Lorenzo Viotti

Lorenzo Viotti on Tosca: 'the opera is punching you in the stomach'

11 April 2022

'From the very first note to the very last chord, this opera keeps throwing punches at you'

Text: Laura Roling

Chief conductor Lorenzo Viotti leads the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in Tosca, the first of three Puccini operas to be presented over the course of three years.

This is not the first time you are conducting Tosca, right?
‘I have conducted the opera before, but only revival productions in repertoire houses.That means I only had a couple of days of rehearsals, and that was it. This is my first new production, and we’re taking almost two months to dive into this work. That makes an incredible difference, so in a sense, I consider this my first Tosca. In preparation for the rehearsals, I have of course carefully studied the score, analysed every note and every character. But the most important are the discoveries you make when you’re rehearsing, because that’s when things start falling into place.’

Is it absolutely necessary to work on Puccini so extensively?
‘Puccini has the unjust reputation of being easy, but there’s nothing easy about his music. You need to take time to do this composer justice. He composed his operas with such a meticulous attention to detail and an incredible instinct for what makes good theatre. Try doing a Mozart or a Wagner opera with just two days of rehearsals and see what happens. The result won’t be good and audiences will notice it immediately. The sad thing with Puccini is that people have gotten used to hearing his works performed carelessly.’

'Puccini composed his operas with such a meticulous attention to detail and an incredible instinct for what makes good theatre'

What makes Tosca such a powerful opera?
‘It’s extremely dark and pessimistic. Rather than with an overture, the opera opens musically with the sound of Scarpia, establishing his dark presence in the music long before the character physically appears on stage. And from that very beginning onward, Puccini never lets our attention slip. Even the lighter touch, which is provided by the Sagrestano in the first act, only serves to add to the intensity of the piece as a whole. From the first note to the very last chord, the opera is punching you in the stomach.‘

You mentioned Scarpia’s musical presence. How does Puccini characterise Scarpia in his music?
‘Scarpia is the devil. And the devil is always fascinating. The tonality associated with him is E major - D major - B-flat. The intervals are tritones, which sound dissonant and threatening. The tritone has often been associated with the devil throughout the history of music, and that makes it perfect for Scarpia. At the same time, Scarpia’s music is also very rich in colour and articulation. He’s a psychopath, that’s very clear, but he can put on many different faces. He can be a gentleman, he can be very polite, and he can also be a frightening monster. And you hear that in his music – it’s often extremely noble and calm, but it can suddenly turn extremely aggressive, like a dog barking and about to kill you, only to then become soft and almost tender again.’

And what about Cavaradossi?
‘Cavaradossi is interesting, in part because he’s not the typical Puccini tenor. It’s no secret that Puccini was mostly fascinated by the female characters in his operas. He gives them a complexity that he doesn’t tend to give to his men. Cavaradossi is an exception to the rule. He starts out as a naive artist in love, but when Angelotti appears, he decides to step up, which makes him an ideal target for Scarpia. In the second act, Cavaradossi screams ‘Vittoria!’ to Scarpia’s face. This requires a lot of bravery, because Cavaradossi knows this will cost him his head.'

'And then in the third act, his aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’ shows him as a defeated man, who feels a sense of acceptance and resignation, mingled with despair and sadness. He knows that love, which should always win, is not going to. When Tosca shows up and tells him that everything will work out fine, you can tell that he doesn’t really believe it. He pretends to, for Tosca’s sake, to comfort her.’

And what about Tosca?
‘I think the character of Tosca is often portrayed too much like a hysterical diva. Take for instance her jealousy – yes, it’s undeniably there, but in her scene with Cavaradossi, she’s also playing with it. Part of it is a performance, an act. It must be, because in the second act, we clearly see that she’s an incredibly strong woman, who thinks ahead and tries her very best to keep her cool and find herself a way out of the situation.'

‘I think the character of Tosca is often portrayed too much like a hysterical diva'

'Tosca is also very religious and at the end of the second act, when she kills Scarpia, something breaks in her. She has done the unspeakable, going against everything she believes in. In the third act, a lot of the vocal music is almost parlando. Psychologically, death,  forboth Tosca and Cavaradossi, is a must. They are in a way too broken to continue living. Before she jumps to her death, Tosca sings “Scarpia, avanti a Dio!”, and in her vocal line there are these tritones associated with Scarpia. The music tells us that Scarpia wins. He has gotten to Tosca.’

But as she jumps, we hear the melody of Cavaradossi’s wistful and loving aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’.
‘We hear the melody, but the rhythm is very different, very agitated. It’s no Liebestod. There is nothing transcendental about the music here. There is zero hope in this opera. Everyone dies. And ironically, we cannot help but love it.’