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The first opera of the 20th century, Tosca boldly takes us into a world we have come to know well: a world of violence in which the God of the New Testament does not save any of its protagonists. That this ground-breaking opera should have been penned by the most popular of opera composers is not only ironic, but also has led to a misunderstanding of its enormous achievement as well as its enormous historical impact.

Tosca is Fidelio without God.

When I conducted Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking two seasons ago, that brand new opera once again tackled the fundamental issues of a man who has broken the law, is incarcerated, and saved by a woman. The traditions spring from a genre called Rescue Opera, and Fidelio is the greatest example.

In the case of Dead Man Walking, the man's soul is saved by the passionate work of a nun, just as he is executed before the audience's eyes. In the case of Fidelio, the man is saved through the intercession of a woman who is his wife and who must dress as a man in order to effect the rescue - and the Deus ex machina - a representative of the State, who rides into town on his white stallion. Beethoven's opera ends with thanks to God Himself and the triumph of goodness over evil. (How ironic to think of the world premiere performance of Fidelio being given in 1805 before an incomprehending audience of French soldiers, quartered in Vienna by the very same unseen hero of Tosca, Napoleon Bonaparte.)

In Tosca something very different happens. The lovers, both of whom are artists, are not married, and therefore "living in sin." We first see them in a church. The man is painting a picture of Mary Magdalene, who, in those days, was viewed as the prostitute of the New Testament. On the other side of the stage we see a statue of the other Mary, the eternal virgin and mother of Jesus. Between these two polar opposite images of the feminine, the two lovers plan their evening assignation. In Act Two, the man who is the incarnation of corrupt power (in Fidelio it is Don Pizzaro; in Dead Man it is all the other men in the text) tortures the hero in front of the woman and then attempts to rape her. By the end of the opera all the protagonists are dead. No one comes to anyone's rescue.

The misunderstanding that Tosca is merely a "shabby little shocker" has something to do with a general condescension toward Italian composers. Only in the past 50 years has the output of Verdi come to be recognized as truly great. The new critical editions of his operas as well as those of Rossini have gone a long way in establishing these masters as the equal of any French or German composer. But Puccini remains the least studied and the least appreciated by the serious musical commentators. That Puccini was a genius whose knowledge was encyclopedic is hardly known. Tosca shows the composer's complete knowledge of church music (he came from generations of church composers) as well as the new and strange music from Finland's Jean Sibelius. Like George Gershwin after him, Puccini has suffered from the 20th-century idea that popular composers are fundamentally ignorant and non-intellectual.

The plot of Tosca is no more a cheap little thriller than Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is a "problem play." Both works derive from an ancient folk tradition. It has been pointed out by Grace Ioppolo that the Shakespeare comedy is adapted from two other late-16th-century plays. The folk tradition that is shared in Tosca and Measure for Measure, as well as countless other theatrical works, is as follows:

"A woman … attempts to gain mercy for her imprisoned brother (or in some versions, her imprisoned husband) from a corrupt magistrate. After the woman submits to the magistrate's demand that she sleep with him to secure the brother's release, she is told that her brother has been executed. She then demands justice from the country's ruler, who sentences the magistrate to marry the woman, in order to restore her honor, and then to be executed. The woman pleads for mercy for her new husband, and his life is spared." (Grace Ioppolo, introduction to Measure for Measure; the Applause Shakespeare Library (2001) [Thank you, Francesco Ciluffo, for reminding me that Wagner's second opera, Das Liebesverbot, is a setting of Measure for Measure.]

Puccini's Tosca tells part of this story, and it does not take much thinking to see this same folk tradition in many other prison plays and operas.

In the months and years that immediately followed the premiere of Tosca, Europe saw Richard Strauss' Salome die by being crushed to death, Elektra dance herself to death, and the Chosen One of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring perform the same Terpsichorean sacrifice. In each case the curtain simply fell without comment. No epilogue or warning, as in Don Giovanni. Not even a chance to shed a tear, as we do with the deaths of Mimì and Cio-Cio San. The violence on the stage found its ultimate fulfillment in the theater of war that engulfed the world a few years later in 1914.

At the end of Puccini's Tosca the principal characters are dead and unmourned by the author as well as the audience. Equally important is the fact that Puccini had to invent a way of describing the process of their deaths - the violence and torture that was hitherto not part of the musical canon. Yes, Wagner wrote a few seconds of violent music for the death of Fasolt in Das Rheingold, but that is nothing compared to the sadism that runs through Puccini's magnificent score. And although the tone poems of Richard Strauss and the scenic descriptions in Wagner's operas describe just about every natural occurrence and state of mind, the brutality of mankind is not described; that is, until Tosca.

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold referred to Tosca as the "greatest film score of all time" he was not completely kidding. For the first time in music theater history, a seamless score described every detail of the drama - every look, every action both large and small, through the application of Wagner's technique of using musical motives associated with characters and situations. But Puccini goes much further than Wagner, since a Wagnerian music drama is fundamentally static and without constant action, and Tosca is continuous action, even within the love duets. Only when there is an aria does Puccini return to what one might call "ritual speed," so that we are allowed to explore the inner workings of a character - and this accounts for about ten minutes of music in a score lasting some two hours. It is Puccini's ability to tell an action story with music that makes it the prototype of the style of film scoring developed by Steiner, Waxman, Korngold, Rózsa, and all who followed, bringing this Puccini-perfected technique from Europe to Hollywood one generation later.

And Tosca remains both avant garde as well as a favorite opera, a rather unique position which it has held since that first night in Rome, on January 14, 1900. I was privileged to see Maria Callas' return to the Metropolitan Opera (with Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi) in the 1960s. As a teenager, I had no less than four recordings of it. The first time I conducted "Vissi d'arte" was with Leontyne Price at the Kennedy Center Honors. And the first time I conducted the complete opera (Washington Opera, 1982) my Tosca was Shirley Verrett and Cavaradossi was Carlo Bergonzi.

That was when I really began to understand the uniqueness of this work. I hated what I had to become in order to conduct the second act. It reminded me of how I felt whenever I conducted The Rite of Spring. As an artist we have to reach deep into the darkest parts of our personality - the very parts we work so hard to transcend - in order to embody the violence of which we are all capable. That every character in Puccini's Tosca is based on real people who existed in real places on June 17 and 18, 1800, makes the telling of this tale in our day, historical as well as ancient. It is also disturbingly contemporary.

- John Mauceri