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Tosca's Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective Paperback – 2001
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Rather than make pedantic points about historical inaccuracies, Nicassio untangles the far more revelatory layers of creative misprision that both Sardou and Puccini (together with his two librettists Giacosa and Illica) committed in choosing to anchor Tosca so firmly in the milieu of the French revolutionary/Napoleonic era, in which corrupt state power and the Church are perceived as dual aspects of a superstitious ancien régime. The result is to plug into a powerfully resonant myth of cultural patterns that also managed to ignite Puccini's self-avowed "Neronic instinct." (Verdi, the author notes, had likewise declared a desire to operatize Sardou's play, had he not already entered into retirement.) Ultimately, for Nicassio, Tosca is a "20th-century story, and part of its power lies in its preview of totalitarianism." It's a pattern, incidentally, that Nicassio believes is itself beginning to face a paradigm shift in our own time--though that is an issue beyond the scope of her book.
In developing her portrayal of the historical context of Rome as each of the chief characters might actually have experienced it, Nicassio pulls off a magnificent coup of cultural analysis. She offers information about artistic and musical life with legal history, theology, and shifting attitudes toward the use of torture--all woven together into a marvelous polyphony. Her lively, jargon-free style and common-sense approach ensure that these exegeses are anything but dry, while numerous first-hand sources as well as intriguing visual documents add further layers to our picture of a complex, labyrinthine Rome. She's particularly interesting on the differences between Sardou's standard-issue anticlericalism and Puccini's rather more contradictory attitudes toward religiosity.
A good half of the book is taken up with close readings and elaborations of each scene in the opera, with wide-angle ruminations on its overall structure. Nicassio proves herself a very astute music critic as well as historian, commenting, for example, on the contrast between the music given to the two lovers and Scarpia's sound world: "One could even say that the musical conflict of the opera is between declamation and lyricism." She considers the meaning of Puccini's shift from the overtly (and stereotypically) political angle of Sardou to a more "existential" approach. On the controversial choice to end the opera with the melody from Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle," Nicassio offers a particularly intriguing interpretation, positing that Tosca is, ultimately, a work about "the illusory nature of happiness" in which the "great world of politics and institutions is indifferent to that happiness." The intersection that Nicassio suggests between historical specificity and universal artistic resonance is more food for thought in a book that provides a veritable feast. --Thomas May --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Library Journal
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
The detail that the author goes into is incredible! She has figured out, for example, which operas were playing in the 1800 season in Rome, and which opera Tosca would have been singing in! And she really fills in all the "gaps" in the plot of the opera. I love the opera anyway, but when I listened to it again after reading this book, I felt I was listening to it with a completely new understanding.
Victorien Sardou was a late 19th century playwright who upon seeing Sarah Bernhardt performing in Paris theatres wrote La Tosca as a vehicle for her. The play is long and complex, a perfect 19th century example of what we now call a "well-made" play. It is virtually an epic. Tosca was a country girl, a shepherdess who was put into a convent for her wild ways and when the Pope heard her sing he cried and decided she should be an opera singer. She comes to Rome and makes it big, renowned for her voice as well as her beauty. Tosca's theatrical world is described in historical terms and in vivid precision. In Napoleon days, opera was still the biggest form of cultural artistic expression. In Italy, Spontini was writing such hits as La Vestale. Rossini was beginning to write his first major hits. Beethoven wrote his only opera Fidelio and in Germany, Webber was writing German fantasy operas. Tosca's world was one of service to high art but she would have suffured the stigma of being lusted after by several powerful and licentious men or become the mistress of a VIP and regarded as loose.Read more ›
After a Preface that should on no account be overlooked, Nicassio divides the book into two halves, a social history and a musical analysis. Tosca is rare among operas in being set in a specific historic time and place: Rome during the few months between the fall of the ramshackle Roman Republic of 1798-99 and the return of Pope Pius VII, a brief interval during which Rome was occupied and ruled by the Bourbon royal family of Naples. Sketching the situation in Rome at the time and the damage inflicted on the city by the Republicans and their French tutors, she goes on to examine the contemporary scene in chapters giving the viewpoint of its three main characters: an artist, a musician, and a policeman. The result is in many ways more enlightening than a mere straight history. The second part of the book is a more orthodox musical analysis of the opera by themes, motives and motivations, but even here her dramatic analysis persistently strays back to material laid down in the first half.
One of Nicassio's intriguing ideas is that Puccini in fact turned the historical situation on its head to serve his own political and philosophical agenda, something of which many opera composers have been guilty.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Thoroughly researched, but entertaining background comparing historical events, the Sardou play written for Bernhardt, and the opera. A must-have for Puccini fans.Published 8 months ago by David O. Roberts
Actually, this scholarly but lively book is about much more than Tosca. The
author goes into great detail about Roman life at the time of the opera's
action--the... Read more