Based on an 1887 play by Victorien Sardou, Tosca, with music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica originally premiered in Rome in January 1900.
Cesare Angelotti has escaped from prison, and is helped into hiding by a friend, the artist Mario Cavaradossi, the lover of acclaimed singer Floria Tosca. The sinister Baron Scarpia tries to convince Tosca that Cavaradossi is cheating on her, hoping she’ll give up the whereabouts of Angelotti to get back at him. But things don’t always work out as intended.
We’re basing this discussion on the 2023 Opera North production at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, directed by Edward Dick. It starred Magdalena Molendowska as Tosca, Andrés Presno as Cavaradossi, and Robert Hayward as Scarpia.
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
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Francis: Good whatever time of day it is!
Traxy: Likewise. We’re doing Tosca again?
F: Yes. I would like to hear more about the version you saw last month, and after we finished the other one I had an idea for a topic. This month is busy for both of us as well, so I figured Tosca being fresh in both our minds would be ideal for a quick discussion.
T: Sounds good to me.
F: Let’s get to it. You have seen a previous production from Opera North, Wagner’s Parsifal, and you weren’t impressed by the concert staging.
T: Correct. Funnily enough, the guy who sang Scarpia was King Amfortas in that production.
F: Could you tell him apart this time?
T: … Yes. All the main characters wore different attire, so that helped. What’s interesting to me is that all but four performances had Giselle Allen as Tosca and Mykhailo Malafii as Cavaradossi, and two of those performances were the Nottingham ones, so the people you see in the videos and promotional photos on the website aren’t the same people that we saw on stage.
F: Good or bad?
T: Good! I saw a clip of E lucevan le stelle on Facebook and wasn’t that taken by it, to be honest, but the one on stage was great.
F: And Tosca?
F: Glad to hear it. Scarpia?
T: Creepy as all hell!
F: This is good news!
T: Tell me about it. Really enjoyed it. Tosca’s extremely sparkly red dress in the second act? Where can I get one of those? Because I want one!
F: Was this at the same venue as Parsifal?
T: No, it’s next door. It’s called the Royal Centre. Parsifal was at the Royal Concert Hall, which I think opened in the early 1980s. It’s not particularly pretty inside, but it’s functional. The Theatre Royal is from the 1870s or something like that. It’s rather pretty inside, very ornate and very green, but people were smaller 200 years ago.
T: Seating was awful. Obviously if you’re above a certain size you’re going to encounter chairs that are too small, because you’re larger than average, so it was entirely expected that sitting down would be awkward. Or rather, squeezing in and having the armrests dig into your hips is expected. Fun fact: when you have lipoedema, it’s really painful. One side actually had bruises for days afterwards.
T: But like I said, it’s expected. People used to be smaller in general. The bigger problem was actually leg room.
F: Ah, leg room! That’s a struggle I know very well!
T: Yeah, there wasn’t any.
F: Wait, wait, wait. No leg room? I thought you weren’t super tall?
T: I’m not.
F: But you had no leg room?
T: None whatsoever. The back of the chair in front dug into my leg, just below the knee, and that area was tender for a week afterwards. Trying to find a position, in an almost sold out performance, where you are reasonably comfortable without encroaching too much on the stranger next to you, or forcing your partner into an even more awkward position, or the person in front of you having your knees on their back? Surprisingly difficult.
T: So you’re sat on a sloping balcony with low ceiling above you, your legs seizing up from your impromptu new career as a contortionist, in an almost sold out little theatre, and it gets claustrophobic. I’ve never been happier that there were two intervals during an otherwise not very long performance, because we really needed the leg stretcher!
F: Was this your first time at this venue?
T: No, but last time was probably a good decade ago, at least, and we have always been in the stalls before this, and I’m told the spacing down there is a lot better. I think this was the first time in the upper circle.
F: Why were you in the upper circle anyway?
T: First time I looked for tickets, the stalls were a lot more expensive, and when I looked again they were almost sold out.
F: So you got the cheap seats and found out why they were the cheap seats?
T: Yeah, I guess you could say that. I think we’re looking at not going there again, unless we can get good price seating in the stalls. Sadly, no opera is better than painfully seated opera that makes your body ache for a week after the fact.
F: Yeah, you gotta be able to enjoy it. I do agree with you on that. Even though I prefer seeing opera live, if the choice is between being comfortable at home on the couch watching a DVD or spend the entire time in agony because they didn’t factor in people over six feet, I choose the DVD. If Enrico Caruso himself came back to life for a one night only performance … I might make an exception.
T: Goes without saying.
F: Now, I’m looking at photos of the staging. What’s with the bed?
T: Act 2, Scarpia’s place. It worked really well. They worked the four poster thing into the choreography. What really impressed me was actually when she stabbed him, because he dies draped over the back – or should that be front front? – of the bed, bleeding down on the floor, and you could see the puddle slowly increasing in size and starting to wind its way down the stage. It looked gruesome, but in a cool way. They didn’t just go “stabby stabby ‘This is Tosca’s kiss!’ stabby stabby” with no blood, nor did they dye the shirt a bit red, they went for it, and the result was incredibly memorable. There were content warnings on the TV screens in the foyer beforehand!
F: Sounds like they did good. I would have liked to have seen that.
T: With a bit of luck they filmed one of the performances.
F: Wishful thinking.
T: Time will tell. What I also quite liked was the lighting of candles in act 1, that gave it all a churchy vibe. To put it bluntly, of the three different versions of Tosca I’ve seen now, this was hands down my favourite.
F: Oh wow, that is a surprise! I expected Teatro Real to still be on top.
T: So did I, because I loved the cast of that one, but the staging here just tipped the scales for me. And let’s face it, the naked woman walking around on stage was bizarre.
