Cher Public

My old flame


Anthony Tommasini‘s Sunday Times think piece about opera direction (fetchingly adorned with the Susannesque headline “Halfway Won’t Do”) is online now. La Cieca thinks TT’s heart is in the right place (and of course she’s still all aglow after the Babs interview), so she’s going to stay mum about that Herbert Wernicke production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten that he and so many others seem to regard as the bees’ knees. 

However, your doyenne would be remiss if she did not challenge Tony’s reasoning behind the candle business in Tosca. You can read the article yourself (hey, it’s free) but essentially he builds the case that the Sarah Bernhardt dumbshow that can so be so effective in the theater necessarily has a thematic meaning, i.e., as an expression of the diva’s deep and abiding Catholic faith.

Unfortunately, this reasoning strikes me as circular, and La Cieca would even go so far to say that in this instance Tommasini begs the question.  And you cannot even know how overjoyed your doyenne is to have a chance to use that expression in its correct sense. But hold your applause for my usage until you hear out my reasoning.

It seems to La Cieca that audiences (among them Mr. Tommasini) tend to fasten on to a somewhat sentimentalized characterization of Tosca as “deeply religious,” based at least in part on her business with the candles and the crucifix. And since she is deeply religious (that’s already been established, you see), the placing of the candles must surely then be an expression of her sincere faith. And how do we know that faith is sincere? Well, the candles, stupid.

Now, La Cieca is perfectly willing to agree that the traditional business is consistent with deep religious conviction, but she does not think that only a deeply religious woman would resort to this action. Placing the candles is also consistent, I think, with a rather childish, superstitious woman who thinks she is breaking a jinx she has placed on herself. Or, for that matter, it could even be the behavior of an unbalanced diva who lives her entire life as a sort of grand performance; the candle bit, then, would be just the Bill Sampson touch to round out the murder with a touch of the romantic-gothic.

But if it can be conceded that Tosca might be something other than the Tommasini-prescribed Mother Teresa in a tiara, then the whole “she has to do this because she’s so religious” argument falls apart. This is not to say that a singer and a director cannot decide they want to portray Tosca as “deeply religious” (after all, this interpretation is consistent with the text) but simply that this portrayal is not the only valid one.

So the fuss about the candles is, I think, overblown. It is (or anyway was) an extremely effective piece of stage business, great “theater,” and no one is suggesting it be permanently discarded. But it’s not nearly as meaningful (or crucial) as some more literal-minded spectators seem to believe it is.

A final justification La Cieca would like to propose for the sometime omission of the candle business is that it is so familiar as to have lost the bulk of its impact, which at least at the beginning was based on the element of surprise. Naturally, when Sarah did it, it continued to hold interest, because it was Sarah doing it.  Over the years, though, the candle bit has been done so often that it has become a ritual, and as too often happens in the repetition of a ritual, the original meaning and purpose is slighted as the precision of the performance becomes fetishized.

  • Harry

    I cannot believe some of the nonsense I have read here about the MET Tosca and other productions like it, witnessed elsewhere. . The apparent lack of any need to have certain mandatory ‘sign posts’ in a production.
    The early 19th century opera takes places in Catholic Italy. Is not the conflict between Republican and Church -- backed establishment forces, the very underlying basis: why…. and what then transpires, between / and by the various actions of the characters involved. How they each react in a real concrete framework(not a shell- not just a suggestion or a silly post modern-ish hint): given the overall situation, the history of it, the circumstances of their inter-connection and the fatal consequences?

    So along comes too many smart directors….they may wish to have Tosca enter the church -- head uncovered / get rid of the candles / have the painting in the church slashed, or just have Scarpia wank at it…..or perhaps have ‘a calm -- cool Tosca’ fan herself and sit & consider a few things -just after killing Scarpia??!!
    As for ‘the candles’, one DVD (Terfel as Scarpia) went the complete excessive ‘other way’. It had the Act2 Police apartment with a big long steep ‘gothic’ Norma Desmond staircase,plus having literally -masses of post mod style’ fat Chromium pillared / electric lit candles -- enough for a obstacle maze! It would do the Phantom of the Opera’s boat ride with all those candles disappearing into the floor’ -- proud! A case of ‘count how many candles’!

    Is not Tosca’s IMPULSIVE -- flighty / jealous / petulant / gullible nature: the main projectile in ANY VERSION OF IT! That is: ‘her mouth and her inner feelings running off, at the wrong moment’ -- that propels and runs the opera? Every thing is just seen ny Tosca as ‘what is of personal immediate concern, in her world’. She ( a pawn) is incapable of seeing she is part of a much much bigger political intrigue picture; around her.

    (1)This personality flaw of Tosca is something that Scarpia not only knows ; but anticipates and muses about , schemes, and exploits both in Act1, as well as Act 2. Unfortunately for him, he finally pushes the wrong button in Tosca. She reaches ‘critical mass overload’. After the event, Tosca ‘appearing to be just hanging and loitering around’ without directed business -- surely the director is trying to create a silly representational form of post traumatic stress…for this 1800’s ‘very fidgety’ character. How incredulous!

