21 Jul 2009

Tosca at the Baths of Caracalla, Rome

Tosca is the quintessential Roman opera, with a plot located in three infamous landmarks of Rome, its 1900 premiere in Rome was bound to be enormously successful.

In 2008 the Teatro dell’Opera staged thirteen performances of Franco Zeffirelli’s new elaborate staging. In the past twenty years, the Teatro dell’Opera touted productions nearly every other season of Tosca designed by distinguished directors such as Mauro Bolognini and Guiliano Montaldo. The last five seasons of the small “Piccolo Lirico” alone has launched 300 performances of Tosca.

This new adaptation of Tosca is performed in the open theater of the Baths of Caracalla, a magnificent monument. Heritage restrictions do not allow performances within the colossal ruins. Productions, therefore, are staged on a platform in front. Consequently, this limits set changes between the three acts and necessitates minimal changes in props and costumes.

Eduardo Sanchi surrounds the stage with a black-and-white aerial view of modern Rome’s city center. Red circles mark the main locations of the opera: Sant’Andrea della Valle Church, Castel Sant’Angelo and a very red Tiber crossing the stage. This dramatic set serves as the perfect vehicle for the new concept of Tosca. This is not the “blood and guts” drama, as the late Paul Hume wrote when he was the music editor for the Washington Post.

There are plenty of blood and guts, of course, as well as passion and erotic impulses. Yet the focal point of the opera is a new and different one. The staging has the city center crowded with inquisitive priests and clerics throughout the performance, where the oppressively ubiquitous clergy, to paraphrase Anais Nin, are like a vast lead roof which covers the world. Cavaradossi is tortured by the cassock-wearing Scarpia, here a bishop who desperately craves sadistic sex, although it seems that he might be enjoying some young Swiss guard as well as Tosca. There is also one final surprise—Tosca does not jump off the Castel Sant’Angelo’s tower into the river. Instead she drowns in the red Tiber embracing Cavaradossi’s body.

Director Franco Ripa di Meana has a literary basis for these changes. An exchange of letters among Puccini, Illica, Giacosa, and Sardou have been unearthed, revealing an intent of changing the end with a mad scene, Tosca killing Scarpia in a state of madness and then killing herself. Yet Sardou was adamant about the ending, though he had only an approximate idea of Rome, and no knowledge that the Tiber did not flow under Castel Sant’Angelo. In short, the production is strongly anti-clerical, a bit weird, but brilliant!

A funny accident took place on the opening night (July 14th) at the beginning of the third act—a live sheep bleated onstage, serving as counterpoint to the shepherd’s day break song, and a moment of unwanted comic relief in an otherwise tense blood-and-guts, passion-and-sex musical drama.

The usual disclaimer of the difficulties of performing outdoors must be made. And it is to be added that across the street a major political demonstration had been organized. Luckily, they were quite good mannered and did not make excessive noise. The audience could sense that the conductor, Paolo Olmi, was very professional and the orchestra was well familiar with the score.


The star of the evening was Fabio Armiliato singing Cavaradossi for the 134th time. His clear timbre, sensual legato, perfect phrasing, physique and skillful acting made him perfect for the role. Michaela Carosi performed Tosca well with a big voice. But diction was poor and, moreover, her second and third act costuming (early 20th century aristocratic gowns) did not suit her well. Giorgio Surian was an effective Scarpia. Roberto Abbondanza deserves special recognition for his interpretation of the Sacrestan, whose comic persona masks his role as a willing abettor of Scarpia’s machinations.

Giuseppe Pennisi