F: But very European.
T: No, just bizarre. Granted, I still think the chemistry between Radvanovsky and Calleja is unbeatable, because they really sell you on the passion between these characters, but Molendowska and Presno were a good second, no doubt about it. Molendowska’s Tosca made it clear that whatever she was doing with Scarpia would be against her wishes, but what choice does she have?
F: That’s exactly right. How did her jealousy play out?
T: It got a good laugh from the audience, her insistence that the portrait of the Madonna should have dark eyes. I enjoyed that. It seemed playful and flirty rather than jealously demanding.
F: That would be my preference too. Tosca is a proud and jealous woman, sure, but why wouldn’t she flirt with her lover?
T: What’s love without a bit of banter, eh?
F: What indeed. Do you think making the blue eyes black is a reasonable request?
T: If she existed as told, the Virgin Mother was Middle Eastern so her eyes were probably brown. Like, the image we have of a fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus is pretty ridiculous when you think about it. Not to say there weren’t any blue-eyed native Middle Easterners in them days, because there might have been, I don’t know, but it would probably have been unusual. Then again, the Vikings got around.
F: Sure, but you’re approaching my question as if I asked you if it would be historically accurate to change the eyes. My question was whether Tosca was right to demand the artist change the painting’s eye color because she was jealous of the Contessa Attavanti being used as the model for it. Authenticity is one thing. I’m talking jealousy.
T: No harm in asking and she’s not at fault for having an opinion, but yeah, it is a little silly, if you ask me. Considering the Attavanti family had their own part of the church, it’s kind of fitting that the painting bears the Contessa’s liking. In a sort of “Cesare Borgia as the image of Jesus” kind of way.
F: You’re still trying to rationalize it.
T: So sue me. Do you think it’s a reasonable request?
F: It’s harmless enough. Could have been worse. She could have demanded he re-paint the whole thing in her image. Now that would have been … unwise.
T: Because she was clearly a local celebrity?
F: Yeah, people would look at her and go “hey look, it’s Floria Tosca!” no doubt.
T: I’m not entirely clued up on Catholicism and all that, but umm … something tells me they probably wouldn’t be into that. It feels like it would be disrespectful.
F: On the other hand, Scarpia being so closely tied to the church, and being into Tosca, there could be room for an exception.
T: You always find room for exceptions when someone has money.
F: Too right. Are you a jealous person?
T: Not really? Are you?
F: Nah. Way I see it, if you can’t trust your partner, why are you with them? What’s the point? You should be able to trust your partner and your partner’s commitment to you. If I feel the need to check her phone to see if she’s flirting with some other guy, there’s no reason for us to be together.
T: You’re kind of black and white when it comes to relationships, I’ve noticed.
F: Life is short. I ain’t got the time or the will to waste it on the wrong people.
T: What if you don’t know they’re the wrong people, though? Sometimes people marry and a decade or two down the line they divorce, because perhaps they were right for each other at the time and then grew apart.
F: That’s valid. I’m talking about when the signs are there from the get go. I don’t believe in getting married because you ran out things to talk about. Or settling for someone because you’re afraid of dying alone or you feel lonely. Sure it sucks being lonely but you can be lonely in a relationship too. No. I don’t believe in wasting my time, and I don’t believe in wasting anyone else’s either. One person wants kids, one doesn’t? Don’t waste your time waiting for the other person to change their mind, because you might be waiting forever and then at least one person’s gonna be disappointed.
T: Having children is one of those things you can’t really compromise on either. You can’t exactly get one to see if it’s for you and hand them back if it’s not.
F: “But I got the receipt!” Yeah, it don’t work like that. Don’t string people along. You could both do better. Also, I once had a girlfriend who kept thinking I was in bed with someone else if I didn’t pick up the moment she called, and handling raw chicken was no excuse, or being on the can, or … pick any reason why you never picked up the phone right away.
T: Sounds exhausting.
F: It was. We didn’t last.
T: I can see why. Some people seem to think they live inside a soap opera. Every little thing is blown way out of proportion and becomes this massive drama. It’s not my cup of tea.
F: Does your husband know your passwords?
T: Ehhh, that’s misleading. Even I don’t necessarily know my passwords off the top of my head. Does he know the passcode to my computer or phone? Yes. And I know his. If he’s driving he might ask me to use an app on his phone that I don’t have myself, for instance. Likewise, maybe I’ll ask him to reboot my desktop or something. No biggy. He can go through my messages all he likes, there’s nothing in there for him to worry about.
F: You mean you don’t send nudes to random people?
T: I really don’t, no. Cat pictures and memes? Yes.
F: I don’t either, but I don’t go on social media much anyway.
T: You actually have a life.
F: I do.
T: Congratulations! A lot of the rest of us are more “I wish I knew how to quit you”.
F: Delete the app and log out. It’s very simple.
T: I know, I know.
F: Anyway, there is more to Tosca than being a jealous lover.
T: She has a great character arc.
F: There are bigger things to worry about than the color of a painting’s eyes.
T: Definitely. It may seem strange, but a thing I kind of like about Tosca is that while it ends in tragedy, at least it means she’s reunited with Cavaradossi in the Great Beyond. It’s comforting, somehow, to know they can be together forever.
F: And here’s me thinking I’m the sentimental one.
T: Takes one to know one, my friend.
F: Which opera would you like us to delve into next?
T: Something new. Well, something I haven’t seen before. We sang the wedding chorus from Lucia di Lammermoor during the Sing into Spring thing on Zoom, but I haven’t actually seen that one yet. It would be fun to see that song in context.
F: Donizetti. I approve. Sure, let’s do that. Until next time, a presto!