Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca
December 26, 2022
Regardless of the production, beauty overrules iniquity. On religion and ethics in Puccini's Tosca
Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca was the first opera I ever watched. I’ve now seen it three times — in Tel Aviv in 2019, in Dublin last summer, and, most recently, in New York City at the end of 2022.
In truth, though, I’ve already heard “E Lucevan le Stelle” sung live at least seven times, both in and out of costume, with proper lighting set-up or behind half-painted sets, as several of these occasions occurred during the dress rehearsals of the Irish National Opera’s production of Tosca.
It is so because for the week leading up to the INO’s premiere I shadowed its director Michael Gieleta and was privy to the behind-the-scenes operations of the show. I spoke to numerous members of the company’s creative and administrative team, including Gieleta himself, the assistant director Davey Kelleher, and costume and set designer Gary McCann.
Tosca’s narrative takes place in Rome amidst the Napoleonic wars, with the city is under the jurisdiction of the Parthenopean Republic. Floria Tosca’s love interest, Mario Cavaradossi, is a religious insurgent secretly engaged in political activities (opposition to the Catholic Church defined the revolutionary Republicans of the era), and the opera’s villain Baron Scarpia, the chief of the Secret Police, symbolises a combination of religious and political authority.
Anti-clerical undertones are evoked throughout the performance. Cavaradossi, whose morality originates irreligiously in art and love, refuses to meet with a priest before his execution; a clerical judge oversees his torturing; and the character most explicitly representative of the Church, Scarpia, carries hypocritical religious devotions, as demonstrated by his lust and false piety.
Though Scarpia invokes the power of the Church for personal interest, it is unclear whether the sadomasochistic character of his authority betrays any personal religious devotion, as he may very well have no religious beliefs altogether. By comparison, Tosca is presented as a conventionally pious woman who regularly brings flowers to bestow upon the Madonna.
The distinction must be made between institutional religion and personal faith.
“The arch of the whole opera questions what religion, spirituality, and Catholic hypocrisy are,” said Michael Gieleta when on the opening night, I spoke to him about his production’s interpretation of Tosca’s religious themes. “This concerns Tosca herself, who drew moral superiority from murdering Scarpia and took her own life – two cardinal sins according to the Catholic Church teachings.”
Religion is a primary source of conflict in Puccini’s work, and it remains central to Gieleta’s production. During the performance, a lighting fixture in the form of a cross is suspended over the stage, the object itself weighing two tons. Throughout the show, the object is a peripheral presence, its presentation aligned with the operatic narrative. As its proximity to the stages narrows, a sense of enormous tension builds, serving as a metaphor for the oppressive nature of the religious state.
“Everything and everyone in the opera is predetermined by the oppressive power of the Catholic Church. Suppose you read the cross as a symbol of Christ’s suffering. In that case, it can also be read as the pain inflicted onto the characters by politics, bad luck, the lack of divine intervention, which is questioned in Act Two by Tosca,” Michael Gieleta observed.
Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca in Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, 11-17 July 2022.
Tómas Tómasson as Scarpia and Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in Irish National Opera's production of Tosca
Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca and Dimitri Pittas as Cavaradossi with Chorus in Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca, in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from 11-17 July 2022 │Patrick Redmond
Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca, in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from 11-17 July 2022
Likewise, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ongoing production of Tosca, which I watched recently, similarly considers religion at the core of the eponymous hero’s conflict.
Unlike the INO’s rendition, the Met’s version of Tosca is much more stylistically traditional — that is, with the exception of the tilting stage, which serves a similar function to Gieleta’s cross-shaped lighting apparatus. The platform in the Met theatre is made steeper by the crew at the end of each act, reflecting the increasing unreliability of the Church as an arbiter of social organisation.
The opera’s agnostic views towards religion manifest in Tosca’s aria Vissi d’arte in Act II. “Tosca did everything by the book, according to the rules established by God. God’s ‘remuneration’ – these are her words – does not reflect the ‘fair deal’,” Gieleta observed. In a private moment that is both an appeal to and an indictment of God, Tosca questions why the object of her piety has abandoned her.
What I find particularly impressive is the fact that Tosca expects God to be ‘fair’ and points out that he/she/it is not.
In the Met’s Tosca, Aleksandra Kurzak’s performance of the famous aria makes clear how self-defence is complicated by Tosca’s religious devotion. After spotting a knife in Scarpia’s office, Kurzak suggests a noticeable hesitation in the character before she quickly seizes the weapon from the table and hides it behind her back.
Even though the modern sensibility’s conception of justice ensures the audience’s sympathies lay firmly with Tosca, there is a plausible sense of uncertainty she exhibits, originating out of her pre-emptive transgression once she has made up her mind — her guilt, in other words, is a precondition to acceptance of her resolution.
