“Più forte! Più forte!” – Reviewing Paola Capriolo’s Floria Tosca

I happened upon Paola Capriolo’s Floria Tosca at the library the other day. I’d read the novel once before, when I was about 20, but I decided to give it a re-read, so that I could review it here on the blog.

The genre of the novel is “opera fanfiction”, I would say – a genre very scarcely represented in literature. In fact, I’m pretty sure that this is the only piece of opera fanfiction I’ve ever encountered, which is a darned shame. Here’s a list of opera fanfiction novels that I would totally write if I had the time as well as any notion that there is an actual market for the genre:

Born to Weep? – the story of Cornelia’s tentative steps into a lasting love affair with Curio, proving that it is possible to be whole and find love again the second time around, even when your first love had his head cut off. Set after the events of Händel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto.

Musings of Musetta: the story of Puccini’s La Bohème – from Musetta’s perspective! The incorrectable flirt reveals her sensitive nature in the re-telling of this epic love story set in 18th century Paris. (I will admit to having attempted to write this very story when I was a teenager.)

Boris Begins: Boris Godunov’s sinister personality and child-slaying ways are explained in this prequel.

Sorrow Floats: In this sequel to Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio San’s son grows up in the U.S., haunted by the vague memories of his Nagasaki past that his father and new mother are desperately trying to make him forget.

But back to Paola Capriolo. As the title reveals, the subject of Capriolo’s novel is Puccini’s opera Tosca about the diva Tosca, her artist lover Mario Cavaradossi, and the brutal chief of police Scarpia who claims Mario’s life and Tosca’s body. The story is written as Scarpia’s secret diary and depicts Capriolo’s idea of the events leading up to the story of the opera. Mario is only referred to secondarily, while Scarpia and Tosca take center stage in the novel.

A phenomological S/M story
The resulting novel is not bad. Capriolo manages to give us an entirely new take on the story of Tosca and Scarpia and gives us a rounded portrait of her brutal narrator. In Capriolo’s interpretation, Scarpia is – when we first meet him – a man who feels at peace with his own brutality, and who even sees in his brutality an absurd kind of display of mercy and tenderness. As the chief of police in Rome, he is in charge of the torturing and execution of prisoners at the Sant’ Angelo, and he firmly believes that he is acting as a merciful God’s powertool when handling his gruesome tasks. When receiving letters from desperate mothers, pleading for the lives of their death-sentenced sons, he writes:

(NOTE: as I do not have access to the English translation of the novel, the quoted paragraphs from the novel are all my own translations)

First premise: by having your son executed, I obey the will of God

Second premise: God is Mercy (in this, at least, you will agre with me. If this be not the case, I strongly recommend that you talk to your confessor).

Conclusion: by taking your son’s life, I act in accordance with the divine mercifulness, and my act is thus in and of itself merciful. If I were to spare him, I would be disobedient to the Lord and, thus, as can be inferred by the second premise, violate the laws of mercifulness. God keep me from comitting such a sin, and God keep you from wishing me to do so! Fight your human weakness, dear madam, and turn your gaze towards the eternal reward that will surely be granted if you manage to bear your trials with humility.

In other words, Scarpia has created a theorem for himself, according to which he can take pleasure in the chastising of his fellow men without any feelings of remorse or any sense of sin. The only drawback to this theorem is that it naturally leaves him quite lonely. He is commonly viewed as a vile henchman by his surroundings, whom he in turn scorns because they are unable to partake in his glorification of stern violence, and he is disgusted with the seeking of pleasure that he finds in his surroundings:

These days even Poverty does not understand the beauty of simplicity, but manifests itself in twisted arabesques, excessive flower decorations, and from the hovels in the narrow streets – old patrician homes now invaded by the mob – the decor, which I had attempted to escape, soon began to weigh me down again in a deformed, depraved version. Inside the courtyards a chaotic wildernes of palm trees and climbers to find a morbid form of nutrition in the heavy summer air. Everything was growing inhibitedly everywhere, suffocating in its own luxuriance, and not only the plants, but also the ramshackle walls, the staircases on the cracked marble steps of which ragged children sat playing, and the mottled laundry hung out to dry in the archways, its spots and rags on display without shame, reflected a longing for decay, a vitality that tasted of death.”

As you can see, Capriolo chooses a very phenomenological angle on the story, which is one of the things I like about the novel – it makes sense, considering how sensual most of Scarpia’s music is, and her language is beautifully crafted and has an appropriate textural effect.

