By William Berger
Tosca drives people crazy. The opera brings out venom in people—even in people who normally digest the outrageousness of other operas with ease. Composer Benjamin Britten said he was “sickened” by the music’s “cheapness and emptiness,” and the astute critic Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker.” Much of this has to do with the title character. Driving people crazy, as we’ll see, is sort of her job.
Beyond the classic denunciations, Tosca is routinely called out as “vulgar,” “sensationalist” and “overly emotional.” Indeed, it is standard—and even expected—to look down on this opera as if it were a bordello—or a telenovela. But while some people maintain a sense of shocked condescension toward this enormously popular work, the Hispanic world possesses unique tools to appreciate Tosca and to unpack its treasures with penetrating insight not readily available elsewhere.
Some of Tosca’s connection to Latinos abides in the importance of the city of Rome. Other operas happen to be set in Rome, but nowhere is the mythical power of the Eternal City more central than in Tosca. Latins are closer to the mythical fascination exerted by Rome (home of the original Latins) than Anglo-Saxons are: the name Anglo-Saxon recalls the Germanic tribes who overthrew the Roman Empire, while the term Latino claims an intimate relationship with Romanità (“Roman-ness”). Sancho Panza annoyed Don Quijote by constantly repeating the proverb “Bien está San Pedro en Roma”—my Mexican grandmother annoyed me too with that proverb, more recently. Spanish is a Latin language, but there’s more. There is the Roman Catholic heritage of Latin America.
An important part of that heritage is the “Quadriga,” the four-fold method of textual analysis that was (and officially still is) at the core of Catholic thought. This Quadriga is a system of reading a sacred text—and, by implication, everything else—on four levels: (1) literal; (2) allegorical; (3) theological; and (4) anagogical. To properly interpret a passage of scripture (or anything else), one should understand (1) that it actually happened; (2) that it has other meanings beyond the literal; (3) that it has moral implications; and, most important for our present purposes, (4) that it has an anagogical dimension. An “anagoge,” from the Greek word for “leading,” means something pointing to a future event. In Christian scripture, according to the Quadriga, the manna in the desert is important anagogically because it prefigures the bread of the Last Supper, another meal sent by God. An event, therefore, can exist in two (or more) moments in time.
The Protestant mind works differently, with no Quadriga, an emphasis on literalism, and a veneration of The Word. Eucharist, where it exists at all, is commemorative or symbolic of something that happened two millennia ago. And as with events, so too with objects. One thing cannot be another thing if it is literally that thing: that is, bread and wine, being bread and wine, cannot be something else (e.g. flesh and blood) except symbolically. But symbolism is something else—it is one thing standing for another. An anagogical interpretation means one thing can be itself and something else at the same time. Bread and wine can be flesh and blood without ceasing to be bread and wine.
The same pattern holds true for people as well as events. Eve is important as herself and as a prototype of Mary, and so forth. Folk traditions in Latin countries manifest this even clearer. In Las Posadas, people become the Holy Family and angels, shepherds and others around them. Protestants might sing about the Nativity or re-enact it in pantomimes, but they will not aim to become the Holy Family as in Las Posadas. The Hispanic traditions associated with La Semana Santa and especially Good Friday show how intensely carnal this association with sacred events can become. Archetypes can directly inhabit the very bodies in Latin communities. The man who is “being” Christ or Pilate in a Hispanic pageant does not cease to be himself. One can be two people at once, filtered through an anagogical mindset, and not only in religious areas. Thus a Latino can freely address someone who is not in fact a relation as “mi hijo,” “mamacita” or “papi.” This simply does not happen in English.
This permeates the literature of Latin America. The impossibly long-lived characters in Jorge Luis Borges’ fiction [e.g. El inmortal, et al.] are a form of anagogical type; so are the ghosts that recur in Gabriel García Marquéz’ Cien años de soledad, not to mention the ghost that makes love to his widow better than her new husband in Jorge Amados’ Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos. People exist in different times and places in the genre of magical realism, which flourishes in Latin America. And while magical realism exists elsewhere (possibly including Kafka et al., depending on who applies the labels), it is particularly at home throughout Latin America—perhaps owing to this background of Roman anagogical thinking. So being Latino is not only about how one conjugates a verb, or how (or if) one prays: it’s also about how one reads and relates to a text—and everything is a text.
