The sacred and the profane

Today I return to opera for the first time since early March, and once again the moments I’ve chosen come from the work of Puccini.  Tosca was first performed in Rome in January of 1900, and it takes place in that very city a century earlier.  The trio of main characters includes Floria Tosca, an opera singer; her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, a politically engaged painter; and Baron Scarpia, the chief of police and one of opera’s truly despicable characters.  All three come to unhappy ends.  (See complete plot details here).

Title page of the first edition of the piano score for Tosca, published by G. Ricordi (Artwork by Adolfo Hohenstein)
Title page of the first edition of the piano score for Tosca, published by G. Ricordi. Check out the snake coiling through and around the ‘O’! (Artwork by Adolfo Hohenstein)

While Tosca has some of the most glorious arias in opera–Recondita armonia, Vissi d’arte, E lucevan le stelle–my favorite part is the set piece that closes Act I (the action described in the blue text, below, and presented in the embedded video clip).  I’ll try to set the context as concisely as possible.

It’s June of 1800. Italy has been under the dominion of the Hapsburg dynasty for some time, but Napoleon has emerged as a threat to the status quo and Rome is in chaos, without a clear ruler. Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, has become the highest authority. He is loyal to the King and Queen of Naples and wants to crush any supporters of Napoleon’s attempts to establish a secular Roman Republic.

Act I opens inside the church of Sant’ Andrea alla Valle.  Angelotti, a Napoleon sympathizer, has just escaped from the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he had been imprisoned by Scarpia. Angelotti’s sister has hidden a disguise for him in the church, where Cavaradossi is working on a painting of Mary Magdalene.  Cavaradossi recognizes Angelotti; he shares his politics, and promises to help him escape, but is surprised by a visit from Tosca. Angelotti hides while Cavaradossi has a hurried conversation with Tosca. She’s suspicious of her lover’s cautious behavior: is he seeing another woman? Cavaradossi soothes her fears and they make plans to spend the evening together. After Tosca has left, cannon fire signals that Angelotti’s escape has been discovered. Cavaradossi and Angelotti leave for Cavaradossi’s villa.

News–false, as it turns out–arrives of Napoleon’s defeat by the Austrians.  Preparations for a celebratory concert featuring Tosca begin, but Scarpia arrives searching for Angelotti. He and his henchman find a woman’s fan belonging to Angelotti’s sister.  When Tosca returns to see Cavaradossi,  his absence further inflames her jealousy. Scarpia, cold-hearted creep that he is, preys on her suspicions by showing her the fan. When she leaves, Scarpia orders his agent Spoletta to follow her. As the congregation assembles for the Te Deum, Scarpia states his two-pronged plan: to eliminate Cavaradossi and have Tosca for himself.

When I saw Tosca for the first time, at the Opernhaus in Zürich almost 22 years ago, I was blown away by this scene: by the gorgeous melody, in triplets, played by the strings and woodwinds; by the organ; by the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane: the lecherous Scarpia schemes as the devout sing a Christian hymn of praise and the altar boys swing censers; by the menacing chords–Scarpia’s leitmotif–played tutta forza to end the scene.  This, to me, is the epitome of compelling theatre, both visually and musically.

YouTube has many clips of this scene, some of sub par quality.  The one I’ve chosen, below, is of Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh bass-baritone, in a performance at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, London. [Although the clip includes a superimposed English translation, I’ve included a side-to-side presentation of the Italian and English (and Latin!) texts as well.]

Tre sbirri, una carrozza…Presto, seguila
Dovunque vada, non visto. Provvedi!

Sta bene! Il convegno?

Palazzo Farnese!
Va, Tosca!
Nel tuo cuor s’annida Scarpia!…
Va, Tosca. È Scarpia che scioglie a volo
il falco della tua gelosia.
Quanta promessa nel tuo pronto sospetto!
Nel tuo cuor s’annida Scarpia!…
Va, Tosca!

Adjutorum nostrum in nomine Domini
Qui fecit coelum et terram
Sit nomen Domini benedictum
Et hoc nunc et usquem in saeculum.

A doppia mira tendo il voler,
Né il capo del ribelle è la più preziosa.
Ah di quegli occhi vittoriosi
Veder la fiamma illanguidir
Con spasimo d’amor,
Fra le mie braccia illanguidir d’amor
L’uno al capestro,
l’altra fra le mie braccia…

Te Deum laudamus:
Te Dominum confitemur!

Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!

Te aeternum Patrem
omnis terra veneratur!

Three men and a carriage…Quick, follow
Wherever she goes! And take care!

Yes, sir. And where do we meet?

Palazzo Farnese!
Go, Tosca!
Now Scarpia digs a nest within your heart!
Go, Tosca. Scarpia now sets loose
The roaming falcon of your jealousy!
How great a promise in your quick suspicions!
Now Scarpia digs a nest within your heart!
Go, Tosca!

In the name of the Lord, our God
Who made heaven and earth
Blessed be His name
From this time now and for evermore.

My will takes aim now at a double target,
Nor is the rebel’s head the bigger prize.
Ah, to see the flame of those imperious eyes
Grow faint and languid with passion
For him, the rope,
And for her, my arms…

We praise thee, O God:
We acknowledge thee to be the Lord!

Tosca, you make me forget God!

All the earth doth worship thee:
The Father everlasting!

Trivia tidbit: As previously noted, all does not end well for the three main characters: Scarpia is murdered, Cavaradossi is executed by firing squad, and Tosca leaps to her death from the parapet of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, pictured below. In a post on his blog, The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross takes a close look at the Castel Sant’Angelo from several angles and wonders whether Tosca could actually have survived her jump.


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