Friday, April 17, 2009

Puccini's Tosca, the PodCast

Earlier this week, Stuart Malina and I sat down in his living room to talk about the up-coming concert with the Harrisburg Symphony, a concert performance of Puccini’s opera, Tosca.

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You can hear our conversation here.
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The concerts are Saturday, April 25th at 8pm and Sunday, April 26th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour before each performance for a Pre-Concert Talk by Timothy Dixon, professor of music at Messiah College and conductor of the West Shore Symphony.

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More people probably hear the music of an opera before seeing a whole theatrical production of an opera -- listening to a recording or a radio broadcast before getting a chance to see it live in an opera house.

Many people who have not had a chance to experience the magic of a full theatrical performance sometimes find the fact it's usually in a foreign language confusing or off-putting. With modern technology, now, you can follow the translation of the text, line-by-line, through the "supertitles" similar to what you might think of as "closed captioning." This performance with the Harrisburg Symphony will be sung in Italian and will feature the translation in supertitles across a screen suspended over the stage: they've done this before and it works very well in the Forum, if you're wondering about that.

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Tosca is one of the most popular operas around and though Stuart does a great job boiling the plot down for you in the podcast, here's a precis of the plot:

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Act 1 - An escaped political prisoner, Cesare Angelotti, seeks shelter in the church to hide. Mario Cavaradossi arrives to work on a painting of Mary Magdalene using the likeness of Cesare’s sister, Marchesa Attavantti. Mario soon finds Cesare outside the church and rushes him back in as Tosca approaches. Tosca questions Mario in fits of suspicion and jealousy after recognizing the inspiration behind Mario’s painting. Mario assures her of his fidelity and she leaves. Mario and Cesare hear a cannon signaling the discovery of Cesare, and escape to Mario’s villa. Baron Scarpia enters the church with Tosca following. Scarpia shows her a fan with the Attavantti crest. Tosca, distraught by what she thinks is Mario’s unfaithfulness, swears vengeance upon him. Scarpia orders his men to follow her home.

Act 2 - In the Farnese Palace Scarpia is eating dinner. Scarpia’s spy, unable to find Cesare, arrives with Mario instead. After a round of questioning, Mario doesn’t speak and is sent into an adjacent room just before Tosca arrives. When she hears Mario scream, she reveals to Scarpia the whereabouts of Cesare. Mario, angry at Tosca, is taken to prison. Spoletta returns announcing that Cesare killed himself. Scarpia makes a deal with Tosca that if she lets him have her, he’ll spare Mario’s life. She agrees. Scarpia writes a note ordering a mock execution for Mario. Once Spoletta leaves, Tosca lunges at Scarpia and stabs him with a knife. She takes the note from his hand and leaves.

Act 3 - At dawn, the jailer allows Mario to write a love letter to Tosca, but when Tosca arrives with good news, the two embrace. She tells him about the mock execution and their escape. The firing squad arrives and fires a shot at Mario and quickly leaves. Tosca tells Mario to hurry, but he doesn't move. She reaches down for him and finds that the bullets were real. Spoletta arrives and proclaims Tosca has murdered Mario. In turn, she hurls herself over the castle wall and plummets to her death.

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You can read more about the opera's background here which also includes some amusing anecdotes that seem to haunt this opera - like the bouncing soprano at the very end of the opera. Or the time Maria Callas' hair caught on fire.

Another favorite story happened during Act II when Tosca sings the famous aria, Vissi d'arte (I have lived for Art) but the soprano was distracted by the baritone singing the villain, Scarpia, who kept pacing back and forth across the stage behind her. She got her revenge when she's supposed to reach for a knife on the table and stab him to death -- Scarpia then goes into his death throes clutching at the knife -- except she stabbed him instead with a banana.

You won't get to experience gems like that at the Harrisburg Symphony performance - this will be a "concert" performance, not staged, no costumes, no acting out great scenes (with or without bananas or trampolines). But a great way to experience all the wonderful music Puccini composed for his opera, not just the occasional highlight like Recondita armonia (you can see Luciano Pavarotti sing it here in this 1982 concert broadcast), or Vissi d'arte (sung here by Maria Callas).

Maria Callas is probably one of the most famous Toscas. Here's a chance for you to see a fully-staged performance of the whole of Act II from Franco Zeferelli's production recorded in 1964 at Covent Garden with Maria Callas as Tosca and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. Their recording of this scene on Angel is probably one of the most dramatically gripping I've heard. Unfortunately, they don't have 'supertitles' or closed captioning here, but if you read the plot synopsis for Act II above, you should be able to follow the action.

The illustration at the top of the post, by the way, is the original poster for the premiere of Puccini's Tosca in 1900 and captures the final moments of Act II where Tosca, after having stabbed Scarpia, places a crucifix on his chest after placing lighted candles on either side of his corpse. It's sort of like a scene from CSI: Rome, 1900.

- Dr. Dick

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