Italian colours

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

In May 1889, Puccini attended Sardou’s play La Tosca and, fascinated by its plot, he wrote a letter to his publisher Gulio Ricordi: “…I implore you to take all the necessary steps in order to obtain Sardou’s permission. If we had to abandon this idea, it would grieve me exceedingly. In this Tosca I see the opera that exactly suits me, one without excessive proportions, one that is a decorative spectacle, that gives opportunity for an abundance of music.” A decade later, with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, Tosca premiered at Teatro Constanzi in Rome. Today Tosca is one of the most popular operas and a staple of repertoires around the world.

Briefly, the story of Tosca revolves around two protagonists in love: Mario Cavaradossi, a Volterian Christian painter; and Floria Tosca, soprano diva. Mario vows to save Angelott, an escaped political prisoner hiding in the church where Mario is painting. When Scarpia (the chief of police) arrives to the church, he is suspicious, arrests Cavaradossi and sends him to the torture chamber — and Tosca obtains her lover’s freedom by agreeing to give herself to Scarpia. Before this happens, Scarpia signs a deed granting free-passage to the two lovers, promising to put Cavaradossi through a mock execution. But Tosca, unable to accept the price set by Scarpia, ends up killing the chief of police. The final scene is at the execution while Tosca and Cavaradossi expect to be reunited once it is over. When the firing is over, Tosca hurries to her lover’s body and finds, to her horror, that she has been tricked: Cavaradossi is dead. She leaps from the parapet to her death.

Puccini’s choice of Sardou’s text is fully justified. La Tosca has a simple plot in five acts arranged in a clear causal, chronological sequence. The resolution of the characters’ emotional turmoil against the historical backdrop of 1800s Rome makes for an expected climax. Puccini’s elimination of several historical details compressed the dramaturgy to a theatrically expressive opera in three acts. The thematic essence of Puccini’s Tosca is a simple melodrama, where a love story accommodates aspects of the cheap thriller. But opera’s beauty is never measured by its thoughtful and complicated plot, and the story is but a superficial veneer to support profound musical values. Consequently, the dramaturgical removal of several historical details turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for they were compensated for by a palette of individual strong characters who clearly underpin each other through a range of arias and various kinds of musicality.

Antonio Interisano, the guest singer who performed on only one out of three performance evenings, has a distinctively clear and accurate timbre, with an obviously profound vocal education behind each tone and musical phrase. His vocal skills were evident in several arias, such as Recondita armonia, a passionate duet with Tosca, Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, where almost impressionist music gives softer tones, or in the lustrous E lucevan le stele, one of the end arias of Act III, during which Cavaralossi writes his final love letter to Tosca.

Roles such as Tosca carry a versatile array of elements: the playfulness of a woman in love, girlish naivety and self- pity, but also strength and readiness to go to extremes for the sake of the beloved. The deeply dramatic texture Iman Moustafa’s voice along with her features are perfect for Verdi’s Aida. However, her powerful voice had to cope with many challenges that Tosca ‘s dramaturgy and music set for a singer. The aria Vissi d’arte from the second act accentuated a captivating dialogue between soprano and orchestra, as opposed to Mustafa’s exaggerated expressions in the final scene of the third act.

Puccini’s usually short arias are like delicious treats of musical perfection. Most of them became very popular, all remain exemplary presentations of operatic characters and singers. Puccini’s music is abundant in harmonious contrasts where dark orchestral timbres are reserved for the more dramatic scenes. Understandably each of Scarpia’s scene carries obscure tonalities to stress his harsh character. Angelotti introduces a tragic atmosphere while scenes between Cavaralossi and Tosca have soft and at times melancholic music.

Both Baron Scarpia (Emad Adel) and Count Angelotti (Abdel Wahab El Sayed) have an important weight in Tosca ‘s plot, yet their technical skills did not always match the demands of their roles. Although Adel’s acting skills are agreeable, the vocal monotony of his interpretation reduced the impact o his performance. El Sayed was obviously struggling with some problems with his Italian accent and this drew the listeners’ attention away from his otherwise good vocal material.

Habitually, in Puccini operas, even smaller characters are well defined. This is the case with Sacristan (Elhamy Amin), supporting Cavaradossi with a counter-melody (controcanto) in the first act’s well known aria Recondita armonia — demanding a particular harmony of both singers. Two equally important elements, the vocal force to be expected of Cavaradossi and the intelligent intercalation of musical phrases to be expected of Sacristan, should turn Recondita armonia into an operatic revelation.

And indeed, this particular scene was very well drawn out, both vocally and theatrically. Amin added new colors to Sacristan’s role and turned this supposedly secondary character into an important dramaturgical element in the opera’s first act. Without forcing his way, neither musically, nor theatrically, Amin created a remarkable stage presence.

In Recondita armonia we find an important visual element as well as Cavaradossi sings: “Concealed harmony of contrasting beauties! Floria, my ardent lover, is dark haired. And you, unknown beauty, crowned with blond hair.” This is one of the most important arias in Tosca and its drama sets the ground for further understanding of Tosca’s character including her extreme jealousy, which eventually fuels the tragic ending. In spite of the mostly balanced set, a red haired woman in Cavradossi’s painting raises questions — unless this choice is based on Sardou’s original text where indeed Mary Magdalene is red haired, but she fits much better in Sardou’s play.

The simple and beautiful set helped music and singers to express all the emotions involved. Nonetheless, the picture would have been just perfect had it the lighting design (by Akram Kamal) provided for stronger definition, rather than keeping singers in the dark in several crucial scenes.

In any stage performance, set, lighting and costumes create additional lines supporting a spatio- temporal continuity. At the same time — and most importantly — music depicts mood and individual characters. Puccini’s music involves a narrator telling a story, and its conversational style is particularly clear in the Cavaradossi’s interrogation, carried with a counterpoint of victory cantata sung off-stage by Tosca and the choir. This musically challenging scene was beautifully executed by the Cairo Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nader Abbassi. Perfect diegesis is born in musical dialogue between two realities: Tosca and the choir off-stage, and Cavaralossi’s interrogation on stage.

The Cairo Opera Orchestra played a big role in transmitting Puccini’s genius. The timbre of strong climaxes and soft lyrical lines were always in equilibrium with vocal parts. Puccini’s music is not just an accompaniment for the singers. It is an actor and a narrator present in all the scenes. When this actor performs well, as it definitely did conducted by Abbassi, a significant part of the fulfillment you expect is achieved.


Puccini, Opera Tosca, Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Orchestra, Cairo Opera Choir, conductor: Nader Abbassi, choir master: Aldo Magnato, director: Abdalla Saad,. Cairo Oprea House Main Hall 13, 15, 16 November

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