Puccini - Tosca

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On your way, Tosca! Scarpia is nesting in your heart!

May 22, 2009 (Updated Jul 22, 2009)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Great music; Domingo and Kabaivanska; on-location shooting; well directed

Cons:The second act torture scene is hard to stomach

The Bottom Line: This is one of the finest opera films you'll ever encounter


Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.

I helped raise four children and when it came to the issue of guiding them in one occupational direction or another, my message was always, "Do whatever you want, but do something well!"  I respect all sorts of walks in life, but I like to see people trying to excel at whatever they've chosen to do.  I suppose, however, there's a limit on the applicability of that principle.  What if a person chooses an activity in life that is fundamentally evil?  We don't really want people to be the best possible mass-murderer they can be or the best possible genocidal dictator, rapist, thief, drug lord, or capitalist exploiter.  Evil occupations are in a category by themselves where success is not so much admired.

From what I've observed, most individuals who are widely considered evil persons don't really view themselves in that way.  Charles Manson, the Uni-bomber, Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein – all these men had rationales in their minds to justify their activities.  Personally, I consider Donald Rumsfeld an evil man, but I have no doubt that he (and many other Americans) believe he was doing what was best for his country when he authorized use of torture for interrogating prisoners.  Evil is sometimes a matter of judgment and always subject to rationalization.  The human psyche just isn't generally constructed to allow a person to embrace evil openly and consciously, in their own view of things.

Literature, however, sometimes deviates from that truism and creates villains so thoroughly committed to evil that they not only perform it well but even embrace it psychologically.  One thinks of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz or The Emperor in the original Star Wars film.  I own a bookmark with a picture of the Wicked Witch of the West, saying "You say 'wicked' as though it were a bad thing!"  That, my friends, is evil elevated to the stature of art form, to its highest possible pinnacle of realization.  In my opinion, the character Scarpia in Puccini's opera Tosca achieves that sort of elevated standing in the pantheon of perfectly evil people.  He's the kind of guy who'd rather torture a secret from you than have you yield it freely.  He's the kind of guy who'd rather force the woman of his desires to submit to him than win her affections.  He gets off on seeing fury in the eyes of his victims.  Furthermore, he knows what kind of man he is and has no wish to be anything other than the best darn evil-doer he can be.  He's thoroughly committed to his chosen profession.

Place in the Repertoire:  Puccini was not a fast worker or a native genius as a composer.  He had to struggle for his successes and was always pretty much surprised when one of his operas was appreciated.  He wrote only ten or twelve operas (depending on whether you count Il Trittico as one opera or three), largely because it would typically take him years to find a libretto that he considered suitable.  Successes were interwoven with failures for Puccini, but his greatest successes were as superlative as those of any other composer.  The public was often as confused in its assessment of Puccini as Puccini was himself, initially disdaining two of his finest masterpieces, La Boheme (1896) and Madama Butterfly (1904) but responding with immediate enthusiasm to La Fanciulla del West (1910), which is no longer viewed as one of Puccini's better works.

Puccini's first opera, Le Villi (1884), was entered into the same contest for one-act operas by young composers that had drawn Leoncavallo's masterpiece Pagliacci and Mascagni's triumphant Cavalleria Rusticana.  Puccini's entry didn't even rate a mention while the other two went on to instant success.  Next up for Puccini was the opera Edgar (1889), a dismal failure.  Puccini's first truly worthwhile operatic endeavor was his third opera, Manon Lescaut (1893), a strong work but badly overshadowed by Massenet's opera Manon, based on the same story.

Puccini, however, was, if nothing else, a poster child for the value of hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity.  Leoncavallo and Mascagni were meteorites that exploded with brilliance but never again regained form.  Puccini was the quintessential plugger who gradually rose in the firmament of composers to reach celestial heights.  Indisputable success finally came to Puccini with his next three operas: La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.  These operas all rank among the very most popular ones for the opera-going public.  Tosca may be the least beloved of the three, but, from a theatrical perspective, it is nothing short of a magnificent tour-de-force.

Subject Matter in Brief: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for Tosca, after a play by French author Victorien Sardou.  Sardou had been somewhat sloppy about the accuracy of the locales he selected for various scenes, but Puccini, as an Italian writing first and foremost for an Italian audience, was naturally more insistent on physical correctness.  The playwright, however, held fast when Puccini requested a change in Tosca's method of suicide at the end, which preserved one of this opera's most characteristic features.

