Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tosca And The Hotdog People: Religion Subtly Scorned

Last night, the Puccini opera, Tosca, broadcast to one of the largest audiences it ever had. In conjunction with the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco Opera, Tosca was simulcast from the grand SF Opera House to the incredible screen and sound system of AT&T Stadium. FREE!

The Stadium Loved It - But Did They Get It?

I hope they did. From the comments on Yelp! the crowd was an opera-loving crowd. Yeah, I'm being a bit snobbish here, but I don't think these were people who had tailgate parties (note the one comment: "...I'm going to try to sneak in some 92' Ch√Ęteau d'Yquem Sauternes underneath my cummerbund.").

As one critic put it, Tosca is

" impassioned piece seething with revolutionary overtones, love, lust, lechery, torture, murder, suicide and religion."

I wonder if anyone got the subtle anti-religious theme? If Tony Perkins had seen it, he would have undoubtedly picked up on it: Tosca is a woman of the theater (opera singer) who meets her lover in a church where he is painting the Magdalene for a side chapel. She becomes extremely jealous of the painting, not knowing that her lover is harboring the model's brother, a rebel who has escaped from prison. This was during a time in Italy when the Vatican was hand-in-hand with Rome against the liberating forces of Napoleon. Both lovers get caught up in a web of spies, lies and intrigue. If that's not enough, she kills the evil chief of police to save her lover, then kills herself after her lover is killed. Got that? With grand sets, incredible costumes, phenominal score, and all three principals dead at the end, the audience goes away with excitement and pathos almost too much to handle. But it's one small part of a scene - actually one bit (pictured in the old poster) that catches our interest: after she kills Scarpio (the chief of police), Tosca lays him out on the floor and places a candle on either side of him, giving his corpse a dignity he never deserved.

However, in the production I saw last night, she places Scarpio's arms straight out! It's a cruciform layout to be sure. He's laid out as if for a Christian burial, in a rather sacrilegious way. In her mind, Tosca has not only murdered Scarpio, but the church as well. The church she was devoted to. The church which chastized her for her love of the painter. The church which was co-ruler with an oppressive government. The church which condemns suicide. And for our modern-day sensibilities: the church which deplores the idea of a judge having empathy.

Here is how one first-timer ballpark opera fan put it:
What a unique and bizarre way to watch a show: blankets, beers, wine, sandwiches, popcorn, scarves, whatever. It was even weirder noticing that right above the huge digital screen was a Budweiser ad.

The audience booed at the villain, cheered with the heroine and tried not to yell at people who were talking to loud.

Garlic fries and Opera do mix!!

Couldn't have been a better night. Almost full moon. Perfect weather. At one point during Floria's moving aria a flock of seagulls flew by as if on cue. I love this SF tradition. The casual setting was great for this particular opera and it was great to hear the crowd roar for Floria....

While I haven't as yet obtained a current criticism of Tosca by, say, that totally enlightened preacher, Rick Warren, there were critics galore in Puccini's times:

(from Giacomo Puccini: Tosca, by Mosco Carner)
…the implied anti-clericalism of the opera manifest not only in Cavaradossi [the painter] but also in the fact that its villain was himself portrayed as a devout believer; this threw an odd light on the Catholic Church and would probably go against the grain of many spectators, to say nothing of the Vatican.
One current critic (1903):
“…a prolonged orgy of lust and crime made endurable by the beauty of Puccini’s music."
And then there was the ultimate (Puritanical) put down:
“…a shabby little shocker.”

There's a fascinating book that doesn't critique opera music nor even the librettos. It's To the Devil with Opera! It's All Religion, Myth and Sex, by Michael Kreps. It tells us what a rich source the Bible was for opera librettos. And even though it's only been out a year, it's probably been banned by U.S. Christian bookstores and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Below is the role played by the incomparable Maria Callas at the height of her fame.

In her interpretation, she lays the candles down with trepidation; she cannot stand to be near the corpse. In fact, she literally forces herself to commit the sacrilege, but performs it just the same.

Let's face it: the pomposity and hypocrisy of the church are main themes in Tosca just as brazen as the lust and the love. And some of today's Evangelicals or, ahem, "social conservatives" wouldn't approve of it. Pat Robertson wouldn't approve of it. Justice Anthony Scalia wouldn't approve of it. The Mormon Church wouldn't approve of it.

And (if he could understand it), Sean Hannity wouldn't approve of it.

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