Latins can easily see Tosca as a multitude of archetypes—and no less because she is also meant to be a real woman walking around a real city on the afternoon of June 17, 1800 (the date of the opera’s action). She is a “diva” and can be understood as a sort of Maenad (a follower of the god of wine called Dionysos in Greece and Bacchus in Rome) creating a healthy level of disorder amid the stifling Apollonian order of the overbearing state represented by Scarpia. She slices him up like a proper frenzied woman of Greek mythology when confronted by a minister of Apollo (Scarpia here, Pentheus in Euripides) who reject the divinity of chaos: Note Scarpia’s shocked comment when he enters the church (and the opera) and sees the kids having fun—of all things—in Act I: “Tal baccano in chiesa!” “What a bacchanalia (festival in honor of Bacchus, i.e., drunken, drug-ridden orgy) in church!” He is preternaturally opposed to anything Bacchic/Dionysian.
The character Tosca is a bacchanalia on two legs. For starters, she is a singer of opera, an art form invented as an attempt to recreate the spirit of the ancient Athenian Drama Festivals, the Dionysia, given in honor of Dionysos/Bacchus. And while Apollonians look down on Dionysians, the Maenads dismembered Apollonians at their drunken orgies. Tosca merely slices Scarpia with a knife and tells him to choke to death on his own blood… There are limits, even in this opera.
How appropriate, then, that María Guadalupe Jiménez López, the alleged drug cartel enforcer suspected of 20 murders who was apprehended last year in Monterrey, Mexico, is known as “La Tosca.” Tosca in Spanish means rude in a sloppy way – I remember that same grandmother telling me “No seas tosco!” when I knocked over glasses on the table – but there are many derogatory words for rude people (especially women) in Spanish. But since this woman is an enemy of the state, a subversive, and an agent of chaos as well as a killer, no name is better than La Tosca—whether anybody who named her was conscious of the opera or not. This Maenad roamed ancient Greece; she was in Rome in 1800; and she has recently been arrested in Monterrey. Borges himself couldn’t have made it any clearer.
Puccini’s original stage directions have Tosca leap to her death off the Castel Sant’Angelo at the climax of this intense opera. This is the final straw for many critics of the work. Yet it’s the perfect example of how a Latin and an Anglo-Saxon can see two disparate things in the same object. In this case, an iconic event from Mexican history would have informed a Roman audience’s understanding of this striking stage moment.
The Niños Heroes of Chapultepec are familiar inspirational figures throughout Mexico. The six cadets, ages 13 through 19, were serving in the Mexican military academy at Chapultepec Castle overlooking Mexico City when it was under attack from the United States Army in 1847. The cadets refused to retreat or surrender, and died defending the castle against hopeless odds. It is said that one of the cadets, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt to his death to prevent the flag’s dishonorable capture by the Americans. Newer scholarship has cast doubt on the historicity of this occurrence, but the legend continues, amplified by a searing overhead mural by Gabriel Flores at Chapultepec. Every year, six cadets are honored as the Boy Heroes, the Niños Heroes, wrapped in Mexican flags, and the names of the original six are called out as the crowd—in a ritual familiar throughout Latin American—responds “presente!” The Heroes are alive, and dead, again.
The martyrdom of the Niños Heroes seems to have echoed powerfully in Rome shortly afterward. In 1849, the Pope, ruler of the Papal State centered in the Eternal City, had fled Rome and been replaced by a short-lived republic. Garibaldi was among those fighting for the end of Papal rule in Rome and with the long-term goal of a unified, independent nation. The composer Giuseppe Verdi, also an important leader of this Italian “Risorgimento” movement, arrived in January to produce his new opera La Battaglia di Legnano. This was an incendiary work of thrilling choruses and patriotic rhetoric, commemorating a significant moment in Italian history in 1182, when Italians briefly put aside their differences and successfully fought the German-led forces occupying the country. The climactic moment of the opera is in Act III: the tenor has been locked in a tower to suffer the disgrace of missing out on the battle. Unable to bear this, he wraps himself in the red, white, and green Italian flag (an obvious anachronism for 1182, but a powerful symbol in 1849), cries “Viva Italia!” and leaps out the window. (A figure in the orchestral prelude gives us the hint that this tower is fortunately surrounded by a moat). He gets to Legnano and dies fighting for his country, praised by the crowds. The 1849 premiere of this opera at Rome’s Teatro Apollo was a sensation. In one performance, a man sitting in an upper balcony proscenium box was so moved to patriotic action that he wrapped himself in the Italian flag, cried “Viva Italia!” and leapt into the orchestra, unharmed. Or so the story goes….
Rome, with its busy diplomatic community (including a Mexican delegation) must have been aware of the tales of Chapultepec a year before. And the image of a doomed hero, fighting a Germanic (or Anglo-Saxon) invader, flying through the air wrapped in a red, white and green flag would have had inherent power for Latin audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The audience at Tosca’s 1900 Rome premiere would have had a collective memory of the Legnano premiere 50 years before—surely someone in the audience had been there. And its effect would have differed from its effect on the dismissive English-speaking critics who saw, and see, nothing in Tosca’s leap but a Roman diva over-acting one last time.
The music of the finale also confounds many: it’s a restatement of the big theme from the tenor’s aria earlier in the act, “E lucevan le stelle.” Kerman said the orchestra thunders out “the first theme that pops into its head,” which is truly unfair. Whatever shortcomings Puccini had from an academic point of view, no one can say he couldn’t come up with a new melody when he needed one. In fact, the reviewer for the Buenos Aires paper La Prensa wrote from the world premiere of Tosca in Rome that Puccini had written a more complex work than his previous operas, one which deftly managed “Italian melodic simplicity” (“sencillez melodica italiana”) so as not to “shut oneself up” (“encerrarse”) in the style of French and German modernists (La Prensa, January 15, 1900). It was an insightful and specifically Latin observation to see Puccini’s use of melody as an effective choice of directness, and a liberating rejection of inhibiting Northern European models.
The sort of theme Puccini uses in the tenor aria and then restates at the finale is called a slancio, which means many things: impulse, rush, outburst, leap or jump, even. The term also contains references to lanciare, to launch or hurl, and lancia, a spear. Spear in Latin is jacula, and to cast one is ejaculare, whose cognates in English and Spanish are obvious. Tosca’s final deed, therefore, is a leap, an act of love, and a climax. She cries out to her enemy Scarpia that she will meet him before God, and this calls forth the slancio in the orchestra. So this act is also a declaration that she, as a sexual being, has a right to stand in confidence before the judgment of God.
Perhaps much of one’s reaction to the finale of the opera has to do with one’s point of view toward sex, or at least its role in the opera house. Curiously, the critic reviewing the Montevideo premiere of Tosca singled out the tenor’s aria as “very elegant, and its melody is pure and spontaneous" (El Día, August 18, 1902), an assessment that would have surprised Kerman. But there is in Rome another work of art whose scandalous juxtaposition of genres helps put Tosca’s supposed blasphemies into clearer perspective.
Bernini’s famous statue The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652) in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria captures an extraordinary moment in the Spanish mystic’s celebrated Autobiography: her encounter with an angel who imparted the fire of divine love in her. She wrote: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails…. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it.”
The statue is frankly sensual. As a rakish president of France commented, on touring the church a century ago: “If that is ‘divine love,’ I know all about it.” Some recent commentary plays down the erotic aspect of the statue, but it is undeniable: Saint Teresa herself is frank about her experience, being neither sensational nor coy, and Bernini was pious rather than lurid. Carnality, however, is not really the point of either the statue or the scandal it causes. Sexuality and spirituality had been mixed before in many genres, and spectacularly in the poetry of Bernini’s own time (by Donne and Marvell in England, and especially by Sor Juana de la Cruz in Mexico). The real scandal of Bernini's statue is not in its eroticism but in its theatricality. It is set in an opera house, so to speak. Members of the Venetian Cornaro family who commissioned the statue are also represented by statues on either side of the chapel, sitting in theater-type boxes and leaning over as if watching something on a stage and commenting about it. “Theater” in 17th-century Venice meant “opera houses” and the city had dozens of them. The operatic setting of the statue is what truly makes it a scandalous "baccano in chiesa." It recalls Garrison Keillor’s priceless line about the Lutherans in his home town frowning upon sex because it might lead to dancing. Yet Roman ladies pray in this chapel every day as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which, for them, it is. A Spanish saint has an orgasm for God on an operatic stage, and—in Rome—it makes perfect sense.
Bernini’s masterpiece makes it clear that what is vulgar to one culture could be sublime to another. A conception of mythological identity in everyday individuals, a sense of recurring archetypes in modern (and future) life, and historical moments of suicidal leaps as noble self-sacrifice will also influence what one sees in the opera known as Tosca. This opera will continue to divide audiences for ages to come. But experiencing Tosca through a Hispanic frame of mind—whether one is Hispanic or not—might allow audiences to see what Kerman, Britten and the others could not see: a vital and honest drama of an ageless heroine in a never-ending struggle that continues today and beyond.
A writer, lecturer and radio commentator, William Berger is the author of Wagner Without Fear, Verdi With a Vengeance and Puccini Without Excuses. He is Creative Content Producer for the Metropolitan Opera.