Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Universal truths

My wife and I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s Tosca yesterday evening. I had already seen it in 2008, but this performance had a completely different (and far superior) cast. The conductor, Paolo Carignani, was especially fine, controlling everything without seeming to (we were sitting in the first row, directly behind him) and giving the performance wonderful pace. But this post is not meant to be a review, so I'll stop. Kudos, though, to Adrianne Pieczonka who was spectacular as Tosca.

On the subway ride home, we both kept pretty much to ourselves. I can’t speak to my wife’s reason, but I was contemplating the nature of a great story. That has continued into this morning and spilled over into this week’s Type M posting.

Tosca is one of the most popular of operas and the reason for that is because of the natures of the characters as much as Puccini’s glorious music. Not much really happens in the opera’s plot. It can be summed up in very few words. The cast is very small: only three characters with the odd bit of help by some others who sing very little. Cavaradossi is an artist from a good family and gets mixed up in politics, helping a political prisoner avoid the police. Tosca is his lover, a simple and devout opera singer with a bit of a jealous streak. Pitted against them is the vile Scarpia, the head of the Roman police who wants to execute Cavaradossi and force Tosca to submit herself to him. All are drawn in a very melodramatic way. And by the final curtain, all are dead: one through murder (Scarpia), one through treachery (Cavaradossi) and one through suicide (Tosca). Not very nice, eh?

But audiences have eaten it all up since the opera’s first performance in 1900, even though critics have been less kind, right from the beginning.

And why is that? Because the libretto (taken from the play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou) is just so universal. The villain is someone you can really hiss. Scarpia is a true shit of the first water. Cavaradossi is somewhat of a cypher to me in that he seems to be a bit of a dolt in many ways. But Tosca, ah Tosca, is such a genuinely tragic person, someone who doesn’t deserve any of what happens to her. Her second act aria, the famous “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art, I lived for love, never did I harm a living creature...why, O Lord, why do you repay me thus?”) lays it all out for us. And we all just buy into it. Why? Because it rings so true. We immediately understand the tragedy of her circumstances.

I’m currently writing the sequel to my forthcoming novel, The Fallen One, and the main character is someone who is tragic in much the same way (she also happens to be an opera singer). In both novels, Marta Hendriks finds herself in much the same place as Floria Tosca. She is beset by evil not of her own making. And like Tosca, she responds to her situation in ways that makes everything worse. I didn’t realize until last night just how close the connection between the two heroines actually is. I have to redouble my efforts in making this connection even stronger.

I can only hope that in the end I will have drawn my own character in a way that will resonate as successfully as Tosca does with audiences of readers who eventually happen upon my two novels.

And that’s the real trick, isn’t it?


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