An analysis of Tosca

A conversation with Pierre Audi and Henri Peña-Ruiz

By Simon Hatab 09 May 2019


© plainpicture/Anzenberger/Eugenia Maximova

An analysis of Tosca

In Tosca, Pierre Audi has chosen to place religion and its complex relationship with political power at the centre of his production: a choice that continues to have an impact today. The director talks to philosopher Henri Peña-Ruiz, a specialist in 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?

Pierre Audi: Regarding the church, the parallel was clear: all churches are built around a cross – the arms form the chapels and the central shaft, the aisle which leads to the crucifix. It also seemed interesting to me in Act I to go back to the source and stylise the church until it reverted back to the cross that constitutes its very essence. Act II is the one in which Cavaradossi is tortured. Here again, it was natural for the cross to be transformed into an instrument of torture, because originally that’s what it was before it became a Christian symbol. Finally, for the last act, with the execution scene, it is more of a conscious choice: We chose to abandon the Castel Saint-Angelo to set the action in a wretched and abandoned place, above which hung the cross. Note that the castello was still connected to the religious theme because, as its name indicates, there is the statue of an angel above it.

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…

Pierre Audi: Yes, one should first say that when you compare Puccini’s Tosca to Sardou's play which inspired it, one is stuck by the importance that religion plays in it. Puccini himself, whilst composing the work had asked his librettists to accentuate that aspect of the drama. The opera opens in a church, Act I ends with a Te Deum and, after Tosca has stabbed Scarpia, she places a crucifix on his breast … I could cite numerous other examples. I think that Tosca is a work deeply rooted in Italian culture. Furthermore, in Italy, there are ambiguous, deep-rooted ties between the political and religious authorities. Italian artists have always enjoyed talking about that ambiguity, that irresolute paradox. Even today, in 2016, the boundaries are vague and that vagueness suits a good many people. It seemed to me that it was one of the central themes of Puccini’s opera.    
© Elisa Haberer / OnP

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…

Henri Peña-Ruiz: As a philosopher specialising in secularism, my approach is indeed based on a fundamental difference. What I call “secularism” does not challenge religion so long as it remains a free and chosen spirituality, and that that spirituality does not purport to dictate political or common law. The secular ideal which emerged in Europe—before it was spread to the United States by Thomas Jefferson and Benito Juárez—is not to be interpreted as an anti-religious consciousness. It was more a desire for a strict separation between religion and the political power that organises and governs the relationship between men—regardless of whether they are believers, atheists or agnostics. From that stance, religion is but one form of spirituality among others. Take the example in France of Victor Hugo, who was a contemporary of Puccini: he was a believer but that certainly didn’t prevent him from being anticlerical. So how can you reconcile the two? Through his religious beliefs, he showed a certain spirituality. By his rejection of clericalism, he repudiated the Church’s desire to regulate and hold power in the political arena, notably rising up in protest when the Church tried to claim control over the schools. In 1850, he coined the famous phrase: “The Church in its home, and the State in its home”. It seems to me that in Tosca, Puccini was agreeing with that secular position.
Pierre Audi: On a dramatic level, I would like to add that the rapprochement between politics and religion proved to be terribly effective: it enabled Puccini to contrast the cold and implacable side of Scarpia’s political world with the sentimental romanticism of the love affair between Cavaradossi and Tosca. The political police who act with the blessing of the Pope, the Sacristan who turns out to be Scarpia’s informer, the Mass which interrupts the manhunt for Angelotti, then the knife, the crime, the blood, the crucifix… All that constitutes a highly appealing formula for a dramatist. Furthermore, it seems to me that in the end, Puccini takes a position that is less clear cut than Verdi, for example. He likes to leave things in abeyance. It’s what I sensed as I prepared my interpretation of the work. I wasn’t seeking to over-emphasize that the opera was biased against the Church or against the political powers that be. In the rapprochement of those two worlds, I saw an opportunity to construct my production, because it seemed to me that this was how Puccini had constructed his opera.    
© Elisa Haberer / OnP

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 position.

Pierre Audi: It’s an interesting question which requires multiple levels of analysis. Yes, of course, Tosca is a victim of male domination, especially from Scarpia, because he tries to rape her. However, Puccini is also a man and is himself part of that society: if we look closely, he is not particularly tender with his heroine. He describes her as a jealous manipulator. She has a definite Shakespearian side, and he plays on that to prime his dramatic machinery: it’s her jealousy that provokes the arrest of her lover and which, in a certain way ends up driving her to suicide.

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?

Pierre Audi: Let’s say that I didn’t want an end that was overly moralistic. In the libretto, Tosca jumps to her death and the music casts no doubts as to that death. However, there is also a coda which suggests something else. Some directors use that coda to allow the soldiers to peer over the edge. Personally, I’ve always found that image a little too literal, a little ridiculous: those three henchmen who rush to the parapet to verify that Tosca is indeed dead… Puccini’s music is sublime, it invites us to seek something else, and I think that at that moment, one has to rely on that music to set the drama free… And so I looked for a propitious image, a more open ending that would leave audiences with more scope to imagine…    
© Elisa Haberer / OnP

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…

Pierre Audi: Yes, we sometimes reduce Tosca to little more than a sordid story… However, for me, the artistic aspect and Mario Cavaradossi’s status as an artist seems crucial. Don’t forget that Tosca’s principal aria is “Vissi d’arte…” which extols the life of an artist. And so, I wished to accentuate that creative freedom somewhat by proposing this rather enlightened painting. Those nude women are like a garland coiled around the altar. It’s a little risqué. I think that the life of the artist is one of the key undercurrents of the drama. The freedom in which Cavaradossi and Tosca live is intolerable for Scarpia. He envies them: he who possesses the political power, he who is head of the secret police, why can he not fall in love and charm a woman? It’s the third theme which Puccini develops: in the face of religion and politics where is the place of an artist?

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…

Henri Peña-Ruiz: For me, the veils evoke the era of religious censorship. Throughout history, the Church has constantly sought to involve itself in politics: it has also tried to exert control over artistic activity. In the 16th century, there was a famous episode during which the Pope asked Daniele da Volterra, also known as “Il Braghettone”—literally “the breeches maker”—to paint loincloths and vestments on Michelangelo’s nudes, and, in particular, on The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Of course, this censorship was also brought to bear on literature, with the creation of the Index librorum prohibitorum—more commonly referred to as the Index—which banned numerous authors, including François Villon, Molière, and Victor Hugo…    

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.

Pierre Audi: It is a fact that the theatre is a place of emancipation. But I would also like to highlight another aspect of performance that fascinates me: its “ritualistic” dimension. In antiquity, theatre was born from religious ritual. And on this point, I’d like to refer back to Tosca. It seems to me that Puccini’s genius is rooted in the fact that he remembers this and works with it. If one looks at Tosca, one realises that the whole work is organised around three rituals: in the first act, it’s the mass, in the second it’s the torture and in the third it’s the execution of a prisoner. In that sense, there’s a strong connection that unites Tosca with Greek theatre and I’m sensitive to the work’s association with ancient tragedy. In it, the power—of the gods and the Church—is represented as a dark force. Taking this ritual as a point of departure, Puccini manages to compose a completely open and profoundly human work. Moreover, it is highly significant that at the end of the first act, he brings the faithful into the church: at that moment, he takes over a sacred space and turns it into a place in which the drama will develop. That's just how theatre functions…      

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

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