Cesare Angelotti (Giancarlo Luccardi), a consul of the short-lived Roman Republic of 1798-9, has been a political prisoner since the republic's collapse.  As the opera opens, Angelotti has just escaped from prison and is making his way toward the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, where his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, has left the key to the family's private chapel as well as some women's clothing for a disguise.  The church is empty when he arrives, so he hides in the family chapel.  The painter Mario Cavaradossi (Plácido Domingo), a free-thinking supporter of the republican spirit, is working on a mural in the church, under the watchful eye of the sacristan (a sexton) (Alfredo Mariotti).  Cavaradossi has secretly modeled the woman in his painting after a beautiful woman he observed praying in the church – Angelotti's sister, as it happens.

When the sacristan leaves for the day, Angelotti makes his presence known to Cavaradossi, who he recognizes as a sympathizer with the republican ideals.  Cavaradossi promises to help Angelotti and gives the hungry man his lunch.  When Cavaradossi hears his jealous lover, Floria Tosca (Raina Kabaivanska), approaching, he advises Angelotti to hide in his family chapel until she's gone.  Angelotti complies and takes the lunch with him.

Tosca, who has heard voices, accuses Cavaradossi of hiding a lover.  Her jealousy is also aroused by the beauty of the woman in Cavaradossi's painting, whom she recognizes as the Marchesa.  Fortunately, Cavaradossi is skilled at reassuring her of his love and devotion.  Tosca and Cavaradossi agree to meet at his villa later that night.  After she leaves, Angelotti reemerges.  Cavaradossi suggests that Angelotti hide at his villa, in a cave halfway down the well.  When the two hear cannons fired from the prison, signaling the escape of a prisoner, Cavaradossi offers to escort Angelotti to the villa himself.

The sacristan returns with news (false news, as it happens) of the defeat of Napoleon at Marengo, which he hopes to pass on to Cavaradossi so he can rub it in.  Choristers begin to arrive in preparation for the Te Deum that will be performed to celebrate the news.  The Baron Vitellio Scarpia (Sherrill Milnes), head of the secret police, enters the church, having followed Angelotti's trail that far.  After investigating the clues and interviewing the sacristan, he puts two and two together and realizes that Cavaradossi is involved, one way or another.  Scarpia also has designs on Tosca and sees an opportunity to achieve two objectives together: capture Angelotti and use Cavaradossi's involvement to force Tosca to surrender herself to his desires.  Scarpia uses a fan belonging to the Marchesa, dropped by Angelotti in his haste, to incite jealousy in Tosca.  Then he has his agents follow her as she rushes off to check out her suspicions.

Scarpia's agents search the villa but have no luck finding Angelotti, who is well-hidden in the secret cave.  Cavaradossi is brought in for questioning, followed by Tosca.  When neither will provide information, Scarpia sends Cavaradossi to the torture chamber while continuing to question Tosca.  At first, she remains strong, but the sounds of her lover being tortured ultimately prove too much for her.  She reveals Angelotti's hiding place.  Cavaradossi, returned from the torture chamber, is disgusted by her betrayal.

News arrives that Napoleon was, in fact, victorious at Marengo.  Cavaradossi's enthusiasm for the news causes Scarpia to sentence him to death.  Then, he tells Tosca that only she can save Cavardossi from execution – by giving herself to him.  Tosca pretends to consent but asks that the pardon be written in advance, along with a letter of safe passage.  Scarpia orders his aide, Spoletta (Mario Ferrara) to conduct a mock execution, as on a previous occasion.  Left alone with Scarpia, Tosca plunges a dinner knife into his abdomen.

Tosca meets briefly with Cavaradossi in his prison cell to reveal to him the letter of safe passage and to assure him that his execution will only be faked.  When dawn breaks, the soldiers line up and duly fire at Cavaradossi, who falls convincingly to the ground.  When all have departed, Tosca hurries over to Cavaradossi to tell him that he can safely arise, but discovers that he is, in fact, quite dead.  Scarpia's agents discover his murder and come running onto the parapet to seize Tosca, but she leaps off the wall to her death.

