Earthling, What Do You Choose?— The Result
Well readers, I am very disappointed in you! Only three votes to select the World's Greatest Opera! Still, we must work with what we have. Despite the paucity of response, we do have some degree of consensus. Two out of the three votes were for Puccini's Tosca, and since my own shortlist included that opera as well, I am going to declare that the most deserving opera to be saved from oblivion is…Tosca.
First performed at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, on 14 January, 1900, this opera is based on a play, first staged in 1887, by the French playwright Victorien Sardou, in which the role of Tosca was written for the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
The opera is in three Acts, and the scene is laid in Rome in June 1800, the year in which Napoleon invaded the collection of nation states, which together we now recognise as Italy. The action takes place immediately after the famous Battle of Morengo, at which the Austrians were defeated, leaving Italy wide open to the French. Rome is more or less ungoverned, leaving Scarpia free to act without being answerable to any responsible authority.
Mention of Scarpia leads us to the three principal characters of the opera: Cavaradossi, a painter and republican supporter (the good guy), Baron Scarpia, the evil Chief of Police (the bad guy) and Floria Tosca herself, a beautiful and fiercely proud singer (the victim caught between a rock and a hard place).
The plot contrasts freedom and oppression, political and sexual power, love and lust, trust and deceit, loyalty and betrayal, artistic refinement and base instincts. By the end of the opera, all three main characters will lie dead, Cavaradossi effectively killed by Scarpia, Scarpia by Tosca and Tosca by her own hand. The play and the opera do differ; in particular the opera has a reduced plot, fewer characters and changes in the detailing of the ending: in the play, Tosca is not present during the supposedly-mock execution, but comes on stage to discover the body.
There is no prelude or overture; the curtain rises to the accompaniment of three powerful chords, B flat–E flat–E, which when heard during the opera are always a reference to Scarpia. After the curtain is up, they do not recur until Scarpia's first entrance. Tosca is not rich in set-piece arias, but does contain some gems, the most famous of which, certainly for a soprano, is the Act II aria 'Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore' (I lived for art and for love). Cavaradossi, the tenor, has two especially fine arias: 'Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse' (Strange harmony of contrasts) in Act I, and 'E lucevan le stelle' (When the stars were shining brightly) in Act III.
And so our list of ten must-have works of classical music is finally complete, as we fondly nominate Puccini's Tosca to be our representative of this great genre.
Till next time, happy listening.