and translating his score markings into actual sound can prove a daunting task. He indiscriminately writes lontanissimo (very far away), pi‹ vicino (closer), pi‹ lontano (further away), but it is not exactly clear‹closer to what? Further away from what?

Depending on one's interpretation of the markings, there are any number of final position points from which a music director can choose. Since it would be impossible to employ eleven musicians (each with their own bell and placement backstage), the more common solution is to have fewer musicians controlling more bells. A standard set of modern chimes includes 12 different bells. At that point it is up to percussionist to bring out the various shades of "closer," "further away," and "very far away."

Origin of the bells

In an early draft of the libretto, Giuseppe Giacosa wrote out a very detailed description of the Roman dawn scene citing specific churches and distances of bells. A brief excerpt is telling:

Very far away, far upstage the sound of a bell calling morning weakly comes from the church of San Pietro Montorio: after a brief interval, the small bell from the Sant'Onofrio convent immediately responds from center stage on the right: then alone again, and more quickly, very near, and on the left, the bell of the Chiesa de' Miracoli tolls morning.

Giacosa's layout so closely matches Puccini's in terms of attention to sonic and spatial detail that it almost reads as a verbal representation of what Puccini ultimately composed. Of course, the transformation from words to music entailed (and continues to entail) many problems.

In addition to Gatti-Cassaza's unconfirmed anecdote, we have concrete evidence as to just how much difficulty the original production team had in bringing Puccini's musical ideas to life. For the first production Puccini and his collaborators sought out bells from three different Italian factories, as well as one in London. By far, the most troublesome bell to locate must have been the large low-E bell, the er campanone of St. Peter's Basilica. Finding the exact pitch of that bell was to prove a labor of love for the composer's friend Panichelli.

Some time in late 1897, Puccini asked Panichelli if he could locate the pitch of er campanone. Through the investigative efforts of one Maestro Meluzzi (who Panichelli describes as "an old musician, a real celebrity of religious music, Roman by birth") Panichelli was able to write triumphantly to Puccini in December 1897: "Eureka! I have found it. Maestro Meluzzi has assured me that that torn, indistinct, confused, elusive tone of the St. Peter's bell is an E natural."

One of the biggest problems in recreating the exact tone that Puccini asks for is in the nature of the bell he was seeking to imitate. Orchestral bells in no way resemble church bells. The former are lengthy and tubular, giving very distinct pitches, while the latter's girth contributes to pitch imprecision. The note that Puccini writes for er campanone is so low as to be unattainable by even the largest of modern tubular bells.

Michael Udow, a professional chime manufacturer in Santa Fe, has estimated that to achieve the specific pitch that is required would necessitate a tubular bell thirty feet in length! A bell that long would take up enormous space backstage and would not even have a recognizable pitch center.

Short of using an electronic sound effect or getting the bell on loan from the Vatican, the most plausible option is to use a bell an octave higher. At an impressive fifteen feet it still has the aural "weight" to convey the grandeur of St. Peter's Basilica and to impart to the audience the dramatic gravity of Cavaradossi's heartrending farewell to his beloved Tosca and to life itself.

Anthony Barrese is the Conductor of The Dallas Opera's Tosca.

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