How often has it been said that opera can’t be translated into film? That the camera lens accentuates an opera’s artificiality and turns the protagonists into caricatures? Benoit Jacquot’s masterfully inventive two-hour Tosca, will change the minds of the most diehard opera buffs and win over newcomers to the art.
What’s even more astounding is that this is Jacquot’s first venture into opera. Yet, that may be just the point. What makes his film so compellingly audacious is that from the very start he juxtaposes black-and-white scenes of the conductor, Antonio Pappano, and the actor/singers in the recording studio with the staged opera in order to reveal the energy and work that goes into realizing a mighty work of lyrical art and ensemble acting. At other times, he uses soft-focus and grainy black-and-white and color footage of the Roman countryside, the Castel Sant’ Angelo and the interiors of Baroque churches to illustrate what the actors are singing off-screen. These scenes add immeasurably to the opera’s enthralling lyricism.
Giacomo Puccini’s music and Guiseppe Giacosa’s libretto are mesmerizing and unforgettable, both enhanced by the director’s focus on the drama between the three main protagonists: Floria Tosca (played by the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu), her lover, the painter and political radical Mario Cavaradossi (played movingly by Roberto Alagna, Gheorghiu’s off-screen husband) and the vilely magnetic Il Barone Scarpia, the fascistic Roman governor (Ruggero Raimondi).
From the opening credits of red typeface on black ground, to the surprising black-and-white filming of the conductor guiding the cast with his baton through the opera’s overture and first arias, to the first act in the church, the movie embraces Tosca as a drama of unbridled passions. Through the astute use of hovering overhead shots and swirling camera angles, the film projects and intensifies the emotional upheaval of the three protagonists–the possessively jealous Tosca, the tender and placating Cavaradossi who assures her she has no rivals, and the terrifying Scarpia, determined to capture the Italian fugitive Angelotti (Maurizio Murano).
Jacquot demonstrates here how film can strengthen the opera’s drama—the silence of the protagonists, their tortured faces, the intensity of their love, their hate, and their fear. In the second act, which takes place in the Palazzo Farnese, the dramatic interplay between Tosca and Scarpia is spellbinding. Scarpia, dining in a darkened room lit only by a roaring fire and candlelight, plots his seduction of Tosca while admiring his contorted face in the gleaming blade of the knife that he also uses to cut a bloody piece of meat. The knife is appropriately prophetic since it is the very blade with which Tosca will kill him later in the scene. Dressed in a dazzling red gown with a sweeping train, Tosca is a stunning contrast to the dark Scarpia. Her fiery sexuality understandably motivates Scarpia’s temptation as it leads to his final (albeit well-deserved) doom.
The finale on the rooftop of Castel Sant’ Angelo has cumulative power, with Tosca leaping off the parapet into the black void after she realizes that Cavaradossi has been shot with real bullets, instead of the promised blanks. Jacquot has filmed the opera exactly as the libretto directs, ideally capturing its drama and lyricism. Even with Tosca‘s violent ending, Puccini’s great art provides catharsis, a transporting emotional release that soars after the deeply felt power of the tragedy.
– Rachel Kaplan