Comedienne Anna Russell spoke the truth when she observed that in Grand Opera you can get away with absolutely anything "so long as you sing it!" She was speaking specifically about Wagner's Ring Cycle, but she might just as well have been thinking about Puccini's Tosca‹especially its astonishing second act. Is there another act in all of opera that can equal it for what one critic has called its "quasi-pornography"? With scenes of torture, an extended attempted rape, an onstage murder with its prolonged and noisy death, coupled with the baritone's repeated glorying in the sadistic nature of his lust‹it is an act of pure hate.
Far from trying to tone down the extreme drama for his Victorian audience, Giacomo Puccini went the other way. He always insisted that the story line of his operas be simple and straightforward, so clear that an audience who did not understand the language could, nonetheless, follow the plot and empathize with the characters. In Tosca he used this deft touch in writing theatrically vivid music to depict the violence of the opera, to keep an audience riveted by the frequent twists and turns of the plot. Time after time Puccini pulled out his bag of compositional tricks‹superbly using the orchestra to underscore the emotion of a scene; introducing offstage sounds into the action; frequently changing the dynamic level of the music to keep the audience from getting comfortable; taking the music almost to a climax then withdrawing to relax the tension before revving the music even higher.
It all ensured that listeners suffered Tosca's agonies just as fully as his heroine did onstage. Some early critics and audience members found the result offensive, but Tosca was an early hit, and has remained so ever since.
Acts I and III of Tosca take place in public, or semi-public, places. By contrast, Act II takes place in the intimacy of Scarpia's study. As Act II opens, Scarpia is alone, eating his supper, musing to himself on how he will use Tosca's love for the painter Cavaradossi to force her into his own bed. Without the necessary public façade he wore in Act I, Scarpia reveals himself as he really is: "For myself the violent conquest has stronger relish than the soft surrender. I take no delight in sighs or vows exchanged at misty lunar dawn. I pursue the craved thing, sate myself, and cast it by, then seek new bait."
This fiendish quality drives all of Scarpia's actions, especially the way he toys with Tosca throughout Act II. It would be easy for him to tell her at the outset, "Sleep with me, or I will have your beloved Mario hung at dawn and there's not a damn thing you can do about it." Instead he toys with her, as a cat toys with a mouse. Time after time he insinuates something, nudges her in the direction he wants, reveling in the horror Tosca feels as it slowly dawns on her what Scarpia wants.
When it occurs to Tosca to appeal to the Queen (for whom she has just sung) to pardon Mario, Scarpia, masterful sadist that he is, allows her plenty of time to savor the sweetness of this idea. "You're free to go," he says softly‹and the stage directions instruct: "Tosca, crying out with relief, is about to exit." He allows her to get all the way to the door before saying softly and with a smile, "The Queen would merely be pardoning a corpse."
A lesser composer might be tempted to underscore the overwhelming dread Tosca feels at that moment with great crashing chords in the orchestra. But Puccini masterfully accentuates the intimacy and awfulness of the moment by having only the second violins, violas, and cellos play a pianissimo tremolo‹as, decades later, great film composers would use eerily quiet music to illustrate terror. Neither Scarpia nor Tosca speak as the strings pulse away softly and she, according to the stage directions, "draws back in horror; then withdraws her eyes from Scarpia with a gesture of supreme contempt and hatred."
Seeing Tosca's hatred, Scarpia says quietly, "How you detest me!" To which Tosca replies, just as quietly and fervently, "Oh, God!" It has all been done as if the singers are afraid to speak too loudly until suddenly, Scarpia exclaims, "And this is how I want you!"‹his words echoed exactly by the horns, suddenly blazing forth fortissimo.
"Do not touch me, you murderer," Tosca shrieks. "I hate you! Hate you! Hate you!" Each repetition of "hate you" ("T'dio") is on a higher note: first D, then F, then G, which adds musical urgency to Tosca's words.
It is a technique Puccini uses over and over again in Act II, repeating a word or a phrase while writing the music higher and higher, heating up the drama, turning the emotional screws tighter and tighter‹only to relax just before the breaking point, and then repeat it a few moments later when the audience has recovered enough to, once again, be susceptible to the device.
Puccini understood that the audience's ears quickly become accustomed to a particular sound, or a dynamic level, so that its effectiveness is lost. An orchestra thundering away fortissimo for five minutes easily becomes boring. But an orchestra thundering away for about a dozen measures can be gripping. So as Scarpia pursues Tosca around the furniture, shouting and yelling, the orchestra mirrors the onstage action (which only lasts about two dozen measures) "fortissimo, tutta forza" or "full strength."
Then, abruptly Puccini uses another trick: he silences the orchestra totally so the characters onstage, as well as the audience, can hear a noise from offstage‹the sound of a military drum.
Tosca and Scarpia come to an abrupt stop. "Listen," Scarpia says, his words accompanied only by the offstage beating of the drum. "You hear it?" And Puccini adds the sound of two bassoons, then two clarinets from the orchestra‹just two touches of hollow instrumental timbre, underscoring the shock of the impending execution outside‹then pizzicato (plucked) cellos and basses for five measures, briefly mimicking the sound of marching feet. It's just a touch of orchestral color, just enough to emphasize the bareness of the sound, to emphasize for our ears the starkness of the tension onstage at that moment as the drama hangs by a thread.
Puccini was lavish in his stage directions, and in Tosca he provided extended scenes of pantomime where characters have almost nothing to sing, but a great deal of action, all accompanied by extraordinarily expressive music. One example of this comes at the end of Act II when Scarpia writes out the safe-conduct pass for Tosca and Cavaradossi. Puccini's stage directions read, "While Scarpia writes, Tosca walks over to the table and lifts, with a trembling hand, the glass [of wine] that Scarpia had filled; while doing so, she sees the knife on the table; after a furtive glance at Scarpia, who is still writing, she grasps the knife and very cautiously hides it behind her back, leaning against the table and still glancing at Scarpia."
There is no law that says sopranos have to follow those directions, but Puccini wrote music to describe them, including the exact moment when Tosca sees the knife. So what soprano in her right mind would turn down the opportunity to have the entire orchestra underscore her actions and emphasize her acting talents?
Today we are used to watching a film with extended scenes where no one speaks, and the action is accompanied by music that clues us in about the emotions involved. But audiences of Puccini's day had never seen such a thing, so the final scene after Scarpia's murder in which Tosca washes her hands, finds the safe-conduct letter, takes two candlesticks and places them on either side of Scarpia's outstretched hands, places the crucifix on Scarpia's chest, then suddenly hears the sound of drums in the distance, and finally slips out the door‹all accompanied by Puccini's masterfully evocative music‹well, it was simply astounding.
And for over 100 years Tosca has continued to grip audiences, thanks to Puccini's gift for writing spectacularly vivid music for the theater.
Paul Thomason is a frequent contributor to Playbill.