29 May 2014 at 10.41am | Comment on this article
Our 'How to Stage an Opera' series offers different perspectives on the practicalities of staging an opera, from the initial research through to the final performance. Here we see how Puccini's attention to detail influences the director and designer's approach.
Jonathan Kent’s 2004 production of Tosca is set precisely on 17–18 June 1800. The date is determined by Kent's decision to conform to the specific historical context dictated by Puccini's libretto, which itself follows the play by Victorien Sardou. The events of Tosca take place in the wake of the historical Battle of Marengo of 14 June 1800, an external event to the Rome-set drama but one that propels its atmosphere of danger and desperation. Kent's production makes literal sense of the references to the battle in the libretto. But he and his designer Paul Brown do more than use historical details to give their production dramatic coherence. They ensure that detail always enhances the drama.
They're following Puccini's lead. With all his mature operas the composer permeated his scores with a strong sense of place – but in Tosca, his only full-length opera set in Italy, Puccini went to extra lengths. He researched the specific plainsong Te Deum melody sung in Rome; he learnt the exact pitch of the bell of St Peter's; he commissioned a Roman poet to compose the shepherd boy's song in the local vernacular; and he camped out on the ramparts of the Castel Sant'Angelo to discover how it felt to hear the matins bells as dawn broke over the city. Kent and Brown match Puccini's scrupulous hunt for detail – while also, like Puccini, deploying a degree of artistic licence and remaining sensitive to the practicalities of theatre.
A case in point is the church of Act I, allegedly Sant’Andrea della Valle. Probably no church has ever looked like this, with the apse, the sacred space behind the altar, eliminated and replaced with a lowered platform. But, foreshortened and topsy-turvy though it may be, Brown’s set provides a large and practical acting space that also establishes the society and time in which the drama unfolds. The dominant feature of the design is Cavaradossi’s incomplete fresco. It tells us Cavaradossi was probably influenced by another revolutionary painter, Jacques-Louis David – who, given the dates, could well have been Cavaradossi’s teacher. Its sheer tasteless massiveness not only allows us some sympathy with Tosca’s otherwise absurd jealousy, but also suggests a society in which female beauty is up for grabs, in a disturbing foretelling of Tosca's vile treatment in the following acts.
Meticulous set dressing in Act II colours Scarpia’s character, and also suggests the precarious instability of a society that might place such as ruthless man in power. His study, a magnificent office in the Palazzo Farnese, is filthy, a long table displaying a desultory mess of papers and half-finished foo, confirming that Scarpia has no need to impress anyone. The huge bookcase is completely bare, apart from the fake books on the back of the hidden door leading to Scarpia’s torture chamber. Candles are strewn around the room, glittering visual representations of the time that is running out for Tosca and Cavaradossi, and a gesture towards the final sacramental rite Tosca extends to Scarpia’s murdered body.
Act III takes place on the bare roof of the Castel Sant'Agelo, the stars above fading as dawn breaks. Scything from above is the giant wing of Peter Anton von Verschaffelt's statue of the Archangel Michael, given almost surrealistic enormity in Brown's design. It’s the culmination of a motif Kent and Brown have built throughout their production. First in Act I, a Bernini-esque decoration of a dove surrounded by golden rays is made disproportionately huge, hovering at a distorted angle close above the heads of the worshippers. In Act II another giant statue of the Archangel Michael decorates Scarpia's study, his sword pointing not at the devil beneath his feet but directly at Tosca as she sings ‘Vissi d’arte’. As the wing seems to unfurl through Act III, pressing in on an already raised stage that suggests the vertiginous height of the Castel Sant’Angelo, we understand what Puccini, with Kent and Brown, have built in from the very beginning – that Tosca’s tragedy is inevitable.