Capriolo’s Scarpia finally finds a companion in his lonely love of pain and suffering when he gets to know Tosca. At first disgusted by the almost vulgar disharmony in her beauty – lily-white skin and raven hair – he gradually falls under her spell as he realizes that Tosca has a certain talent for the union of two other contrasts – pleasure and pain. This proces begins as Tosca, whiel bargaining with Scarpia for the life and freedom of her rebel boyfriend Mario, is given by Scarpia a golden bracelet that happens to look like one of the torture devices he uses in his job . A bracelet that’s tight to the point where it digs into Tosca’s skin and that he nevertheless catches her wearing willingly. His relationship to Tosca climaxes when Scarpia, during another one of their negotiations, takes Tosca to see the official torture chamber at the Palazzo Farnese, and Tosca wordlessly agrees to participate in a bizarre tableau of domination and submission:

He who had, before crossing that threshold, been baron Scarpia, took her, who had been Floria Tosca, by the hand and walked her to a wall, from which two iron rings stood out. He lifted her arms, making sure that he had tightened them sufficiently and then walked over to a wall cabinet and produced a thin chain. Returned to her and got down on his knees before her. Unstrapped one sandal, pulled it off of her, unstrapped the other, which she herself nudged off of her foot and pushed across the floor with her naked foot. He put the chain around her one ankle. Their gazes were then turned towards the large painting (by Cavaradossi, of Tosca as the Victorious Madonna) in the alcove, tore themselves from it again and met each other. He bent once more. She lifted her vacant foot, placed it on top of his head and pressed down. Eventually the pressure was released, but before  he stood up, he remianed lying on his knees on the floor, engulfed by the sensations. And it was at this point in the ritual that the significanse of the word “fulfillment” was unveiled to him.

KINKY. And interestingly so – especially since we only get Scarpia’s point of view on the situation. After this S/M tableau Tosca recoils from the advances of the baron, much to his dismay, and thus it is never clear what Tosca’s motives were. Does she truly share Scarpia’s perverted tendencies? Or was she simply executing her part as the talented stage performer, skilfully adapting her performance to the wants of her spectator, for the purpose of making him more prone towards saving her lover, Mario?

Floria Tosca as fanfiction
In the end, however, I don’t really I buy this interpretation of Tosca. I find it hard to view it as anything other than an interpretation of the opera – or indeed as a fanfiction based on it – since I can’t imagine that anyone would even come across this novel if they weren’t already fans of Tosca. The problem I have with the story is that it fleshes out the characters of the opera too much. The phenomenology and the emphasis of the S/M aspects of the story take away from what I’ve always enjoyed most about the opera – the political and historical context of it. I’m not saying that Puccini’s Tosca doesn’t have any kink in it – it does. But to me, Scarpia, Tosca, and Mario Cavaradossi represent movements within a social struggle rather than actual human beings (I’ve discussed this briefly in a previous blog post). Mario represents the rebellious movement that is slowly gaining footing in society. Thus he is also starting to overtake the sympathies and the interests of the population – represented by Tosca who is essentially apolitical, but who strives to be happy and fulfil herself (living for “art and love”) and will support whichever party gives her the opportunity to do so. This has hitherto been the established power, represented by Scarpia, and Tosca still belongs to this party in as much as she performs at their official celebrations etc., but as this party begins to feel her slip away, he resorts to the use of violence. I realize that such an analysis of Tosca conflicts with the fact that Puccini, unlike Verdi, was mostly an a-political composer who was probably more interested in the sentiments of his characters than the political situation of central Europe in June 1800. But I do think there’s enough in his music to support my political analysis of the opera: In each of the three acts Puccini has made sure to compose music that points towards a situation much grander and graver than the love triangle between three characters: In the first act we have the choir of the devout congregation of the Sant’ Andrea, in the second act we get the cantata of the victory celebration, and in the third act there’s the song of the young Roman shepherd outside Sant’Angelo.

I need this in order to really enjoy the story of Tosca – I need the music coming in from outside, the music of history and society, if I’m not to disregard the story as a piquant, but ultimately un-interesting and slightly trashy love story. Capriolo’s story is very wellwritten and an interesting take on a canonized opera story, but its story of a random man’s sadist tendencies in 19th century Rome doesn’t provide me with this extra, essential layer.

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