Barrie Kosky
Rehearsal Tosca | Photo: Melle Meivogel

Barrie Kosky on Tosca: 'concentrated psychodrama between three characters'

11 April 2022

‘I DON’T THINK PUCCINI IS GIVEN ENOUGH CREDIT FOR HIS DAZZLING THEATRICAL INSTINCT’

Text: Laura Roling

Director Barrie Kosky on Tosca, the first of three Puccini operas he will stage with Dutch National Opera over the course of three seasons.

When you ask opera lovers to close their eyes and think of Tosca, they will probably all have a similar image of the opera. Tosca in her rustling velvet dresses, Scarpia with his grey wig, and hyperrealistic sets to represent the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo.
‘Most productions of Tosca indeed revolve around the same aesthetic. There seems to be some sort of lineage: starting with Sarah Bernhardt, when she first performed in Sardou’s original play La Tosca in the 19th century, through to Maria Callas and onward. But such traditions can also be stifling.'

'For us as an artistic team, it helped enormously that we made the decision to set the opera in a contemporary environment rather than the historical context or some kind of imaginary operatic past. But I do have to say that, when I start working on a production, I don’t start with the look of a production.’

What do you start with?
‘I always start with the music. What does it do to me? What does it trigger? What is Puccini aiming at in his music? With Tosca, I felt an astute awareness of the opera’s modernity. Tosca premiered in 1900, literally at the beginning of the 20th century. The opera doesn’t look backwards, but forwards. It looks forwards in its psychology, in its combination of violence, eroticism and sadism. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams had been published just the year before.'

'Photography had been invented a few decades earlier and had started to become more and more omnipresent. We had the first whiffs of electricity and we had the very first moving images. For three or four hundred years, opera had been the place where audiences could go for a large-scale emotional narrative ritual. And that experience would be replaced in the twentieth century, ultimately, by film.’

'But I do have to say that, when I start working on a production, I don’t start with the look of a production'

Was film also a key to your understanding of the opera?
‘I believe Tosca in a way forms a bridge between the ritual of opera and this new mode of cinematic representation. I’m not saying that Puccini was making a film with Tosca, but it’s no coincidence that a lot of early films used Puccini’s ‘soundtrack’, so to speak. And when you look at film noir, which started to be prevalent in the twenties, thirties and forties, this genre and Tosca share a lot of tropes and ideas – criminality, sexuality, sadism, political drama, eroticism and a pervading sense of hopelessness.’

Could we say that your key to Tosca is staging it as a film noir?
‘Yes and no. I am not staging a film noir with a black and white aesthetic. But what I do take from film noir is working from a certain psychological intention. The opera is essentially about three people. There’s a big chorus scene, there are some minor characters, but in essence Tosca is a chamber piece – an incredible, highly concentrated psychodrama between three characters. And for me, this means that you need to get rid of all the clutter.'

'In Tosca, there were a few things we had to take into account, namely that the first act takes place in a church, the second act takes place in Scarpia’s domestic environment and the third act takes place in a prison and you need something for Tosca to throw herself off of. So we decided, for instance, that our church is, up until the ‘Te Deum’, a completely bare stage, only suggestive of a church.’

As you were preparing for Tosca, did you also go back to Sardou’s original play on which the opera was based?
‘Sardou is interesting, because he has a lot of scenes between the minor characters. But I think that his La Tosca is one of those plays that was much more successful on the stage than on the page. When you had Sarah Bernhardt, I’m sure it was extraordinary, but the opera version is undeniably better than the original. The way in which Puccini and his team filleted down the piece and how Puccini brilliantly constructed suspense in his composition – I think it’s ten times better than anything Sardou wrote.’

Sardou acknowledged himself that he preferred what Puccini and his team had done with his play.
‘And rightly so. Puccini had this dazzling theatrical instinct. I don’t think he is given enough credit for that. In a way, he was directing his operas as he was composing them. When he wants a character to walk across the stage to pick up a paint brush or a bottle or something, Puccini will not only give you the stage directions, but also exactly the right amount of bars, in which he’s obviously seeing the character walk from left to right. That’s quite unique.’

