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Opera Chats: Tosca – Taking justifiable homicide into your own hands

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 escapes from prison, and is helped into hiding by a friend, the artist Mario Cavaradossi, who is 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 2021 Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper production at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, directed by Martin Kušej. It starred Kristīne Opolais as Tosca, Jonathan Tetelman as Cavaradossi, and Gábor Bretz as Scarpia.

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

■ ■ ■

Francis: Hey there and welcome to the corner of the internet where we talk about matters inspired by various operas.

Traxy: Howdy! To be honest, I have no idea what this production is meant to spark a conversation about, because, umm …

F: It’s a weird-ass production?

T: Umm, yeah. Basically.

F: Seeing as how I ain’t privy to seeing Opera North’s production, unless they put it on a DVD or online somewhere, this had to do.

T: Oh yeah, spoiler alert for anyone reading this: Mr T and I went to see Tosca earlier this month. Except, of course, by the time we’re having this discussion we haven’t actually seen it yet, but we will have done by the time this is posted. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey and all that.

F: Yeah, and seeing a version of Tosca beforehand was to refresh your memory of it, because you’ve only seen it once before.

T: Twice, technically, but it was the same production.

F: Which was the Teatro Real production we talked about before.

T: Yes indeed.

F: How do Opolais and Tetelman compare to Radvanovsky and Calleja? On second thought, I don’t think you need to answer that. I know what you’re going to say.

T: That these performers were excellent, but I much preferred the others?

F: The staging helped a lot, but Radvanovsky as Tosca is perfection.

T: And Calleja?

F: He’s good too, but is he perfection?

T: … Yes? I mean I thought those two had more believable passion between them, for starters.

F: On that we can agree. To describe this production, we have to start with … oof. I don’t know where to start.

T: The snow? The caravan? The tree with a limbless torso strapped to it? The dog running across the stage?

F: Didn’t mind the dog.

T: No, the dog was cool.

F: But the rest of it.

T: “What the actual fuck”, amirite?

F: Yeah. That. It takes place in a church but it’s outside in the snow by a murder tree.

T: In June.

F: Nah, that it clearly ain’t June ain’t the main concern.

T: The murder tree and the caravan are bigger issues?

F: Oh yeah.

T: Scarpia lives in a caravan? Like, I’m sorry what?! Does not compute.

F: A surprisingly spacious one at that. Lotta room.

T: No tables, no built-in cabinets, just empty space. That’s usually not how caravans are configured. You can’t really fit a chair in there.

F: I think it sounds like someone has experience of these things?

T: Someone spent her childhood holidays in a caravan going around Sweden. It got pretty crowded when there were five of us.

F: You mean it wasn’t bigger on the inside? Or open on one side?

T: It really wasn’t, no. At least when it was just my parents and I, I could go sit in the car and listen to music by myself to get some alone time.

F: Introverts gonna introvert.

T: Yeah. Didn’t know about that stuff at the time. But anyway. What else was there about this production that was puzzling?

F: The Sacristan reminded me of that insurrection shaman guy.

T: Oh, gods. Yeah. I know the one you mean. But I don’t remember that guy humping a mound of snow.

F: If he did, it sure didn’t make the news. Humping mounds of snow, running around the snow with no clothes on, and no one dies of hypothermia.

T: Magic! Are we going to mention the wandering lady? The lady who wasn’t naked, but was in fact the Marchesa Attavanti?

F: Who seemed to be a prisoner and in the end shoots Tosca instead of letting her sacrifice herself? That wandering lady who was in fact the Marchesa Attavanti?

T: Yeah, that one. I imagine you doing something right about now akin to that gif of Richard Castle wanting to object to something but then immediately changes his mind.

F: You would be correct.

T: Would you agree that this production was both restrained and unhinged at the same time?

F: Yeah. It was raw. Raw emotions. Visceral.

T: But at least the songs and the singing were good. Just wish I could get into the staging.

F: You and me both. Or is this some kind of Viennese thing we’re not getting? Remember Fidelio?

T: I do, but I don’t think both productions being Austrian is the problem. Although saying that, we should see if we can find some Swedish opera productions and see if they feel uniquely Swedish in their execution! That would be cool.

F: I think I’ve seen some floating around online, actually. But that’s for another month. For this month, now that we have talked through the sticking points of this production, we need to talk about—

T: Kevin?

F: What? No!

T: It’s a good film, that. Okay, so … murder?

F: How? “Would you kill someone to save a loved one?”

T: Why not? I could only theorise, and I hope I would never have to actually be in a position to have to make that call, but … actually, I don’t know. The kind of scenarios where I might feel like I’d say yes are so implausible that it’s not even worth speculating over, because I’m not a character in an action film, nor am I ever going to be in a sort of Die Hard scenario or whatever in real life.

F: Sucks to be you, huh?

T: I mean, or not? I really can’t see a reason why I, a web administrator in suburban Nottingham, would ever have a loved one in a life or death situation, other than for strictly medical reasons, and I fail to see how attacking hospital staff of any kind would help save anyone.

F: Unless it was one of those Angels of Death or whatever they’re called.

T: Again, feels more like a film scenario than a real life one.

F: What about revenge?

T: Re-WEN-gey! Sure! What about it?

F: What would you do to avenge someone?