    (2) For Scarpia if depicted -- by acting ‘physically’ in a deviant manifest way, inside a church: is absolutely ludicrous. He is too ‘closet deviant’ a character , too cunning to openly display his nature, other than his ruthless power in public. Why would he risk possibly undermining his own sense of authority / ‘his standing’ :risking exposure of such deeds -- of being seen by others (excuse the puns!). The man after all has a king size ego! As well, he would not be -- to us ,the audience -- such THE real creepy stealthy ‘seemingly pious’ hypocrite, he truly is , as well. Puccini clearly expresses this character’s slimy ‘modus operandi’…..Why have Scarpia musing about his anticipated ‘unholy’ sexual conquest -- when mixed in- as fully part of the Te Deum???!!I think Puccini was telling us, (if we are not post modern fools) ‘clearly something’ by doing so. It is ‘the big saved charged punch’ by Puccini for the end of Act 1. And yet directors want to clown around and pre- telegraph that message: with added prior stage antics of their own? Worse, critics and obliging sycophants then want to defend, jutify and swallow such rubbish.

    It is time some directors that get ‘a job’ to do some opera directing : researched a bit before taking up the assignment if they are unfamiliar with the on going national culture of the characters of an opera. If only right now -- they observed the general everyday things/ the religious beliefs / the ‘almost instinctual’ expressed superstitions and passions / the quirky traditions and patterns of living that may appear strange to others, or how they are: ‘still to this & every day, dealt with’. These observances can give more of a authentic clue, how a opera direction should proceed. Nor do these ‘patterns’ change, just because some twit of a director feels the need ‘for change’, or tries to mask the fact: they don’t know the f..k about, what they are doing! Although they can quietly laugh with their paycheck at others: doing ‘a serious praising discourse’ on their muddling antics.

    I.E: In the future, I will not be surprised if we see some director turns the ‘Easter Hymn’ section from Mascagni’s Cav into a Easter bonnet and Easter egg celebration setting. If such happens, wait for the enlightening reviews, trying to educate the rest of us !!!

  • Buster

    Varady’s voice does not come accross as a particularly beautiful voice to me, but maybe I have been listening to the wrong records.

    The first Varady record I bought was her Saffi, and she was not at all what I thought an operetta star should sound like, vinegary, and way too loud. Then I got her Arabella, and she sounded just the same, both voice and interpretation, then I stopped.

  • I suppose it’s also possible to view Tosca as calculating rather than naive. She’s a performer who wants fame and fortune. Therefore, she plays the role that society needs her to play in order to allow her to work, ie devoted Catholic. If she truly wasn’t but was pretending to be, the candles and cross would never occur to her after she kills Scarpia.

  • Alexythymia

    Varady was a craftsman and an artist. They don’t seem to have those in the upper echelons of grand opera anymore, maybe because the desired effect is so vapid--maybe because vapid sells. I really have no clue. I just know that Gheorghiu, say, cuts it as singer … not as a craftsman and an artist.

  • Buster

    Surely, this is the wildest Saffi:

  • MontyNostry

    Eva is some gypsy! Let her entertain you.

  • richard

    Eva had quite a bit of shine on her voice back then, didn’t she? The youtube site dates it back to 1975.

  • Harry

    Julia Varady gave a stunning performance in Sawallisch’s Ring (EMI) as Sieglinde.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    68. Her Sieglinde is hardly of the same class as those of Sylvia Fisher or Margaret Curphey.

  • Harry

    Vicar .. Sylvia Fischer is a good old true ‘Port Melbourne’ girl. Today, it is a ‘forced’ very trendy area , but take its old days, the days of Sylvia, Vicar. When it was a place of big smelly gasometers ( one even blew up and the hell of of old Port’!) and rusty ships. Where a snow dropper ( a clothes line thief) would steal from the backyards while someone was even in the backyard outhouse, reading a paper!A place then synonymous ‘where they would pinch the sugar out of your coffee if you were not looking’. One part of it was even ‘less Commonwealth’ being notoriously nicknamed as ‘old Bagdad’!

    I don’t know for certain if Ms Sylvia Fisher ever appeared like others, at the local Saturday night Temperance Hall concerts, my father had told me of; but, where they got fruit thrown at them’,if the performers were bad.

    Gee, Commonwealth? Get out, Vicar….. though Lance Ingram also came from around Port Melbourne and he finished up not in your dearest mother England’s Commonwealth bosom at ROH but renowned at the Paris Opera, as one Monsieur ‘Albert Lance’!

    Next you will be telling us that creatures like Gloria Lane and Edmund Bynes were wonderful British exports to the World. Seeing that standard, put me off seeing live opera for a good 10 years, back decades ago.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    Nothing against good, sound Commonwealth singers. “They count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate…”