Monday, January 25, 2010

Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore

Poor Tosca's cri de coeur has perhaps suffered from being so very beautiful. It's become--perhaps it has always been--a showpiece. We're accustomed to hearing it as a proof of technical facility and artistic accomplishment. And I admit, I know I've sat back in a university recital hall thinking, "Fine, show me," instead of honorably doing my best to think of the devout, passionate woman caught in an impossible situation in 1804 Rome. Tosca has garnered praise and blame for its melodramatic tendencies, and I'm not denying that a soprano being asked for sexual favors (ahem) by a corrupt baritone police chief in order to save her tenor lover from execution has, to put it mildly, rather an air of the contrived about it. But who can remain unmoved when Tosca sings what has sometimes been called her credo: her almost childlike enumeration of her good deeds, her unquestioning giving of herself in love, in charity, in song, ending with the heartbroken, unanswerable "why?"

In an academic seminar today, the topic under discussion was the canonization (and subsequent removal from the Roman Calendar) of Philomena, who, if she existed, was probably a virgin martyr of the second century. Her (presumed) remains were discovered in 1802, their authenticity championed by a provincial priest even as it was debated by archaeologists and Vatican commissions. What, I asked, were the factors influencing the Church in favor of Fr. Francesco di Lucia when official ecclesiastical procedure was so cautious? Then came the glorious moment when the woman in academical robes at the head of the table brought Puccini into the conversation. Apparently the early nineteenth century was a time of special pressure to canonize saints, especially saints of chastity, in face of the social upheaval and changing mores which are seen in, among other things, Tosca! The professor revealed unguessed-at levels of animation as she discussed Tosca's moral quandary and the implications of Zeffirelli's and Bondy's religious beliefs (or lack of them) for their respective productions of the opera... Then we got back to discussing St. Philomena and medieval hagiography. Are such exciting and spirited diversions likely to occur again? Veremmo. In the meantime, Tosca, courtesy of one of her most celebrated interpreters.

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