Everyone knows that in the world of theatre, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a cursed play, only to be referred to as ‘The Scottish Play’. And the operatic equivalent, according to popular belief, is Puccini’s “shabby little shocker”, Tosca. Now, we all know about Tosca’s Kiss. But what about Tosca’s curse? Where has this legend come from? Well, it has come from the many disasters that have happened in productions of Tosca over the years. It’s not hard to see why it’s this opera that gets the blame for being dangerous. What with the gunpowder used for the fake execution and the (hopefully) blunt knife used to stab Scarpia and the candles placed around his body (an obvious fire hazard just waiting to happen) and the offstage screaming and singing and the onstage scuffles and the infamous leap from the battlements at the end, Tosca is, from beginning to end, an operatic danger zone. Let’s have a look at some of the many things which have gone wrong in productions of Tosca since it’s premiere 112 years ago.
- Let’s start with that most famous of all Tosca disasters; the trampoline, as recounted by Hugh Vickers in his book Great Operatic Disasters.
“Whereas most such disasters depend on some element of misunderstanding and incompetence among the stage management, this catastrophe is – delightfully- due entire to ill will, in this case between the stage staff and the soprano. With diabolical cunning they permitted her, after several stormy rehearsals, to complete her first performance without mishap until the very last moment, when Tosca throws herself off the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo. What normally happens is that on her cry of “Scarpia, avanti a Dio!”, she hurls herself off and lands on a matress four feet below (who but Callas has ever looked totally convincing at that moment? Her outstretched hands haunt the memory). But in this case it was not Callas but a large young American who landed not on a mattress but – perish the thought – on a trampoline. It is said that she came up fifteen times before the curtain fell, sometimes upside down and then the right way up, now laughing in delirious glee, now screaming with rage.” Now that is truly the operatic way to get even with a bossy diva! Although this story has become buried in popular legend now, it varies hugely depending who tells it. Some say it was an older or more famous diva and some say that she came up 3 or 4 times instead of 15, but at heart it is still one of the treasured tales of the opera world.
- Less of a disaster and more of an interesting anecdote, there is a tradition of Tosca singing her great aria Vissi d’arte lying on the floor. This can be dated precisely back to the great soprano Maria Jeritza. One night on stage, she tripped and fell while fighting Scarpia. Rather than climb awkwardly back up again to sing, she chose to remain on the floor for the duration of the aria. The director liked this effect and asked her to continue it for the rest of the performances. It eventually became her trademark and was copied by many other sopranos.
- As Maria Callas tried to wrestle off Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia in a performance in 1965, her long black wig caught fire from one of the candelabras, much to the horror of the audience. Luckily the quick-thinking Gobbi improvised a fight move on the spot and snuffled out the flame without missing a beat and Callas escaped without injury. They both continued singing and acting as though nothing had happened, but as she stabbed him afterwards, she whispered ‘Grazie, Tito!’ under her breath to him. This story became famous after Gobbi wrote about it in his memoirs.
- Also in 1965, the tenor Gianni Raimondi suffered burns to his face in a performance in Rome after one of the fake execution bullets was overcharged with gunpowder.
- Another Maria Jeritza tale – Antonio Scotti, playing Scarpia was once actually hurt when Jeritza stabbed him with the prop dagger. Needless to say, he acted the death scene extremely convincingly and with some very loud exclamations of pain.
- Live fire on the stage was something that Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was not used to when she started performing in the West in the 1970s. During a Tosca run at the Vienna State Opera Vishnevskaya’s insistence on using her own wig instead of the fire-retarded one furnished by the theater backfired when her tress was ignited by one of the candle. The diva kept on singing, evidently not realizing what had happened, and was shocked when the freshly murdered Scarpia jumped back into life and lunged at her along with the Cavaradossi (none other than one Placido Domingo), who wasn’t even supposed to be in the scene to begin with. The two colleagues successfully put the fire out as the curtain fell and Vishnevskaya suffered only minor burns to her scalp. (Apparently afterwards, in Act 3, Domingo ‘looked as though he might cry’ as he sang O dolci mani to her burnt hands)
- Eva Marton took an elbow blow to the jaw when fighting Juan Pons as Scarpia at the Met in 1986. However, she soldiered on and managed to finish with a dislocated jaw (although another version of this story says it was her shoulder that was dislocated and she tried to fix it mid-performance by slamming it against the wall)
- She (Eva Marton) had more Tosca trouble in her final performance of the role at the Met in 1999. She landed on the feather mattress after her suicide jump and it exploded around her. Luckily, nothing was seen by the audience, until she came out for her curtain call – covered in feathers from head to foot.
- Renata Tebaldi, performing in Tokyo, famously walked offstage, straight past the confused soldiers, rather than jump (Montserrat Caballe once did the same thing, but rather more discreetly)
- At the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul in 1993 soprano Elisabeth Knighton Printy had a real fright she realized upon jumping off the stage platform that she wasn’t in the right spot where the mattress was placed on the ground to cushion her fall. Thirty feet straight down later the star of the show had knocked herself out of action for the rest of the run with two broken leg and many bruises.
- Gina Cigna, in Buenos Aires, got away lighter, She took her curtain call bleeding from the forehead after the stage hands forgot to put down a mattress for her
- During the live broadcast of Tosca, nei tempi, nei luoghi, Placido Domingo fell down the ladder on the painters’ scaffold in Act 1 and crashed into the wall of the ‘Attavanti’ Chapel.