T: I can tell you what I did when playing City of Gangsters.

F: We really do live very different lives, you and me. Sure, go on. What happened?

T: I had a capo, Jesse “Shirty” Shaw. He’d been with me a long time. Rival outfit decides to attack him for no reason, and he was killed.

F: That’s rude.

T: I know, right? So I take out the person who killed him.

F: An eye for an eye.

T: Yeah. And then I took out another couple for good measure, thus cutting that outfit’s crew in half.

F: Starting to sound more like a vendetta.

T: Yes. Yes, it was. Any chance I could get to influence the cops to use their connections with the Prohies to raid that outfit, I took it. You take out one of my guys, you pay. Suddenly there was only one person left, the boss.

F: Ooh, go on. I’m starting to feel weirdly invested in this now.

T: It’s because you’re into gangster stuff too.

F: Bada bing, bada boom.

T: So I spent a number of turns exploring his territory, trying to track him down. I eventually caught up with him. Long story short, my gal had a Tommy gun and he didn’t. His one-person 69-corner empire was no more. Turns out I can be insanely vindictive when you target my people.

F: Woah! You don’t say. Methodically stalking your prey there.

T: So yeah. Them attacking Shirty for no reason gave me a reason to eventually erase their puny territory. Which was just as well, because I need that part if I’m to take over the entirety of Brooklyn. They were in the way of me achieving that. My outfit’s the one that takes rivals out in that game, they don’t get to take me out.

F: To be honest, it’s what an actual gangster would do. They sure ain’t gonna go around worrying about morality. You gotta show ‘em who’s boss. Kill or be killed.

T: That’s right. No more Mr Nice Guy.

F: Right, so that’s terrifying.

T: I feel like I’m slightly too proficient at being a 1920s New York gangster, but it is what it is what it is.

F: Fuhgeddabout it.

T: Do you have a revenge story to share?

F: Nothing as exciting as that, I can assure you, although I would have liked to say I dangled one of my younger brothers over top of the stairs as a threat now and then as a kid, but …

T: It’s not the kind of boy you were?

F: Honestly? More like it wouldn’t have been enough of a deterrent. At least not to make it worth disappointing Mom in the process, because I’m older and should know better than that. But he really was an unrelenting asshole and a bully as a kid.

T: Did he get better as an adult?

F: God no, but as adults we no longer share a roof, so he ain’t my problem these days. Your family got a black sheep?

T: No.

F: Good. I don’t recommend it. Not that they planned on it, but sometimes they come out wrong and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

T: If the rest of you turned out okay, yeah, not like you can blame it on the parenting.

F: The rest of us are fine, upstanding members of society. Him, not so much. He’d give Scarpia a run for his money.

T: Yikes.

F: But enough about him. Do you think Tosca was justified in stabbing Scarpia to death?

T: 100%. He had it coming.

F: What about Scarpia not faking Cavaradossi’s execution?

T: He clearly meant to do it all along. His note of passage was for an unnamed companion. He figured he’d sign the paper to humour her, but she would always pine for her lover if he was still alive, so he decided to get rid of the competition. She can’t run away to live happily ever after with Cavaradossi if he’s dead. He just didn’t count on her having the guts to kill him. But she did.

F: Fatal mistake, underestimating Floria Tosca. But that’s what I like about her, you know? Leonora in Il Trovatore faces a similar fate. She decides she would rather be dead than be with the Conte di Luna, when he’s taken away her true love. Tosca decides he should be the one to die if he takes away her true love.

T: Atta girl! On the other hand, in both cases everyone dies.

F: Well, yeah, it’s opera. To say people die at the end ain’t much of a spoiler. What else is new? Water is wet?

T: Can’t make an opera without killing a few lead characters?

F: There ya go. In the end of both the tenor is still executed, and the soprano kills herself, but at least Tosca takes the bad guy with her.

T: Di Luna has to live with the knowledge that he killed his own brother, so that’s arguably more of a punishment than death, if you ask me. Letting Scarpia live wouldn’t have been as strong a statement. I don’t think he’s the kind of person that you’d expect to feel remorse for his crimes, so letting him live would just perpetuate the problem. If he saw Tosca throw herself off a building he would just do that Jeremy Clarkson meme of “Oh no! Anyway” and move on to his next victim. It doesn’t make narrative sense to make him live, unlike with di Luna, where it makes every sense.

F: For sure.

T: Plus killing Scarpia gives Tosca that crowning moment of awesome.

F: When you think about the narrative in that way, another difference is that Lenora already thinks Manrico is dead by the time she takes that poison. Her hope died with him, so why continue to live? Tosca thinks Cavaradossi is going to live, and is trying to stop Scarpia from coming after them. With Cavaradossi dead anyway, her only “hope” is jail time or execution for Scarpia’s murder, so again she takes fate into her own hands. She’s proactive, and I like that.

T: Me too. Maybe that’s why I enjoy Tosca so much? The heroine makes things happen, they don’t just happen to her. Hm. Well, that’s something to think about, I suppose!

F: I feel like there are a lot of things we could still discuss here, but we’ll pause it until we find another production to watch.

T: One that’s less … exasperated hand gesture than this.

F: Hopefully. Fingers crossed and all. Until then, we say a presto!


An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos, baseball, and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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