Overall, Kurzak’s performance of Vissi d’arte, with its deep pathos and virtuosity that naturally elevates into wistful pianissimo, is softer and silkier than the one from Sinéad Campbell Wallace’s at the INO. Kurzak’s shining rendition emphasises the contrast between the aria and the final minutes of the act, which is primarily an extended pantomime accompanied by a dramatic orchestral score; the juxtaposition of these climactic scenes, amalgamating in the total sonic clamour, illustrates the versatility of Tosca.
Davey Kelleher, assistant director of the INO production, spoke on their interpretation of Vissi d’arte: “The way that it is painted here is with the Velazquez painting over her shoulder, drawing a parallel between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of Tosca. There’s a question laid to the feet of God in that aria; there’s this sense of religion as a man-made force, having all this corrupted power—there’s a suggestion [of] the hypocrisy of preaching one thing and practising another, and the church protecting itself and abandoning its people.”
Kelleher also explained some of the staging choices that shadow the crucifixion image. In the torture scene, Cavaradossi is in the centre of the chamber with two other prisoners on either side. It is through the machinations of church members that the Jesus crucifixion image is betrayed, representing the corruption of religion for nefarious purposes. The cross is not just a representation of suffering generally but of suffering on behalf of others. Thus, the Church acts completely antithetically to its purpose by giving its people and institution priority over those it should protect.
Central to this hypocrisy is the heedless prosperity of the Church. Both the Met and INO set designs incorporate many well-known art pieces to convey the state’s wealth and opulence. The narrative of the former plays out at the Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo — traditional staging choices allow for a focus to be on operatic narrative rather than aesthetic distinctions. The latter is less conventional.
“There’s this slightly brutalist architecture in the walls,” Kelleher said. “Scarpia’s office has a Fresco Renaissance painting, but everything else is very utilitarian. There’s a really strange sense that he has an appetite for things that are beautiful but has no right to them. It feels like it doesn’t fit there, that someone has picked a flower and stuck it in a coffee pot.”
Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in INO's production │ Patrick Redmond
Gieleta argued that the use of nudity as a thematic program in many of the employed paintings represents the irony of immodesty in a place “that is supposed to be dedicated to upholding the ideals of piety, impecuniousness and dedication to God. When walking around Rome in preparation for the production, I found the contrasts of ideology and the visuals that it was housed in rather striking.”
Gary McCann, costume and set designer on INO’s Tosca, elaborated on the use of the Fresco painting: “We chose [it] because it contains an enormous amount of naked flesh. There’s this irony in the design presentation of the opera that we have a man who is interested in sins of the flesh but who professes to be extremely holy.”
The juxtaposition of material wealth and Baroque iconography with the Italian Brutalist architecture and poverty of the masses creates a visual paradox, underscoring the tension between the ideals represented in art and the mundane reality for most people. “You have this enormous beautiful [Velasquez] painting, but it’s hanging in the presence of this corrupt power. What good is it to have this beautiful representation of the church and faith and sacrifice if people are going to destroy each other?” Kelleher asked.
The religious order of the day not only acts hypocritically and eschews the needs of the poor but actively elevates and glorifies violence. Set design is also used to reflect this element of the operatic narrative: “We present (historically correct) representation of nudity, sensuality and a sculpture of a rape – the kind of visual work that you see in the palaces of the most important figures in the Catholic Church and their art collections in Rome” Gieleta wrote in his remarks.
Act III, which begins after the recent news of Napoleon’s victory, uses a statue of a falling angel, modelled after a piece of art outside the Castel Sant’Angelo, but blown up on a larger scale. “There’s this sense of the fall of Rome….Order is falling. The orthodoxy is falling,” Kelleher explained. The motive of the Rape of Persephone can be seen upstage. For Scarpia, this classical representation of a horrific crime has become an object of aesthetic appreciation and historical significance. “It is this way of elevating and legitimising abhorrent behaviour and putting a golden frame around it,” Kelleher went on.
Regardless of the production, in Tosca beauty overrules iniquity. And yet, the opera does not condemn religion in its entirety, only when it acts in collusion with bodies of the state to maintain tyrannical power.
Tosca’s spirituality contains an authentic morality that is not performative and thus not susceptible to corruption. She does not perform charitable acts publicly, but rather leads an intimate inner life guided by her faith. However, to accuse the church on the grounds of hypocrisy, the opera must ascribe worth and veneration to piety in the first place.
As such, Tosca does not express outright disdain for religion and, in fact, uses appreciation for religion to leverage the critique of the Church. Though it criticises inauthentic worship, the opera also glorifies the original figure of belief – the suffering Jesus. It is through this appraisal that Tosca advocates for truer piety, which is absent from the Vatican.