Every year, we try to watch an opera with the family. Kids and opera are actually a great match, as long as they can read subtitles. There’s drama, there’s action, there’s blood and running around and torches and whatnot, and I think this year we found the absolute perfect opera: Tosca.
Yes! I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere (well, it is on YouTube with ads), so I bought a DVD of this 1976 production, (here it is on Amazon, but I found a copy on Ebay for much cheaper) which is filmed like a movie in Rome, in the actual locations where the story is set.
We have a sad history of watching the first few hours of an opera and then losing steam and never getting around to finishing it; but this one is just under two hours long, so it was perfect. It is in three acts.
The basic plot: This painter, Mario Cavaradossi, is in love with the beautiful but tempestuous singer Floria Tosca. Cavaradossi helps a friend escape the evil and corrupt chief of police, Scarpia, who realizes if he takes Carvaradossi prisoner, he can find out where the prisoner is hiding and force Tosca to yield her body to him. OR CAN HE? The whole thing takes place in 24 hours, and there is a lot of running around in and out of churches and city streets and up and down stone staircases with cloaks flapping and gorgeous silken trains trailing. It is set in the year 1800 during the Napoleonic wars, but you don’t really have to know that.
Cavaradossi is a youngish Placido Domingo, absolutely gorgeous.
Tosca is Raina Kabaivanska, who I was not familiar with, and I took a while to warm up to. At first she seemed too highly strung and not quite convincing as an irresistible love interest, but it started making sense, and I think this is built into the story.
Sherrill Milnes is Scarpia, and dang, he’s just so writhingly evil.
(He actually reminded me of The Generalissimo in 30 Rock, which just shows that I have brain worms, and you can ignore.)
I will admit that I’m just not very familiar with this opera, and have never listened to the whole thing all the way through up until now.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! (Go ahead and laugh at the idea of spoilers for an opera that’s a hundred years old, but I was the only one in the room who knew how it ended!)
One theme of the opera is the clash between what is real and what is art. People are kind of obsessed with Tosca, because they have seen her on stage as a diva, and they find her compelling and fascinating because of her voice and her beauty and her presence. But she herself seems to have a little bit of trouble telling the difference between art and reality. When her lover paints Mary Magdalene and uses an amalgamation of another woman and herself to create the perfectly beautiful women, she assumes he’s having an affair, and she cannot let go the idea that he should at least change the eye color.
I think this maybe is her undoing: She puts too much faith in the strength of the stage, of art and artifice. When Scarpia begins to torment her, she is shocked to her core that such a thing is happening to her, because, as she says, she has always lived for her art and has never harmed anyone. And this has always worked for her.
When she is assured, at the end, that Cavaradossi’s execution will just be a mock one with the firing line shooting blanks, she believes it without hesitation, even though there’s no particular reason to trust this bargain. She thinks it will be just one more show, and even laughs affectionately at her lover because he’s not as good or practiced an actor as she is.
There is that savage moment when she smiles to see him shot, and cries out, “Ecco un artista!” But of course the bullets are real, and he is dead. So of course she leaps off the roof, not so much because she’s afraid of being arrested (she’s clearly not a coward), but because she is going to exit that world that does not work.
I don’t know, these are all just unformed thoughts from one viewing of one production of the opera, though, and I haven’t read a single word of analysis by anyone else on the work; so I’d be very interested to know what other people have thought!
Anyway, gosh, I loved it. I loved the combination of insanely operatic over-the-top melodrama, and then little human touches, like Tosca stabbing Scarpia in the gut and sending him to hell, and then fluttering around and laying a crucifix on his chest, because she’s not sure what else to do. The costumes were wonderful. The setting is of course ravishing.
The camera is not too flashy, but ramps up the drama when it matters most.
This is not a style of opera where they have an aria and introduce the main idea, like, “I want you very much!”;”Yes, but what if my husband catches us?” and then repeat it forty six times. It moves right the heck along and keeps you on your toes. The kids vastly preferred this. The plot was also very simple, and everyone grasped it without help.
The music is irresistible. I don’t know how to say “Puccini is very good” without sounding dumb, so I’ll just leave it at that.
The subtitles were easy to read (not always the case with subtitles).
Everyone was cast perfectly. The whole thing was just splendid. It was also kind of fun to see Catholic references sprinkled casually in throughout the story (people genuflecting in the church, people pausing to pray the Angelus).
So, snacks are a big part of Fisher Opera Nite. We hit up Aldi for cheese and crackers, fruit, and various cookies and chocolates and things, and then I got some sparkling grape juice.
We watched the first act, then paused the movie and had our snacks and then watched the rest. If I remember correctly, this film doesn’t stop for a formal intermission like some operas; but as I said, it’s only two hours, so you could easily watch it straight through without a break.
As far as content: It’s extremely dramatic, but not graphic, so you see stabbing, but there’s not gobs and gobs of blood, for instance. There is a torture scene that’s upsetting but, again, not very graphic. You can see there is sexual coercion, but it’s mostly tense and dramatic, not violent. The painting in the beginning shows Mary Magdalen topless, but that’s it. Can’t think of anything else parents need to know. Definitely make sure you understand what the story is before you decide if your kids (or others) are up for it!
I’m now really curious to see other productions of Tosca, because the plot is so simple that it must be open to some very wide interpretations. Any suggestions? I don’t know if the kids would want to watch a whole second showing, but I would be up for it.