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Bob Bernard's Corner: Tosca’s 'Kiss-Off' - A Retrospective

Not your ordinary "It's not you...it's me."

It’s true, Scarpia wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship, but when Tosca punctuated, “Questo è il bacio di Tosca!” ["This is the kiss of Tosca!"] by ramming a knife into his chest – well, that brought the evening to a close very quickly.

The recommended technique for knife killing has disciples in two different camps: (1) The overhand plunge and (2) the underrated underhand thrust. In the 1957 film Twelve Angry Men, actor Jack Klugman (the third juror to ultimately vote "not guilty") illustrated how a typical knife fight would proceed in his old neighborhood:

Twelve Angry Men
"Now here is how a knife is always used – underhanded! Overhand takes too long to change position."

The sopranos singing this role have manifested the Calvinistic attribute of free will with respect to the technique they’ve respectively chosen to “off” Scarpia. First, the over-handers:

The Over-handers
Left to right: Hildegard Behrens, Angela Gheorghiu, Catherine Malfitano, Sylvie Valayre

Then, the under-handers:

The Under-handers
Left to right: Viktoriia Chenska, Eva Marton, Kristine Opolias, Francesca Patané, Karita Mattila

The under-handers predominately come from Eastern Europe, so it is possible that their old neighborhoods had much in common with Jack Klugman’s New York environ, thus accounting for the correlation with Mr. Klugman’s recommended knife technique.

The poster art of Adolfo Hohenstein below portrays an “idealized” ending to Act 2 of the opera: a composed, neatly dressed Tosca about to place a crucifix onto the chest of Scarpia, a pair of candles symmetrically in place on either side of the body.

Tosca poster

Understandably, most filmed performances of the opera reflect a more true-to-life set of circumstances. Puccini’s score is definitely programmatic with respect to some aspects of the act: the instance of the knife thrust and the moment Tosca snatches the letter of safe conduct from Scarpia’s dead hand are unambiguously specified in the music. However, until Tosca is ready to slip out the door on her way to the Castel Sant'Angelo, the music allows Tosca considerable leeway with respect to hand washing, candle orientation, and crucifix placement.

Of our group of Toscas, only Hildegard Behrens, Eva Marton, and Francesca Patané accomplish the full menu of placement of a crucifix and both candles. Angela Gheorghiu doesn't do anything with the candles or crucifix, but does strike a very large number of attractive close-ups! Ms. Malfitano and Ms. Chenska each extemporize an additional bit of traditional service to the freshly departed one: Malfitano closes the eyes of Scarpia and Chenska covers them with a handkerchief.

Scarpia
Left to right: Catherine Malfitano and Viktoriia Chenska

Baron Scarpia perishes on the floor of his apartment in the Palazzo Farnese on June 17, 1800, but in an episode of artistic reincarnation, the spirit of Scarpia – albeit having devolved into a kinder, gentler version of the Baron’s persona - later entered the person of actor Claude Raines’ Capt. Louis Renault in the 1942 classic Casablanca. In that film, much as Scarpia promised to trade safe passage out of Rome for Tosca and Cavaradossi as recompense for his carnal gratification, Capt. Renault had a sideline of providing Letters of Transit to America in exchange for romantic assignations. Here below, Renault apprises Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, the owner of the local nightclub Café Americain, of his near-term plans:

Casablanca
"Rick, tomorrow I’ll be back in your casino with a breath-taking blonde, and it will make me very happy if she loses."

To paraphrase the lyrics sung by pianist Dooley Wilson in Casablanca:

The world will always welcome lovers lowlifes
As time goes by

Author: Thomas Lady
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