Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dare to be Vulgar

By all rights Victorien Sardou's drama that was subsequently adapted into opera should have been entitled Scarpia, rather than La Tosca; but such a title would have distracted attention from the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt. It is hard to imagine her putting up with such a distraction. In composing his score for the opera, however, Giacomo Puccini knew where the dramatic priorities are. In what may be his only successful adoption of Richard Wagner's leitmotiv technique, Puccini conceived of Scarpia as the one member of the cast characterized by a distinctive motif; and that motif is the very first gesture in the score. It recurs in all the proper places, even briefly in the third act after Scarpia has been dispatched (in the second act) by "Tosca's kiss;" and the symmetry of the drama is achieved as Scarpia is addressed in Tosca's final utterance.

From a narratological point of few, there is a perfectly good reason for Scarpia occupying the focus of Puccini's musical attentions: He is the epitome of vulgarity, having very few equals in the repertoire of Puccini's time or, for that matter, the remainder of the twentieth century; and by Aristotelian standards Sardou's narrative should be called a comedy, since it is almost entirely "an imitation of baser men" (along with one woman). Indeed, it would be appropriate to invoke the language that Alexander Pushkin summoned for the full title of his play about Tsar Boris Godunov and call Tosca a "comedy of distress." In the midst of the distress of the Roman monarchy under attack from Napoleon (ostensibly in the name of republican liberation, which should sound all to familiar to those of us following American military adventurism since the turn of the current century), all but the most insignificant characters are reduced to base actions at some point or other in the unfolding of the narrative. Scarpia is simply the über vulgarian, whose own base actions motivate those of the other characters (all of whom are relatively insignificant in the face of Napoleon's campaign).

It is hard to think of Puccini as celebrating the base. The problem is that, even when the score provides ample opportunities to flex its vulgar muscles, so to speak, performers tend to shy away and blunt the sharpest edges. This was evident in the current San Francisco Opera production. Conductor Marco Armiliato could have begun the performance with the same sort of obscene gesture coming from the trombone section that Dmitri Shostakovich would later summon in Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. However, it seemed as if he heard Puccini's opening gesture more in terms of the pealing of bells in the church of Sant'Andrea, rather than a foreshadowing of Scarpia's first appearance. What followed was all disappointingly bloodless, whether it involved Tosca's jealousy, Scarpia's lust, Cavaradossi's torture, or even Sciarrone taking matters into his own hands after Scarpia's body is discovered. Whether this was a matter of lackadaisical staging, singing that lacked motivic energy, or insufficient drive to move forward coming from the conductor's podium is academic.

To invoke the Olympic "wisdom" of Thomas Bach in the domain of operatic criticism, let's not kid ourselves. Tosca may have its transcendent moments (some of which may be because of Sardou but most of them are in spite of him); but, at the end of the day, "it is what it is." For the record the last time I invoked that quote from The Wire was when I was writing about Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. This is not to place Tosca and Cavaradossi on the same plane as Harold and Kumar but just as a reminder that, from that Aristotelian perspective I so value, this is a narrative that revolves almost entirely around base actions. Puccini dared to acknowledge the baseness of those actions in the score he conceived. Every now and then a performance of Tosca comes along that gives that baseness its due. Sadly, the current San Francisco Opera production does not offer such a performance.

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