Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Passing on the fudge..

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Classes have begun; public schools and DC colleges. And, luckily, I find myself engaged in dealings with both!

Last week I gave an introductory lecture on Tosca to the incoming class of Stanford in DC, an opera they are going to see at the Kennedy Center this Friday evening.

..the class had started the morning touring, visiting monuments, and the Mall, and being given a succinct orientation in neighborhoods and institutional layouts.

I wanted to start the talk with some trivia; some delicious entry into the ’suspension of disbelief’ the art form requires..

..so many famous dubious accounts of peril and mayhem are associated with Tosca; there is the one of a very rotund and famous soprano: in the last scene, warbling her way to the highest reaches of the set’s parapet, turning to the audience, unleashing the note perfect cry of exit, and leaning into her fall off the rampart of the Castel Saint Angelo, ostensibly to her death – only, in fact, to reappear, in the reflex of a prodigious ‘bounce’ off the trampoline meant to catch her!

.. and then there is the folklore; an instance with Tito Gobbi and Birgit Nilsson, a pair of singers who always delivered performances of chilling vocal excellence, and, in the case of Gobbi, a perfect portrayal of evil.. His Baron Scarpia was an unwavering concentration of a malignant soul, driven by his lust for Tosca, and his determination, if not of conquering her, then cornering her into submission to his desire..

..one hot performance at the Met, in New York, as Tosca strained to discern some way out of the predicament of Scarpia’s intentions, her hand fell upon the knife, left beside the plate of the Baron’s unfinished dinner, and snatching it aloft –the diva found herself plunging a stiff,  unripe banana into Gobbi’s chest!! He was forced to die –the libretto required it, as did the momentum of Puccini’s music –but it was with some ghost of a glint of unease, no doubt in the hope that the audience would be attached to the act of his murder, and not the instrument of his death..

Or the mess of pulp left on his waistcoat.

-…then there was the Tosca where the prop person had forgotten to lay out the knife, on the dinner table, for the diva to “discover”.. and the poor intrepid singer found herself with her fingers in the jam pot –literally- and maintaining that gift for managing the impossible, flung a handful of jam into her Scarpia’s face! Her Baron, au fait with improvisation, did not hesitate, and cried “-murder –murder –the jam is poisoned!” -in Italian of course, perfectly in tempo; and exhibiting the agony of arsenic poisoning, died on cue.

For many of the Stanford students, this opportunity of an evening at the opera is their first contact with the art form..

In the end, I didn’t relate any the ephemera of devoted opera gossip, and chuckle, but told them the story of Puccini’s heroine, and how this opera is one of the hinges, which couples the end of the 19th century, to the 20th.

The opera was based on the play, La Tosca, written in 1887 by the French playwright, Victorien Sardou.

Puccini saw the play in an Italian translation, presented by a touring company in 1889; he didn’t receive the rights to the work, until 1895.

On the evening of the 14th January 1900, Puccini’s opera, Tosca, premiered in Rome.

In 1901, almost exactly one year later, in an uncanny moment of ‘succession’, the acknowledged master of Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi, died; Puccini was seen as his heir, and Tosca, playing throughout the world, was the work which moved Italian opera into a new era, fully fusing music and theatre, into a unison of dramatic purpose, unheard of before that time..

The heart of this work beats with passion and violence; murder and ecstasy; revolution and religion; it covers 24 hours of life, in less than 2; its musical landscape is lush, passionate, descriptive, wrenching, violent, and frenzied enough, to keep an audience on the edge of their seat, through scenes of torture and attempted rape..

..But for me, Puccini’s most dramatic masterful instant comes in his abrupt halting of the action of Cavaradossi’s torture, to give one precious moment’s respite to Tosca (and the audience), allowing her a fervent prayer, that gives perfect compass of this woman’s borders- in life, in love, in belief..

Vissi d’arte. Vissi d’amore… out of which the story, and our protagonists, hurtle to their imminent destinies..

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Written by tomminteroffthestoop

September 21, 2011 at 12:14 PM

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