Last night I went to see the opera Tosca and it got me thinking about something we talk about quite a lot here, as readers and writers–the topic of historical authenticity.
Tosca is an opera in the verismo tradition–that is, it’s written to show human passions and emotions in easily recognizable settings (this is opera, if you’re thinking, well duh, what else would you write about? Rather than, for instance, choosing a storyline starring classical heroes or gods and goddesses.) Based on a play by Victorien Sardou, Puccini’s opera refers to real events–the Battle of Marengo; the political situation in Rome, which had briefly been a republic before an official crack-down; and using real locations, including the Castel Sant’Angelo with its statue of St. Michael.
And I just have to stop and say the sets were outstanding, the singing even more so, and it was a glorious evening. This is possibly my favorite opera–what’s not to love? Gorgeous music, a radical lefty hero, a deliciously pervy villain, and the all-too-human Floria Tosca (the pic above is of Maria Callas, urguably the greatest Tosca of all time).
But back to what I’m really talking about. With all his painstaking attention to historical detail, Puccini and his lyricists made one massive error (and Sardou may have as well; to be honest I don’t know). Floria Tosca is a singer. In Rome. In 1800. Uh oh. Only castrati were allowed to sing in Rome then, never women. But Puccini knew what he was doing–Tosca is an artist whose life revolves around her career and love, and that’s why she’s the impulsive, passionate woman who drives the story of the opera. So it’s an error that pays off, bigtime.
And I wonder if you’ve read a book, or written one, where the truth was sacrificed for the story and it didn’t matter, or in fact improved it? Fortuitous errors?
The postscripts: George Bernard Shaw called Tosca “a shabby little shocker.” Pic of the Castel Sant’Angelo courtesy of the City of Rome, and read more about the opera here, and read the Washington Post review of the production I saw. And hop on over to the Spiced Tea Party today where Jane Lockwood will be blogging about the Big O and how to write it.
I think Shakespeare’s a great example of truth being sacrificed for story in a good way.
I don’t mean his minor errors such as Bohemia having a seacoast (who cares?), but rather certain historical errors (such as Richard II having an adult wife who was madly in love with him) or errors of believability (like Rosalind dressing as a boy and running off to the Forest of Arden with a fool and a faux shepherdess, and having a great time.) 🙂
I don’t know enough history to answer your question, Janet, but I just had a thought. What if a woman masqueraded as a castrati? What a twist on a woman masquerading as a man!
Before coming into the comments, I was thinking exactly what Cara said, Shakespeare. He sure made big changes, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t shy about it. I’m sure most people know when it comes to fiction, it isn’t always going to be exactly the way the history went. Fiction is going for something more than that, just like any of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s more of a story that you’re trying to tell for a particular reason, but doing it in terms of another place or time. Sure, sometimes the changes are annoying, but sometimes they’re livable. But there is also a difference between “rewritting history” and those annoying small mistakes that someone should have known better with. LOL 🙂
I don’t look to opera for authenticity usually (and good thing, too, LOL! How many people dying of consumption could sing big arias for thirty minutes before dying. Or expiring in the desert of Louisiana, like Manon), but for those big, crazy, passionate emotions and the often totally wackadoo plots. Tosca is a favorite of mine, too, along with Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, and Lucia, and–too many. 🙂
Diane, in the latest “Casanova” on PBS, there was a woman pretending to be a castrato! Caused Casanova much angst. I actually thought she was much more interesting than the nominal “heroine” 🙂
Monkey about all you like, but once you cross over from “historically implausible” to “historically impossible” it’s fantasy, not historical. This is my only beef. I irks me when I pay good money for one thing and get another. No different from ordering chocolate and getting strawberry. Both tasty, but not interchangeable.
(I never took Latin)
Ooh. I wish I could’ve heard the great Maria Callas in the role!!
Janet, I had no idea that the castrati weren’t done away with in the mid-1700s. When was the last time Farinelli sang? Was it only Italian opera the last one to stop the practice of the castrati? Or did the French, Germans, Austrians, and others also continue the ban on women?
Amanda wrote, “wackadoo plots” 🙂 🙂 🙂
Diane wrote, “What if a woman masqueraded as a castrati?”
If Shakespear had written the plot, then yes, this would’ve been plausible.
Kalen wrote, ‘…”historically implausible” to “historically impossible”…’ 🙂 🙂 🙂
For costumes and setting, nothing beats “Aida” for me. I just love “Carmen” for its finger-snapping music. Anything by Mozart.
I’ve read about women singing opera well before that date.
Was the restriction only in Rome?
Keira, I blogged about castrati on
December 12 2006 (sorry, can’t figure out how to do a link), and yes, there was one who sang for the church in Italy until the early 20c. But the fashion was on the wane in the Regency. I did find out recently that “Exultate, Jubilate” by Mozart, which I’d always thought had a very wide range (a lot of singers have trouble with the low notes), was written for the castrato Giovanni Mansuoli.
And while the idea of a woman impersonating a castrato is a good one, Diane, most women couldn’t do what a castrato could technically, and it’s doubtful she would have received equivalent training.
Ooh. I wish I could’ve heard the great Maria Callas in the role!!
Keira, you can–the fab (tho mono) 1953 recording with Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor de Sabata, Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan. I’ve just acquired this–it’s amazing. Sends chills down your spine.
Janet, I tried to find it on Amazon, but couldn’t. Would it be possible for you to post a link? Thanks much!
I once heard a story on the Saturday afternoon Met broadcast that an elderly man died of a heart attack just as Callas was pointing to Scarpia and saying “assassino”. The man’s daughter called in to say her father adored opera and that he died doing what he loved best. I love “Tosca”, both because the music is so outstandingly beautiful but also because the characters are so psychologically believable. The scene in the church with the choir in the background where Scarpia says “Tosca, you make me forget God” always, always gives me chills. And when Tosca sings that she’s lived for art, I get misty-eyed.
Keira, I’m hopeless at html and the Amazon links are gigantic and would bleed off the page. So here’s the info:
i found it by choosing Music at Amazon and searching for tosca callas. Good luck.
Found it, Janet. Thanks for the additional help. I listened to the snippets. Truly an astounding recording.
Kathleen Battle has always held pride of place in my heart. But this recording gives me pause. Callas is divine.
Only castrati could sing in Rome. Hmm. Only castrati. Right.
Nope, still doesn’t seem worth it to me. But you’d have to ask the Bee Gees for an expert opinion.