Abstract

This article offers a new interpretation of the operatic phenomenon known as verismo, and of the relationship of Puccini's Tosca with that movement. In contrast to previous scholarship on verismo, which often treats the relationship between literature and music as transparent, I stress that marrying empiricist aesthetics to traditional operatic values was a highly unnatural process. I suggest that Italian opera in the 1890s was pushed to a sort of crisis point, and that the very act of singing could no longer be taken as self-evident. Composers developed a set of new techniques——offstage song, performer-characters, an extreme reliance on bells——to deal with this sudden untenability of operatic convention. All of these techniques were elaborated most fully in Tosca, and the opera might be read as an allegory of the verismo moment, embodying the conflict between hard-nosed realism and unapologetic singing in its two antagonists: Baron Scarpia and Floria Tosca. The plot clearly endorses Tosca's position, but a close reading of the opera's music suggests a rather different interpretation. By focusing on the role of bells in the opera, I argue that realistic sound often overwhelms the autonomy of the characters, at times seeming to collapse them into the scenery itself. Early critics were disturbed by this aspect of the music. Listening to the opera with their ears may help us realize that——despite its overt celebration of individual freedom, and its much-lauded critique of state-sanctioned violence——Tosca exhibits an antisubjective impulse that has much in common with other ““Fascist”” and ““proto-Fascist”” texts.

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