11 January 2016 at 2.00pm | Comment on this article
Giacomo Puccini certainly understood how theatre — as well as music — works. The last five minutes of Act I of Tosca are a wonderful example of slow build-up leading to momentous climax. This final scene begins with quietly tolling bells and ends with the full chorus and orchestra – as the curtain falls the brass in particular loudly puts the seal on the opening act.
The whole of Act I takes place in a chapel within the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. It is a setting primarily for intrigue and romance, as Cavaradossi helps the escape of a political prison, his lover Tosca becomes jealous, and Baron Scarpia exploits that jealousy for his own nefarious ends. The act concludes with a religious service, as a Te Deum is offered up in thanks for the news (later discovered to be inaccurate) that Napoleon’s invading army has been defeated.
First we hear two bells striking in a steady, even rhythm to announce the start of the service. The sound serves a specific and realistic purpose within the story and also sets the pattern for the music that follows. Scarpia and his henchman Spoletta have a brief exchange about having Tosca secretly followed, and the slow tolling of two alternating bass notes begins: F and B flat, a whole bar for each note in turn. This bass repeats through the whole final section for 56 bars, always with the low tones in the orchestra, bells and organ. It is a brooding and weighty effect that tells us serious ritual is underway.
As well as the church sounds of bells and organ there is the sound of the congregation, first muttering chanted Latin. (There is no real church service that fits the story, so Puccini made his own text of suitable-sounding phrases.) Puccini’s musical conclusion for celebrants, choir and congregation is their unaccompanied singing in unison of the line ‘Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur’ – ‘We acknowledge thee to be the Lord’.
However, these sounds of Heaven provide a backdrop to the sounds of something more hellish. Beyond the evocation of a church service is the sense of something frightening inexorably approaching – this is a march to the scaffold as well as a Te Deum. We hear a distant cannon firing at intervals, alerting the militia to the escape of the political prisoner we saw Cavaradossi helping earlier in the act. These booming explosions from outside disturb the service inside and add to the music’s weighty, rhythmic quality.
The focus of our attention is in fact not the religious service, but Scarpia in the chapel behind the altar. His solo voice cuts through the preparations and the start of the Te Deum as he voices his desires to possess Tosca by using her jealousy against her. His intentions come through in his climactic line about Cavaradossi and then Tosca: ‘One to the gallows, the other in my arms’.
Scarpia is so taken with his lust for Tosca and his sense of his own power that he utters something blasphemous in conclusion: ‘Tosca, you make me forget God!’ So when Scarpia joins with everyone else in that final unison line, he puts himself – not God – as the one in control of everything. The orchestral ending of the act is a thrilling statement in the brass of Scarpia’s theme, which began the whole opera.
From the start of the opera we have followed the competing forces of love, lust, power, politics and religion as they collide. The Act I concluding Te Deum is a magnificent compilation in action and music of them all.
Tosca runs until 5 February 2016. Tickets are still available.