In 1800, an opera singer in Rome is duped into believing she has been betrayed by her lover, a painter who is hiding a political prisoner on the run from the police. All come to a bad end.
That, in a nano-nutshell, is the story of Puccini’s Tosca, the highlight of the fifth Opera Festival at Masada, opening this Thursday.
At first glance there seems to be no Jewish angle to this opera—except, of course, the venue, the Israeli Opera performers, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, and conductor Daniel Oren, not to mention the huge production crew. But seek and ye shall find.
Start, for example, with the setting of Act Three: Hadrian’s tomb, better known today as the Castel Sant’Angelo. This round stone building was built in Rome as the mausoleum of the Roman emperor Hadrian (76–138 CE). Rabbinical sources, in contrast to some historians today, accuse Hadrian of having tried to destroy Judaism. In response to his actions, Simon Bar Kokhba led a massive four-year rebellion that ended in defeat in 135. In Jewish sources, Hadrian’s name is always accompanied by the expletive “may his bones be crushed.”
After Hadrian, his family, and other emperors were buried in the tomb, it had many uses. At the time in which the opera is set, it was a papal prison, undoubtedly a place of terror for the persecuted Jews of Rome.
The opera’s action takes place on a single day—June 14, 1800—during the Napoleonic wars. On this day, Napoleon’s army battled the Austrians in Marengo, in northwestern Italy. In Act One, news arrives that the Austrians have routed Napoleon’s forces. But in Act Two, a very different outcome is announced: The Austrians have been defeated.
What Napoleon’s victory meant for the Jews of Italy, and Jews throughout the European areas under his control, was a respite, albeit brief, from persecution.
Act One, which is set in the church of church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, ends with the singing of a Te Deum (a hymn of praise), celebrating the apparent Austrian victory. In the Masada production the singers include the Moran children’s chorus and the Israeli Opera chorus, dressed as nuns and priests. But anyone who looks closely can see that some of the “priests” are wearing T-shaped, “kosher” crosses.
“It’s a known ‘patent’ [trick] in Israel” to accommodate religiously observant performers, explained Michael Ajzenstadt, the artistic administrator of the Israeli Opera, at a dress rehearsal this week.
That final scene of Act One, in which several large crosses are displayed and black-clothed figures prostrate themselves on the stage, made at least one observer uncomfortable.
“It reminds me of the Inquisition,” she said.
“But [the scene] takes place in a church,” Ajzenstadt said, somewhat dismayed by the reaction. “Three years ago, in Jerusalem, we did Jérusalem of Verdi, which is about the Crusades, and there was no problem.”
That, of course, led to the question of the performance of Carmina Burana, the second fully staged work that is part of this year’s Opera Festival at Masada. This work, by German composer Carl Orff (1895–1982), was very popular in Nazi Germany, and his relations with the Nazi regime are the subject of debate.
Commenting on the fact that it is permitted to perform Orff’s works in Israel but not Wagner’s, Ajzenstadt said simply that “[for Israelis] Wagner—and it’s not logical—equals the Holocaust, even though he lived before the Holocaust and even though there were a lot of Nazi-era composers.”
And now for more Tosca-related Jewish tidbits:
• While Italy was undergoing political and cultural unification, the press initially portrayed Puccini as the ideal Italian composer and the ideal Italian man, but then, when his operas failed to support this view, attacked him as a polyglot, a traitor, a Jew.
• Puccini’s opera is based on a five-act play, La Tosca, by the French playwright Victorien Sardou. Sarah Bernhardt played the title role in the 1887 premiere and then toured the world in that role.
• The Canadian-Jewish baritone George London (born George Burnstein in 1920) sang the role of the sadistic police chief Scarpia opposite Maria Callas in 1956.
• Cantor and opera singer Jan Peerce, born Jacob Pinchas Perelmuth, sang the part of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, with the Metropolitan Opera of New York in the early 1940s.
• Australian bass Joshua Bloom sang the role of Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner, with the Los Angeles Opera in 2013.
• Dmitri Jurowski, 35, who comes from a family of Russian-Jewish musicians, conducts the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra and has led the Bolshoi Opera. He made his US podium debut in Chicago, on January 14 this year, with Tosca.
• The German-Jewish novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, author of the 1925 novel Jud Süß (Jew Suss, published in English translation as Power) had this to say about the Nazi film industry’s adaptation of it: “By adding a touch of Tosca you have transformed my novel, Power, into a vile anti-Semitic movie à la Streicher and his Sturmer.” Feuchtwanger was referring to a scene in which Dorothea comes to Suss to plead for her husband’s life, just as Tosca comes to police chief Scarpia, only to hear his cries as he is tortured.
• The following item was sent out by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 29, 1937: “Principals of the Jewish School of Music in Pinsk face court proceedings because students sang in Yiddish the first act of Puccini’s opera ‘Tosca’ which takes place in a Catholic convent, according to a press announcement.
“Police halted the performance after the first act, according to the reports. The principals are accused of having ‘outraged Christian feelings and profaned religion.’ ”
• John Bell’s production of Tosca at the Sydney Opera House in January 2015 sets the events in 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome. A shepherd boy wears a yellow star, and in the final prison scene the audience realizes that the group of people sleeping outdoors are Jews in transit to an extermination camp. When this production opened a month earlier in Melbourne, chorister Sitiveni Talei was visibly shaken by having to give the Nazi salute. He is the son of a Jewish mother and a Fijian father and learned he was Jewish only at the age of 16.
Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera.