With Tosca, Pierre Audi has chosen to put religion and its complex relationship with political authority at the very heart of the production:it is a choice that still resonates in current affairs. Here, the director talks with the philosopher Henri Peña-Ruiz, a specialist on secularism.
Pierre Audi, when the curtain rises on your Tosca, one is struck by the crucifix looming over the entire stage. How did you come to imagine that monumental cross—a symbol which you use to represent the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Act I, the Palazzo Farnese in Act II and the Castel Saint-Angelo in Act III?
The huge cross is a sign of the importance that religion has in your production – and more specifically, the collusion between religious authority and political power that is personified in the character of Scarpia…
In his opera, Puccini effectively seems to distinguish two aspects of religion: one which falls within the scope of personal faith and hope, and the other which is based on exploiting religion and using it as a tool of domination and oppression. In this way, Scarpia persecutes the republicans with the blessing of the Pope, yet, just before Tosca jumps to her death, she vows to meet him before God, which is a way of dreaming of a religion free from the corruption of political power. Henri Peña-Ruiz, when we were preparing for this interview, you told me that, for you, Puccini’s distinction was fundamental…
Tosca is one of the great heroines of the repertoire. And yet, as a woman, we get the impression that she is the first victim of the collusion between religion and politics...
Henri Peña-Ruiz: Yes, and, to some extent, it’s scarcely surprising that the oppression that Scarpia subjects Tosca to, the threat of rape that he keeps hanging over her, is carried out with the tacit approval of the clerical authorities. When the Church involves itself in society’s mores, it is often to the detriment of women. Think of Molière’s Tartuffe and his famous phrase:
Cover that breast which I may not behold.
Such a sight is harmful to the soul;
for it will beget impure thoughts.
Men endeavour to
exert control over the bodies of women—be it in France, Italy or in Spain—in
societies long marked by patriarchy and sexist domination. From that
perspective, most religions codify such domination by sacralising it and
presenting it as ordained by God. From Molière to Puccini, one of the tasks
artists attributed to themselves was to denounce the hypocrisy of such a
In your production, Tosca doesn’t leap to her death. In a scene which is more fantastical than realistic, she seems to dissolve into the landscape. Is this a way of saving a heroine who has been given a rough ride by Puccini by sparing her from punishment?
Aside from religion, art plays a central role in your production. In the first act, you have chosen to replace the portrait of Mary Magdalene which Cavaradossi paints in the church, with an erotic painting by Bouguereau: Les Oréades, which depicts a group of nymphs fleeing the concupiscent glances of the satyrs…
And yet lip service is paid to the pious: in the reproduction of Bouguereau’s portrait which Cavaradossi is painting, black veils cover the bodies of the nude Oriads…
In recent years, a number of productions have made the headlines by provoking violent reactions from more conservative sections of the public: On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God by Romeo Castellucci or Golgotha Picnic by Rodrigo Garcia… The issue of censorship, blasphemy, or the confrontation between artists and religious morality is still relevant today. Do you think that the theatre is a favoured venue of emancipation?
Henri Pena Ruiz: That’s a complex question which touches on the very purpose of art! Does art serve another purpose other than itself? Philosophy has often answered no to that question. Art is its own end because it is that wonderful activity by which man expresses a creativity that produces beautiful works that we enjoy for and in themselves. Kant asserts that “art is an endless finality”. Even so, it is clear that this has never stopped artists from taking an emancipating, demystifying, critical position relative to a given historical situation. History has shown us that when human beings are suffering, or demanding and fighting for their liberty, artists cannot remain unmoved. Earlier, I cited Victor Hugo. I could also evoke the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, Ettore Scola and even Arturo Toscanini in the domain of opera... Those are artists I admire.
Would you go so far as to use the word “sacred”?
Pierre Audi: Personally, I find that the notion of sacred is very useful: the form, the setting. That doesn’t mean that I stage masses for the public [laughter], of course, that's not what I mean. For me, the sacred is a form. It is like a circle or a square, a shape inside which I can set up my production. It’s a prism through which I can have a dialogue with the public.
Interviewed by Simon Hatab
Your reading: An analysis of Tosca