When operas turn up on a symphony orchestra’s season prospectus, some listeners are thrilled, and others—those who believe that the business of an orchestra is the great symphonic repertory—don’t quite see the point. Opera, they would argue, is a specialized, theatrical art that requires a small army of carpenters, electricians, designers, directors, and coaches to stage, and those are just the people you don’t see. Out in the house, the audience is focused primarily on the singers, and the world they are creating on the stage; the orchestra, relegated to the pit in an opera house, is of secondary interest; moreover, in some of the operatic canon, the orchestra is used, for long stretches, as little more than a magnified mandolin.
But that argument, however logical it may seem, is also remarkably shortsighted, and every now and then conductors like Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who believe that opera is a crucial element of musical life, make that point by programming one of the major works. In the greatest operas, after all, the orchestra is a character in the drama—more than that, really: Think of it as a kind of three-dimensional, interactive map that not only shows all the characters and the relationships between them, but also tells us what they are thinking, feeling, and planning. How better to demonstrate the orchestra’s role in conveying the work’s psychological underpinnings than to have one of the world’s great ensembles present the score in the best possible light?
That, certainly, is what lies behind Nézet-Séguin’s decision to lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca on May 12, 16, and 19. Like his 2014 presentation of Richard Strauss’s Salome, this Tosca will be symphonically staged, with James Alexander directing a starry cast that includes Jennifer Rowley in the title role; Yusif Eyvazov as Tosca’s lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi; and Ambrogio Maestri as Scarpia, the heartless chief of police in this story of revolution and repression, love and lust, set in Rome in 1800 during the Napoleonic wars.
Tosca has a special relevance now, set as it is in a country caught between radically different political ideas (the Republicanism of Napoleon, the royalism of the Hapsburgs), and depicting Tosca as the object of a powerful man’s lust, believing that Cavaradossi’s life depends on whether she succumbs. Tosca’s #MeToo moment is violent—“This is Tosca’s kiss,” is how she describes it as she stabs him. But Scarpia’s mendacity triumphs, nevertheless—unless you interpret her final line as she leaps from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo, “Oh Scarpia! Before God!,” as a promise that the battle will continue on a higher plane of existence.
These performances are not The Philadelphia Orchestra’s first encounters with Tosca: Riccardo Muti, whose opera performances with the Philadelphians are among the most memorable concerts of his tenure, presented the work in 1991. Eugene Ormandy conducted the full opera in 1953, and singers have performed its most popular arias with the Orchestra going as far back as 1912—12 years after the work’s premiere—when Edna Harwood Baugher sang Tosca’s wrenching second act aria, “Vissi d’arte.”
Tosca is a magnificent object lesson in how central the orchestra’s role really is. There is no curtain-raising overture here. Instead, Puccini plunges directly into the drama, and to do that, he has the orchestra work its magic with three imposing, fortissimo chords—B-flat major, A-flat major, and E major, the last marked tutta forza and underscored with tremolando strings and timpani—followed by tense, descending figures, during which Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner, runs into the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.
The music just described accounts for the opera’s first 15 seconds, but it is packed with information. The three chords, which we will hear throughout the opera in many guises, represent Scarpia, who, besides pursuing Angelotti, has designs on Tosca, the great diva of the time.
As the opera unfolds, we will learn how vile Scarpia is, but at this point—before he is even seen onstage—Puccini has told plenty with those three chords. The distance between the first and last is the musical interval of an augmented fourth, known as diabolus in musica, or the devil in music. But even if you’re not up on your music theory, the chords sound terrifying. And by putting them first, Puccini shows us that Scarpia will loom menacingly over the whole drama.
Angelotti’s theme shows us what that terror feels like on the receiving end. A few moments later, when his friend Cavaradossi tells him of a well in his garden where he can hide, we hear Scarpia’s chords again—this time in a fleeting, light-textured version that dissolves gently, showing us both Angelotti’s fear and loathing of his pursuer, even as he begins to believe that he may have found safety. Puccini accompanies the discussion of the well with a rising, five-note motif, which we hear again in Act II when Scarpia forces Tosca to reveal the hiding place—tentatively and gently at first, as she resists, then in a fast, loud burst when she finally tells him (and again when Scarpia sadistically reveals to Cavaradossi that she has).
The score is packed with these touches. Cavaradossi’s first aria, “Recondita armonia,” persuades us of the depth of his love for Tosca, but one of its motifs turns up, transformed, later in the first act, when Scarpia, in a deceptively courtly gesture, offers Tosca holy water. Tosca’s own love motif, first heard in Act I when she enters the church in search of Cavaradossi, is also hauntingly present in Act II when Scarpia weaves his web around her as Cavaradossi is heard being tortured.
No character is too insignificant to have a telling motif. The minor character of the Sacristan, in Act I, for example, is portrayed as a bumbling old man, with a silly theme that suits him; yet there are hints of menace around his music, too, because his sympathies are with the State and Scarpia, rather than with Napoleon’s Republican advocates like Cavaradossi and Angelotti.
You might think that conveying the characters’ thoughts in his orchestral score would have been enough to keep Puccini busy, but he lavished nearly as much attention on depicting Rome, the opera’s setting. When the choristers sing a Te Deum at the end of Act I, Puccini took care to use the Te Deum melody that was actually sung at the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where the entire act takes place.
He also researched the bells of Rome’s many churches and how they would sound from the Castel Sant’Angelo, where Act III takes place. He wove those bells into the depiction of dawn at the start of the act—ending on the low E of the largest bell of St. Peter’s Basilica, which sounds during the orchestral introduction to Cavardossi’s aria of love and despair, “È lucevan le stelle.”
Given all this carefully crafted detail, it seems odd that Joseph Kerman, in his indispensable book Opera as Drama, dismisses Tosca as a “shabby little shocker.” One thing that bothered Kerman, and has bothered other commentators, is the work’s final page. As Tosca stands on the castle’s parapet, about to jump to her death, you might expect the work to end as it began, with a triumphant burst of Scarpia’s three chords. Instead, Puccini has the orchestra return to the strains of Cavardossi’s despondent “È lucevan le stelle.”
But let’s give Puccini the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he considered a return to the Scarpia chords but found that too tidy and obvious a solution. Scarpia is dead, and Tosca’s next move is her own final act of defiance. Though she was not present when Cavaradossi sang his aria, the sentiments it expresses are now hers as well. This is their tragic but unified moment, and Scarpia’s malevolence has no power over it. It may not be the ending you expect, but it’s pretty close to perfect.
Allan Kozinn writes frequently about music and musicians.