Friends and Comrades

Cavaradossi is sacrificing his life for his brave friend, not his jealous lover. As he prepares to die for his politics, why is he then singing about making love and not about fighting for freedom?

The very first thing to stress about Puccini’s melodramma is that Tosca (1900) “is by far the most obviously ‘historical’ opera in the active repertoire” (Susan Vandiver Nicassio, Tosca’s Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective, 1999, p. 2). Set against the background of the French Revolutionary Wars, the plot revolves around historical events following the fall of the Parthenopean Republic in Naples (January 1798-June 1799) and takes place in Rome under the control of the Neapolitans, supported by the British and Austrians. On 14 June 1800, three days before the story begins, Napoleon’s outnumbered troops defeated the Austrian forces at the Battle of Marengo. News of the surprise victory reaches Rome in Act II of the opera.

Both Victorien Sardou’s hit play La Tosca (1887) and the libretto narrow down “the time of the action to just over sixteen hours from a few minutes before midday on 17 June … to a few minutes after dawn on 18 June” in 1800 (p. 2). The story begins with Angelotti’s escape from the fortress-prison Castel Sant’Angelo and ends with Mario Cavaradossi’s execution and Tosca’s suicide there. Thus both play and opera observe closely the classical unities of time, place, and action, which makes for a gripping dramatic pace, intensified by an elaborate use of leitmotifs.

At the very start of the work, Angelotti, a Consul of the late Roman Republic (1798-99), is a fugitive political prisoner who has just escaped and is wanted by the secret police. Mario is an old friend whose republican beliefs include political liberalism and religious skepticism. When he discovers Angelotti hiding, he immediately comes out of his immersion in love and art (whose “mysterious way” to blend “the contrasting beauties together” he just praised in the opening aria “Recondita armonia”/Concealed harmony) to protect him, offering him shelter in his villa. Later, when he is arrested and questioned by the chief of police under torture, Mario denies any knowledge of his comrade and defiantly hails liberty as soon as the news of the French victory arrives. Because of his radical politics, he is sentenced to death for treason.

Before his execution, Mario writes a farewell letter to Tosca. In Luigi Illica’s libretto, he reads aloud his letter where he expresses his political conviction by praising revolutionary liberty. In Puccini’s very different version, words fail Mario, who cannot write the letter and drifts into erotic memories of sense experiences. In Giocosa’s verses, which made it into the opera at Puccini’s insistence, he still recalls a tryst and laments the sudden loss of physical love (Deborah Ellen Burton, An Analysis of Puccini’s Tosca : A Heuristic Approach to the Unifying Elements of the Opera, 1995, pp. 43-79). The political circumstances of this historic day, which were retained in the play, have been obliterated in the opera.

In Act II Tosca famously sings Vissi d’ arte, vissi d’amore/I lived for art, I lived for love, which is perfectly consistent with the diva’s character. In Act III Mario should sing Vissi d’arte, muoio per amicizia/I die for friendship or, even better, muoio per libertà/I die for liberty, to be consistent with the painter’s character.* Instead, he infamously falls into private memories and recalls, starting in mid-sentence and a monotone, the stars shining and the beloved falling into his arms. More than any other part of the work, this wrenching aria shows that, while Sardou’s drama is based on the tragic opposition between royalist tyranny and republican liberty, Puccini’s opera is based on the melodramatic polarity of evil lust vs. good love.  That is why Cavaradossi is made to sing not about freedom, for which he is giving his life, but about a tryst.  This approach is not surprising from the composer who would soon turn David Belasco’s one-act Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan (1900) into yet another melodrama, with the same title (1904).

In German, British, and French Romantic tragedy of late 18th to late 19th century the friend is also a comrade: the rebel fights for freedom together with his friend. Melodrama killed the friend, along with revolutionary politics, and promoted instead empathy for tormented lovers. In Puccini’s opera, Angelotti is killed by Tosca, his friend’s lover. Pantelis Polychronidis, my friend and comrade, understands.

* I owe the Italian and much more to Francesca Schironi, a wonderful faculty in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan who spans admirably classical reception from Bacchylides to Berio.

April 4, 2015
Original Italian  

E lucevan le stelle …
ed olezzava la terra
stridea l’uscio dell’orto …
e un passo sfiorava la rena …
Entrava ella fragrante,
mi cadea fra le braccia.

O! dolci baci, o languide carezze,
mentr’io fremente le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!
Svanì per sempre il sogno mio d’amore.
L’ora è fuggita, e muoio disperato!
E muoio disperato!
E non ho amato mai tanto la vita,
tanto la vita!

Literal translation

And the stars were shining,
And the earth was scented.
The gate of the garden creaked
And a footstep grazed the sand…
Fragrant, she entered
And fell into my arms.

Oh, sweet kisses and languorous caresses,
While feverishly I stripped the beautiful form of its veils!
Forever, my dream of love has vanished.
That moment has fled, and I die in desperation.
And I die in desperation!
And I never before loved life so much,
Loved life so much!

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