We also see Puccini’s immense theatrical instincts at work at the end of the first act, in the ‘Te Deum’.
‘Absolutely, the ‘Te Deum’ works on so many different levels. Puccini has Scarpia sharing his private thoughts, hallucinating them almost. Then you have this grand-scale mass going on at the same time, but also cannons going off backstage. Puccini is brilliantly combining the political, the religious and the erotic, all in this one moment. And the whole second act of the opera is just perfect in its entirety. There’s not one bar out of place, there’s not one moment that doesn’t work. From the moment that Scarpia is revealed sitting there to the very moment Tosca leaves the room, there’s not one moment where you think “Ah, Giacomo! That’s too long, that’s too short, why did you do that?”. It’s absolutely brilliant!’

There are singers and directors who have said that Tosca needs to feel sexually attracted to Scarpia. Isn’t that problematic, especially from today’s perspective?
‘It makes no sense if Scarpia is some repulsive, disgusting toad. I think Tosca is somehow pulled towards his darkness and fascinated by what’s going on there, even though it also frightens her. There is definitely a tingle of eroticism there, somewhere in the background. Scarpia is a psychopath, but it’s much more interesting if he’s a charming psychopath. In my rehearsals with Gevorg Hakobyan, who is our Scarpia, I often tell him to make his performance softer, more seductive, more like honey. I have seen so many Scarpia’s shouting and screaming their way through the opera and it’s just not interesting.’

'Scarpia is a psychopath, but it’s much more interesting if he’s a charming psychopath'

But at the same time, Tosca is also revulsed by Scarpia.
'And how! Yes, he is repulsive and he tries to rape her. There’s no question there. But the fact that some of it is set to gorgeously seductive music makes it even creepier. Scarpia is an extraordinary sort of case study in a psychopath. He’s truly a figure of the 20th century rather than of the 19th, when villains were much more charicatured and one-dimensional.’

In your production, you make the violence of the opera quite explicit.
‘Well, Tosca is one of the most violent pieces in the opera repertoire. There’s torture, there’s attempted rape, there’s murder, there’s an execution and there’s a suicide. All three characters die horrible deaths. I think Tosca is one of the best examples of opera as voyeurism and as a fetish – of watching the unspeakable being performed on stage. I want to bring back some authenticity to that fact, rather than glamorising things. The violence itself is already there in the music and the text. I’m not putting anything extra in.’

Tosca is an opera singer, a performer. What does that mean for the piece, that one of the characters is a theatrical creature?
‘Well, it triggers the question of what is real and what is play. To what extent is Tosca truly jealous and to what extent is she playing her jealousy in the first act? And of course in the second act, she has to play the role of her life as she faces Scarpia. The themes of performance and theatre are constantly present throughout the opera. All three deaths are presented as theatrical moments. Right after she murders Scarpia, Tosca in a way turns into a director. She stages a sort of strange Requiem for Scarpia. Obviously there’s guilt there, and horror, and I think she has also gone a little mad there too. But there’s also this theatrical creature in her that cannot resist this conversation with a dead man.'
 
'And then there’s Cavaradossi’s death, which is quite literally a piece of theatre. In our take, both Tosca and Cavaradossi know to some degree that this fake execution is not going to end well. Cavaradossi absolutely knows that Tosca is kidding herself. When the execution takes place, Tosca turns into an audience member, even complimenting Mario on his great death. And, finally, in her own death, she becomes her own production. She literally stages her own show.’

In some productions, Tosca’s jump towards her death is presented as an act of sheer desperation, in others it’s almost romanticised, as though she’s jumping towards her freedom. How do you see this moment?
‘I think killing herself is a rational, logical decision for Tosca. She isn’t desperate, nor is she flying towards her freedom. Rather, it’s a deliberate and cold moment of rationality. The opera is extremely pessimistic throughout. The ending is no different. That is also why we chose, in this production, to finish the opera not with the image of the soldiers looking down from the parapet, but with something different.’

Tosca can be seen from 12 April to 8 May, click here for more information and tickets.