It’s not without reason that Italians are known for their passion. Food, love, the church, politics, music: they all can inspire an effusive outpouring of emotion. Nowhere is this passion more evident than in Italian operas. Just try to resist being swept up by the torrid climaxes and fervid outbursts of love or hate in an opera like Puccini’s Tosca. It’s impossible not to be at least slightly moved, especially when the singers have as much power and control as the outstanding cast in Gianfranco de Bosio’s 1976 movie version of Tosca.
The opera details the turmoil thrust upon the singer Floria Tosca and her lover Mario Cavaradossi, a painter with revolutionary inclinations, when Cavaradossi’s friend Angelloti (Giancarlo Luccardi) escapes from a Roman prison. Cavaradossi attempts to help Angelloti hide from the corrupt police chief, Scarpia, who is keen on punishing Cavaradossi and claiming Tosca as his own.
Raina Kabaivanska is captivating as Tosca. She is intimately receptive to the dramatic impetus behind her lines, displaying an astounding breadth of tone in expressing her character’s emotional state.
When Tosca is in the arms of Cavaradossi, Kabaivanska’s sighed “o, mi amor” is breathtakingly beautiful. She is capable of terrifying fury, as when Tosca is being blackmailed and grilled for information by Scarpia (the way she defiantly spits his name at him is indelible).
Her dynamic control is miraculous: in the showcase aria “Vissi d’arte,” during which Tosca laments her choice between submitting to Scarpia or allowing Cavaradossi’s execution, Kabaivanska fluidly grows from the quietest piano to the strongest forte and delicately floats high notes in a near-whisper. When she dips into her lower register, her voice is veined with the pained sorrow Tosca endures. All of this without the slightest degradation of her pure tone.
Yet Kabaivanska’s male counterparts are almost as exceptional as she. Plácido Domingo, as Cavaradossi, has a voice as rich and florid as the gilded, marble-filled church that he paints in. He easily swoops up to difficult high notes and then holds them with exuberance, and his duet with Kabaivanska in the final act is glorious.
Sherril Milnes is an imperious Scarpia, with his patrician nose, manly sideburns, and stentorian voice. The scene in which he interrogates Cavaradossi is especially effective. Milnes sits smugly behind a table full of fruit and crystal carafes as if it were a judge’s bench and issues forceful demands to his prisoner. Underneath their tense dialogue, the quiet strains of a cantata as performed by Tosca and a chorus trickle in from another room.
That scene also illustrates an advantage of a filmed opera over a stage production. The chorus (the Ambrosian Singers in the movie) never overpowers Scarpia and Cavaradossi, and the balance between the impeccable New Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, and the singers is excellent. For in a movie, one can mix and edit to perfection. As such, the orchestral playing is flawless and the balance never falters. But as with most recordings, there is a pleasing roughness and immediacy that is lost without live sound.
Otherwise, the movie is not so different from a live production. De Bosio choreographs the action as if it were on a stage, though real backdrops enliven the opera more than set pieces. An ornate church, a lordly estate, and a gloomy castle all provide a reality hard to achieve on stage. Close-up shots of faces add emotional depth, but the singers are understandably preoccupied more by singing than acting.
Unfortunately, de Bosio does nothing to correct the weaknesses of the opera. Though Puccini is a master of dramatic tension, he is less accomplished at character development. Tosca rapidly swings from jealousy to confident love to hysterical terror and back to blissful love. It is almost as if she is a new person in each of the three acts, and neither de Bosio nor Kabaivanska help make the transitions more believable.
Scarpia presents another problem, one that may be out of the hands of the director. His music never matches the evilness of his words and conduct. Instead, he gets romantic love songs and beautiful melodies, even for such a chilling line as “A violent conquest has more flavor than soft consent.” The disconnect between words and music is jarring and disconcerting, so that one can’t help but wonder if Puccini actually condones Scarpia’s violent lust.
But the movie is impossible to criticize musically. Even the singers of minor roles such as Scarpia’s deputy Spoletta (Mario Ferrara), the sacristan (Alfredo Mariotti), and the prison clerk (Domenico Medici) have full, impressive voices. And for a Puccini opera, the music and its emotions are what matter most. When the orchestra and singers surge to a fantastic climax, emotion surges with it: Italian passion at its finest.