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Tosca's Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective Paperback – 2001

4.7 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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A cheap, meretricious shocker or a probing and profoundly moving essay in human psychology? Debate about the merits of Tosca continues, but thanks to this fascinating book, we now have a new angle from which to consider one of the most popular operas in the repertory. Indeed, as Susan Vandiver Nicassio explores in Tosca's Rome--a triumph of interdisciplinary studies--the stakes go far beyond the conventions of 19th-century melodrama to tap into the central political myth of modernity: the myth of progressive revolutionaries ("good guys") versus repressive reactionaries ("bad guys"). A former opera singer and avowed Tosca enthusiast, historian Nicassio pulls out all the tools of her trade as well as those of several others--including archival research, art history, musical analysis, and textual close reading--to place this "portmanteau of cultural icons" within the original historical context of the tale it tells. Nicassio in fact examines various contextual tangents here: the familiar opera of Puccini; Victorien Sardou's "well-made" play--a hit vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt--that was the opera's basis (and the telling differences between the two); and the actual, specific setting of Rome in which the tragedy takes place in June 1800 following the fall of the Roman republic.

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

Nicassio's critical look at Puccini's Tosca (one of the most popular and "historical" operas ever written) arrives just in time for its January 2000 centennial. An academic historian who has actually performed the role of Tosca, Nicassio is perfectly suited to deal with the opera's political and musical complexities. She divides her study into three large sections. In the first, she reviews Roman life in the late 18th and 19th centuries, paying considerable attention to how Puccini's own prejudices shaped his story and how Sardou (the French playwright) reinterpreted the historical realities that the opera treats. In the second section, she looks at how Rome circa 1800 was viewed through the eyes of a painter, a singer, and a policeman (the occupations of the opera's three main characters). This section, and the nextAa scene-by-scene analysis of the operaAare continually revelatory and illuminating. A valuable appendix very clearly shows the parallels (and discrepancies) between the play and the opera. Nicassio's prose, though intensely scholarly, is lively and approachable. There is plenty here to intrigue everyoneAseasoned opera lovers, musical novices, history buffs, and Italophiles. Highly recommended for all collections.ALarry A. Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 356 pages
  • Publisher: The University Of Chicago Press (2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226579727
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226579726
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #370,800 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
This book is wonderful! The author is a former opera singer who has sung the role of Tosca; now she is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. In the book, she discusses the historical background of the opera and the play on which it was based, emphasizing the importance of the Church in Rome, and the conflict between Church and State. Then, in three chapters called "The Painter's Rome", "The Singer's Rome", and "The Policeman's Rome", she talks about Rome as each of the main characters of the opera would have seen it, and she also discusses real people who served as "models" for each character. Then she discusses each act of the opera, with a short chapter on the events that take place between Acts 1 and 2. She talks about earlier versions of the libretto, and things that were left out of the final version of the opera, as well as the arguments between Puccini and his librettists over certain parts of the opera. The author also discusses the differences between the play and the opera; in an appendix, she gives side-by-side summaries of the play and the opera. The book is also beautifully illustrated, and at the beginning of the book, there is a map that shows all the locations mentioned in the play.
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.
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Format: Paperback
Fans of Puccini's opera Tosca, myself included, will adore this in-depth, historically accurate study on Rome at the time of the opera's setting- Napoleonic War time Italy in the early 1800's. The author Susan Vandiver Nicassio is herself a retired soprano who sang the part of Tosca and knows not only the music but the historical background. This book is crammed with detailed information about Rome of this period. The sites mentioned in Tosca - the Church of San Andrea De La Valle, Palazzo Farnese and Castel San Angelo, are still standing in Rome today. This book takes us on a historic journey and delves into the political and cultural time set of the era.

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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is a sumptious confection for either the opera-lover or the historian, since it can be read from either viewpoint. Susan Vandiver Nicassio has wrirren a rarity, a backgrounder on one of the world's famous operas that does not simply bog down in retelling the story as so many do.

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.
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