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A Shocker In Real Time: Puccini's 'Tosca'

In TV's hit series 24, one of the key elements is seen — and heard — before and after each commercial break. It's a ticking clock, to keep track of how much of time has elapsed in the episode's story as the viewers were "away" watching advertisements. The clock is essential because the story takes place in real time: 24 episodes equals 24 hours.

In opera, things are generally quite different. In some operas, as the audience enjoys a drink or two in the lobby between acts, decades can pass in the opera's plot line. Still, there is one type of opera that does employ a sort of real-time story telling, though not so rigorously as on 24.

The style is called verismo, and two textbook examples of it are Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Both are single-act operas with stories that take place in one day, and plausibly in real time, as well. But there is another composer often associated with verismo who is surely the most famous of them all: Giacomo Puccini.

Whether Puccini can truly be described as a "verismo composer" depends on who's doing the describing. But many of his operas do share elements, and a distinct but hard-to-define aesthetic sensibility, with the verismo style — and with TV's 24. One of those operas is Tosca, which not only takes a realistic approach to the passage of dramatic time, but also shares 24's tendency toward scenes of physical and psychological torture.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Tosca from one of opera's most fascinating venues — and one that emphasizes opera's reliance on real-time action. The performance was staged at the Théâtre Antique, in Orange, France. It's an ancient Roman theater built in the first century A.D. to seat some 10,000 spectators. It still seats nearly 7,000, and as you might expect, the stage is huge — more than 200 feet wide.

So, the theater actually has a tangible effect on the performance itself — one that can even be heard on the radio. There are key passages in Puccini's opera where the music is meant to underpin specific bits of onstage action. And in Orange the characters carrying out that action have to cover a lot of stage in the process. So when the tempos in the performance seem a bit more stately than usual, it's only to keep the actors from having to sprint to hit their marks!

The stars in the production from Orange are tenor Roberto Alagna as Cavaradossi, baritone Falk Struckmann as the villain Scarpia and soprano Catherine Naglestad in the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.