By Jonathan Darlington
By Jonathan Darlington
Puccini epitomized the neurotic ‘fin de siècle’ artist. His scores are bursting with indications of articulation and rubato and as with all neuroses, they are sometimes quite contradictory – dragging and animated or getting slower and speeding up at the same time for instance. Very often he tells you to slow down but never tells you where to pick up speed again, rather like Schumann. He wasn’t alone in these neuroses, in fact most composers at the turn of the 20th century – and pretty much ever since – began filling their scores with innumerable indications. Paradoxically I always find that the more indications one reads the more scope there is for misinterpretation!
Puccini starts all of his operas without a true prelude or overture. Right from the start the atmosphere is set, the décor painted and the action already begun. Tosca is no exception to this rule. The first few bars depict Scarpia, the motivating force of the opera, with 3 major chords – B-flat, A-flat and E, massively orchestrated tutta forza. The effect is electrifying, brutal and frightening, like the character. The interval between B-flat and E – the 1st and the 3rd chord – is known as a tritone (3 whole tones) or the Diabolus in musica (“the devil in music”). In medieval times the interval was banned because of its dissonance and hence the likelihood of the devil leaping out from his dark hiding place. When used intelligently the interval still has a deeply disturbing effect on us and certainly did when Puccini wrote his masterpiece.
This motive keeps turning up like a bad penny and a good deal of the opera revolves around it, mirroring Scarpia’s all encompassing stamp on proceedings – even after death. The three keys have a habit of appearing in important moments and are very cleverly crafted, despite the fact that Puccini was in no way an ‘intellectual’ composer. One of my favorite examples is in the first act duet between Tosca and Cavaradossi. He says Mia gelosa (“my jealous one”) and she touchingly acknowledges her fatal character flaw. It is Tosca’s Achilles heel and Scarpia uses to manipulate her into betraying her lover. I love the way that Puccini, with a glorious sleight of hand, slips into E Major (the last of the three chords). He introduces a blissfully swinging melody for the lovers surrounded by a starry, optimistic, featherlight pizzicato accompaniment while telling us subliminally that it’s all going to end in utter disaster. I really want to think that he did it on purpose!
There’s a lovely thing which Puccini apparently said about himself and which I feel sums up so much of what we experience when we see and hear one of his music dramas. He said that what he did was to place ‘great sorrows in little souls’. Those little souls in Tosca are dominated by the overwhelming power of the church and the state. As a master orchestrator, Puccini marries both of them at a simple stroke in the sound of off-stage bells. The occasion is the famous Te Deum scene at the end of the first act in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. The effect, as Scarpia (the embodiment of state repression) and the full orchestra and chorus build towards an enormous climax over the incessant tolling of the bells - and punctuated incidentally by an offstage cannon - is overpowering and sends a shudder down the spine however many times one hears it. Sheer genius!
Jonathan Darlington is Vancouver Opera's Music Director and conductor of this production of Tosca.