Musical Performances: Bulgarian soprano Raina Kabaivanska had a brilliant career in opera, spurred on by the combination of her magnificent voice and her great physical beauty.  She made her debut at Teatro alla Scala in 1961.  Soon she was in demand throughout the world.  Her romantic repertoire included at least eight of the Verdi opera, Wagner's Rienzi, Eugen Onegin and Pique Dame by Tchaikovsky, Gounod's Faust, Massenet's Manon, Catalani's La Wally, and Zardonai's Francesca da Rimini.  She also performed in 20th-century works by Britten, Janácek, and Poulenc.  She was perhaps best known for her interpretations of Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and Manon.  I previously reviewed her magnificent performance in Madame Butterfly; here we have a second one of her signature roles.  Luciano Pavarotti called her the best Tosca he'd ever seen.  She sang the role more times (over 400) than any other diva in history.

Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo will need no introduction to most readers.  Born in 1941 in Madrid, Spain, he grew up in Mexico where he played soccer and sang baritone roles in his parents' zarzuela company.  When he turned to opera, he was persuaded to develop his tenor range.  He soon emerged as one of the greatest opera tenors of all-time and continues to perform to this day.  He enjoys worldwide acclaim and is widely sought after by opera houses throughout the world.

Sherrill Eustace Milnes was born on a farm in Downer's Grove, Illinois in 1935.  He spent many hours singing to the cows!  Other times he would practice a villainous operatic laugh while driving the farm tractor.  He studied music education at Drake University and Northwestern University.  It was only by a fluke that he ended up a professional opera singer.  He began singing in the chorus of the Goldovsky Opera Company in 1960.  Four years later he debuted at the New York City Opera as Valentin in Gounod's Faust.  He later emerged as a favorite at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  He is best known for his work in Verdi operas.  Milnes is a frightening and demonic Scarpia, though I personally have to rate him a notch below Cornell MacNeil as a terrifying presence in another version of Tosca, with Domingo and Hildegard Behrens in the other two lead roles.  Tito Gobbi was another great Scarpia.

Bruno Bartoletti conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra for this recording, setting a solid pace and bringing out all of the emotional intensity.

Staging: This production was directed by Gianfranco De Bosio.  He was born in Verona in 1924 and worked, at various stages in his career, as a stage director, film director, and screenwriter.  As a young man, he participated in the Venetian Resistance during World War II.  His filmography includes Carmen and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, in addition to two television series and two feature films.

What makes this film special, in addition to the stellar musical performances, is the fact that it was shot at the original Roman locations designated by the libretto.  These included the streets of Rome, the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, with its gruesome torture chamber, and the parapet of the Castle Sant'Angelo.  In short, this is a truly cinematic version of an opera, nicely opened up to take full advantage of what the cameras and editing facilities have to offer.  The scenery is as beautiful as it is authentic.  The cinematography is excellent, with gorgeous backdrops and skillful framing.  The costumes are fantastic as well, all authentic period costumes.  Set and costume design was provided by Giancarlo Pucci.

The acting is superlative – entirely believable and heart-rending.  Kabaivanska is the perfect Tosca and the youthful Domingo an ideal Cavaradossi.  There's a strong chemistry between the two, as well.  Kabaivanska holds in check her irrational jeasousy in Act I, knowing that Cavaradossi and we, the audience, have to love her if we're going to feel the full force of the tragedy to come.  Domingo succeeds in convincing us that he's an artist with some genuine revolutionary ardor.  Milnes is very good as Scarpia, though, as I said earlier, not the best I've seen.  These are all committed and passionate portrayals.

Technical Aspects: This Deutsche Grammophon DVD of a production from 1975 is coded for worldwide playback.  The PCM stereo audio is excellent.  The video, in a 4:3 full-screen aspect ratio, is adequate but not superlative.  There are occasional blemishes and white spots evident during playback.  The performance language is Italian.  The menu language is English.  Optional subtitles are provided in Chinese, English, French, German, and Spanish.  The opera's running time is a brisk 115 minutes.  There are no DVD extras.

Bottom-Line: Opera DVD's just don’t get any better than this one: exquisite music, great cast, on-location shooting, authentic sets and costumes, fantastic acting and singing, and well-directed.  True, there's the kind of quintessential villain who will show up in your nightmares, but you'll get over it!  So, don't miss this great recording!



********************************************* ********************************************

You can easily access my other opera reviews using the following lists:

Top-Twelve Film Versions of Operas
Metalluk's Twenty Best Pre-Romantic (Baroque & Classicism) Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty-five Best Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty Best Non-Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Thirty Best Operas of the 20th-Century, on DVD
Metalluk's Best Opera from Each Decade of the 20th-Century, on DVD


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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