September 12, 2022
INO’s Tosca: the aesthetics of agency
Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca, in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from 11-17 July 2022 │ Patrick Redmond
Though the Irish National Opera’s July production of Tosca, directed by Michael Gieleta, was not created within Victorien Sardou’s framework of social fracture, the eponymous figure is portrayed equally, if not more self-sufficient in this production.
Sardou, French dramatist and original playwright of Tosca, created the character of Tosca against a backdrop of radical political ideology. He sought to capitalise on the post-revolution chauvinism and nostalgia of the French audience, to whom his work was addressed, through the creation of a socially and religiously subversive narrative.
Tosca herself is ambivalent with respect to her agency. Within the transition from play to opera its composer, Giacomo Puccini, attempted to subdue the more radical sensibilities and impose a religious identity on the titular character, making her less vindictive and more submissive.
On the one hand, Tosca appears to conform to typical femininity, is ignorant of religious and political matters, and is marginalised within broader male power struggles.
On the other hand, she murders her attacker in self-defence — a scene that typifies the behaviour of the ‘femme fatale’, who seduces men with an intent to act fatally—though this ultimately leads to her own death.
The complexities of Tosca’s agency (and submission) materialise as the story progresses, and production decisions have a strong influence on how her agency is perceived.
Tómas Tómasson as Scarpia and Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca, in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from 11-17 July 2022 │ Patrick Redmond
Perhaps the most powerful manifestation of this ambiguity is found in Tosca’s murder of Scarpia, in which her agency both responds to and resists domination. The act may be interpreted in a diverse number of ways according to directorial vision.
Davey Kelleher, assistant director of the production, says the decision in this version is significant because it is autonomous: “Even when she murders him there’s this sense that her back is against the wall—she’s trapped after being manipulated into this situation. But she takes an opportunity and takes agency.”
Though other versions of the show may portray the murder as a “hysterical moment”, Irish National Opera actress Sinéad Campbell Wallace’s performance suggests Tosca is making a conscious decision: “If you have a version where the murder of Scarpia is hysterical and impulsive and panicked, which then spirals into her suicide, you’d read it as an ultimate loss of control. If the murder of Scarpia is a considered act, it’s about taking control of what you can within circumstances outside of your control.”
The production uses staging to emphasise the fatal moment of Tosca’s suicide as a reclaiming of bodily ownership, rather than submission to inevitable tragedy.
Gary McCann, costume and set designer for Tosca, explains the typical expectation for the scene. “Most of the time there’s a wall at the back of the set. Tosca goes, climbs to the top of it, and throws herself on a crash mat on a piece of sponge two metres underneath.” In the effort to portray her as a “heroine instead of a victim” and reduce a sense of passivity motivating her choice, the production has reconsidered the staging of the moment.
Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca
During the final scene, Tosca runs up the citadel which begins to revolve as the firing squad approaches her. By the end of the rotation, Tosca is facing the audience, giving her perspective to the viewer.
Kelleher adds how this new emphasis is “almost like the lens narrows. It is uncomplicated in that she is turned away from the people pursuing her…There’s a kind of purity in that moment. We don’t see a woman being hunted to her death, we see a woman making a choice.”
Tosca’s artistry further serves as an expression of her agency.
Her talent as an actress enables certain liberty that is inaccessible to most of her peers. Socially constructed expectations of femininity are still imposed upon her, as exemplified by the orchestration of her entrance in Act I. The sweet, romantic melody represents the idealised, feminine light in which Cavaradossi views her; this artificial, sentimental view is projected onto her and is juxtaposed with Cavaradossi’s demeaning remarks regarding her naivete.
However, Kelleher explains how art provides her with a unique ability. “There’s kind of a dangerous quality to her, as a singer and an artist, in terms of how she can traverse social landscapes because artists have access to all walks of life. There’s a sense of her being slightly outside social restrictions.”
McCann adds that because “Tosca is a famous opera singer, we know that she costumes herself [and] she changes her look.” By being able to act outside of social boundaries, as Kelleher says, Tosca is able to “navigate her own power. Her gift and her artistry gives her agency in this world.”
Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Tosca in Irish National Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca, in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from 11-17 July 2022 │ Picture by Patrick Redmond
Within the opera, she is the only woman given any personal definition. “It’s this world controlled by male power and there’s this woman who carved her power through this gift she has. And so, there’s something about the elevation this voice gives her—some sort of authenticity or truth.” Kelleher argues this idea is represented in Vissi d’arte, in which Tosca sings about giving her life to her art, life, and spirituality: “There’s a thematic parallel being drawn between personal faith and true artistry. Very often art can be a religious or spiritual experience.”
Art functions as a tool for personal empowerment for Caravadossi as well. “He’s this kind of alchemist, taking human experience and through art elevating it into something else. There’s this argument that he is sinning by taking base human attraction and impulse and using that as a point of reference when painting a saint. But actually, he is seeing something saintly in reality, in people,” Kelleher says.
Conversely, the members of the Church use power from above to protect themselves while preserving inequality. As such, artistry acts as a powerful vocation that offers a chance for self-determination within an oppressive political landscape and is particularly influential for Tosca, who suffers additional constriction due to gender.
Overall, Tosca offers a compelling evaluation of the complexities of female agency. She is an immensely complicated character—both pious and charitable, but also jealous, impetuous, passionate, and artistic—demonstrating that she does need to overcome oppression to have agency but acts independently within the conditions that confine her.