- An unnamed soprano once broke her ankles during a rehearsal for Welsh National Opera. It ended up in court because the stage director had insisted on a long jump to inadeqate padding, and since the soprano cancelled her performances, the company refused to pay her.
- In a performance in Italy in the 1990s, the guns did not go off properly and Cavaradossi had to pretend he had been shot by invisible bullets. The ever-sympathetic Italian newspapers celebrated this with the headline ‘Cavaradossi dies of a heart attack‘
- This is a brilliant story from the New Orleans Opera in 1978. The physical production had been borrowed from Dallas and did not match the scale of the New Orleans venue. In fact, the Castel Sant’Angelo set was so out of proportion with the dimensions of the stage that the parapet actually touched the background scrim upon which the dawn over Rome was suggested. There was hardly enough room to squeeze a pin cushion back there, much less a mattress
or gym pads. The production team “solved” this problem by attaching a tiny wooden platform directly under the section of the parapet where Tosca jumps to her death. The Tosca was instructed to simulate a leap, then crouch down on the platform–presumably out of sight of the audience.Unfortunately, someone came up with the bright idea of having a stagehand posted on the platform to assist Tosca with this tricky bit of staging. The poor guy was required to kneel and stoop for the entire act because there was no other access point to the platform besides the parapet itself. The Tosca was an American mediocrity named Roberta Palmer, whose 15 minutes of fame were about to come to an absurd end. A replacement for the originally scheduled Galina Vishnevskaya, Palmer was not blessed with stage smarts and visibly motioned to the stagehand to get ready for the jump.Suddenly, a flannel-shirted torso rose up and extended his arms to catch the exiting diva. Palmer stepped off the parapet into his waiting clutches and the two quickly ducked down on their tiny perch.By this point, the audience in the highest section of the balcony was in stitches. But nothing could have prepared us for the hilarity that followed.Mistakenly assuming that the curtain had fallen, Palmer and friend *stood up* in plain view of the entire audience. As howls of laughter greeted them, soprano and stagehand darted back beneath the border of the parapet. By that point, however, all semblance of convincing stage illusion had been destroyed.
- Famous baritone Tito Gobbi, a very original Scarpia, recalled a prima, or premiere, with Maria Callas, in which he had to improvise to save the diva in Act II. While he was on the floor, having just been killed, he realised that Callas was walking around the stage unable to find her way out. She had severe myopia and, while she could wear glasses during rehearsal, her eyes would not tolerate contact lenses. Gobbi tried to discreetly point out the exit, but started laughing so intensely that both his laughing and his pointing were seen by the audience. The morning after, the newspapers raved about his memorable portrayal of Scarpia’s death throes. In other performances, he was able to whisper directions to her so that she could make a satisfactory exit.
- Gobbi also paid tribute to the ferocity of Callas’ acting in this role, noting that he was often afraid during their performances that she really would kill him in Act II. She very nearly did so, when the knife she was using failed to retract. Gobbi was cut, but not severely hurt, and with a cry of “My God!” went right on with his death scene.
- Tenor Fabio Armiliato had a bad accident during performance as Cavaradossi at the Macerata Festival in 1995 opposite Raina Kabaivanska. One of the guns used in the execution scene was loaded with a bullet that wasn’t quite blank enough and the tenor was hit in the leg with its fragments. Determined to not let the incident faze him, Armiliato turned up to perform in the subsequent performance with the aid of crutches, which promptly broke under him along with his other leg, effectively knocking him out of the rest of the performances. Here is the video footage:
- There is also a popular story of how a Cavaradossi (opposite Lina Cavalieri’s Tosca) was actually killed by the fake bullets. This is (we hope) almost certainly not true
- My personal favourite (also taken from Great Operatic Disasters): A group of young and inexperienced college students were used to play the firing squad of Act 3. They were given last minute instructions to “slow march in, wait until the officer lowers his sword and then shoot. And then exit with the principals” (Principals being the standard American stage instruction for minor characters or the leader of a group etc.) The audience, therefore, saw the following: a group of soldiers marched onto the stage but then stopped dead in its tracks at the sight of two people, not one, as they had assumed – a man and a woman, both looking extremely alarmed. When they pointed their hesitant rifles at the man, he at first drew himself up, looking noble and resigned, but then started giving inexplicable conspiratorial glances at the woman . . . they pointed their rifles at her, but she made a series of violently negative gestures – but then what else would she do if she was about to be shot? Should they, perhaps, shoot them both? But then they would hardly be standing so far apart – anyway, the opera was called Tosca, it was evidently tragic, the enormous woman on stage was presumably Tosca herself, solemn funereal music was playing, the officer was raising his sword . . .
Thus it happened. By a perfectly sensible process of logical deduction they shot Tosca instead of Cavaradossi. To their amazement, they then saw the man, some twenty yards away, fall lifeless to the ground, while the person they had shot rushed over to him, crying (we must remember that this was in a vivid American translation) “Come on baby, get up, we gotta go!” What could they do? They had shot one of the principals – though admittedly the wrong one – and their next instruction was “Exit with the principals.”. In disbelief, they watched as, first, Spoletta and his minions burst onto the stage and Tosca – could it be true? – took up her position on top of the battlements. She jumped and there was only one thing for it – as the curtain slowly descended the whole firing squad threw themselves after her . . .
- And finally, just to round things off:
So, I hope you enjoyed this little (ish) round up of all the Tosca disasters and mess ups I could find.