The Lowell House Opera (LHO) production of “Tosca,” stage directed by Michael A. Yashinsky ’11, with music direction by Channing Yu ’93, sets Giacomo Puccini’s famously bloody tragedy in Fascist Rome—a good choice, since the political connotations are undoubtedly clearer to contemporary audiences than those of Napoleonic Rome, its original setting.
The visual cues are as loud as the singing: from the very beginning, the slogan “Fascismo È Libertà” is projected brightly onto an angularly imperious archway. The villain Scarpia (Greg Cass) is dressed as a blackshirt, with oily hair and a thin mustache suggestive of Hitler. By the end, when Tosca not only takes the traditional suicidal plunge, but tears down a banner with the motto “Viva La Morte” with her, there can be no mistake: we are in Fascist times. Only Mussolini posters could have made the point more clearly in this production, which runs through March 6.
But the slight overemphasis on the setting can be forgiven in an opera where oftentimes the stakes are unclear or hard to sympathize with. The moral gravity of life under a totalitarian régime refashions Floria Tosca (Michelle Trainor) as a heroine of freedom in the face of oppression, rather than the intemperate diva she is frequently made out to be in other productions. Scarpia is no longer merely cruel; he is now a Fascist and a racist, and therefore triply loathsome.
The painter Cavaradossi (Jeffrey M. Hartman), Tosca’s lover, is not just painting a Madonna; he is painting a mural of an ostensibly Futurist Madonna. Thus, added to the crime of aiding an escaped political prisoner is the implicit charge of “subversive art” (despite the fact that the Futurists tried so hard to ingratiate themselves with the Fascists).
Yashinsky’s setting recasts an opera about the heat of personal passion within the narrative mold of the resistance against totalitarianism, so what normally seems like petty caprice or wanton vindictiveness is instead inscribed with the utmost seriousness. Under Fascism, nothing seems like melodrama. This cast, most of whom are unaffiliated with Harvard, commands a presence in the Lowell Dining Hall that emphasizes this gravity.
Whether LHO’s anti-Fascist Tosca is any more moving or convincing than the one driven by love alone is an odd and ultimately speculative judgment to make, like parsing the merits of a “Turandot” set during the Cultural Revolution, or a “La Bohème” in Vichy Paris. But LHO’s reinterpretation of this particular opera in the context of totalitarianism does bring out an aspect of the work that a production more focused on the stormy individualism of Tosca and Scarpia often overlooks: the notion of freedom as something that lies at the edge of art.
Cavaradossi, of course, is an artist. So is Tosca: as a celebrated singer, she premieres a cantata on the same night that Scarpia arrests Cavaradossi. Subtler, though, is the way in which Cass’s Scarpia is framed as a sort of artist. Scarpia has an extensive, obsessive conception of the way he wants the world to be, and the elaborate, not entirely rational course of events he plans in order to force himself on Tosca is far more sophisticated than the artistry of either Cavaradossi or Tosca.
After initially tricking Tosca into believing that Cavaradossi has been unfaithful, Scarpia exults, “Ho accetto l’effetto!” (I’ve achieved the effect!), borrowing the language of Cavaradossi’s work to describe his plotting as a representation of some inner vision. Scarpia’s plan almost works, but, famously, it is derailed when Tosca stabs him after pretending to acquiesce to his advances. Tosca only does so, however, after forcing Scarpia to provide for Cavaradossi’s release and their escape together, planning a future where the two of them have reached safety.
Her plan is then undone by Scarpia’s treachery: what Scarpia had assured her would be a mock execution proves to be all too real, resulting in Cavaradossi’s death by firing squad. Officers (in this production, blackshirts) come to arrest Tosca, but she kills herself before she can be taken—dragging the Fascist banner down with her.
In Puccini’s estimation, no artistic vision can ever be fully realized. A Scarpia or a Tosca can make extensive plans to persuade, trick, or force others to comply with their designs, but conflicting agendas always prevent their realization.
The human will is messy, and inevitably collides into those around it. Try as one might to make people do what one wants, there is always some unpredictable element on the margin that can overturn it all. In setting “Tosca” in the middle of a totalitarian régime, LHO’s production suggests that the potential for chaos that lies at the outer rim of any agenda is the essence of freedom itself—that, whether in victory or tragedy, we live most fully where the plans of others fail. The stakes are high, as they must be.