People who insanely love opera are well…insane. We are an irrational lot, surpassed only by baseball fans. When the two are combined, it is truly pathetic. Do not expect logic out of us. We all have our favorites, but there are opera to which I return, time and time again. I think the two would be Tosca and Tannhauser. I love the film version done by Sherrill Milnes. You were expecting anyone else? Let’s face it, Tosca is my favorite opera because of two things: the costumes and Scarpia. I was listening to an Opera Quiz one Saturday afternoon which featured Sherrill Milnes doing Scarpia. It was decided the ending of the opra should be changed because Tosca was a fool to stab Scarpia, when played by Milnes! I think I remember Beverly Sills saying the same thing.
This is one of those operas where any attempt to set it outside of time and space is insane. It is a product of Napoleonic Wars, plain and simple. In other words, the costumes are Empire/Regency. I get so annoyed with inaccurate costuming. (The gown on the right is something Tosca would have worn.) The beautiful thing about something so definitive as Tosca, is that we know exactly what the characters should be wearing. Contrary to popular opinion, the bodice Tosca would have worn, during the day, even when visiting her lover, in church would be completely transparent. Because it was June, and warm, she would have worn a shawl, and a simple straw hat. It is entirely possible she was wearing sandals, her feet bare, her toenails polished, no stockings, and very definitely no underwear. Women did not begin wearing drawers until about 1817 or so.
“…According to the libretto, the action of Tosca occurs in Rome in June 1800.Sardou, in his play, dates it more precisely; La Tosca takes place in the afternoon, evening, and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800.
Italy had long been divided into a number of small states, with the Pope in Rome ruling the Papal States in central Italy. Following the French Revolution, a French army under Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796, entering Rome almost unopposed on 11 February 1798 and establishing a republic there. This republic was ruled by seven consuls; in the opera this is the former office of Angelotti, whose character may be based on the real-life consul Libero Angelucci. In September 1799 the French, who had protected the republic, withdrew from Rome. As they left, troops of the Kingdom of Naples occupied the city.
In May 1800 Napoleon, by then the undisputed leader of France, brought his troops across the Alps to Italy once again. On 14 June his army met the Austrian forces at the Battle of Marengo (near Alessandria). Austrian troops were initially successful; by mid-morning they were in control of the field of battle. Their commander, Michael von Melas, sent this news south towards Rome. However, fresh French troops arrived in late afternoon, and Napoleon attacked the tired Austrians. As Melas retreated in disarray with the remains of his army, he sent a second courier south with the revised message. The Neapolitans abandoned Rome, and the city spent the next fourteen years under French domination….”
Jacques-Louis David is one of my favorite artists. He was a court painter for Napoleon. You might want to notice the bodice, and the fact that the young woman in white was basically topless. It was also the era of wearing muslin or gauze and dampening them in order to make it apparent they were wearing nothing under the gown. The problem in England was that women had a tendency to do this in the winter, and wear fashionable sandals.
Regency and Empire costume is very specific. There are many myths about it. The trend began in the early 1790s, during the height of the truly annoying Marie Antoinette style abuses. The first change was seen in the chemise dress, and the remarkable hair styles and hats of Gainsborough. The changes were radical.
“…One of the last groups to be executed during the terror were the Carmelite Nuns of Compiègne. The nuns were sentenced to death for refusing to give up their monastic vows. They were sent to the guillotine on 17 July 1794. The manner in which they approached their death, going freely up to the scaffold while singing the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, had a great impact on the public mood in Paris and helped to turn it against the terror….”
“…Those who attended the orgiastic balls reportedly wore mourning clothes or elaborate costumes with crepe armbands signifying mourning. Some accounts have both men and women wearing plain but scanty dress in the wake of the impoverishment of the Revolution, at least until the return of their fortunes at which time ball dress became highly elaborate. Others describe women dressing scandalously in Greco-Roman attire, with their feet bare or adorned only by ribbons. The style of dress at such a ball was known by some as the “costume à la victime.” Women, and by some accounts men too, wore a red ribbon or string around their necks at the point of a guillotine blade’s impact. Both men and women attending the balls were said to have worn or cut their hair in a fashion that bared their necks in a manner reflecting the haircut given the victim by the executioner, women often using a comb known as a cadenette to achieve this fashion. According to some, this was the origin of the feminine hairstyle known as the “coiffure à la victime” or more popularly the “coiffure à la Titus”, or (in England) “a la guillotine”. Some sources state that a woman sporting this hairstyle sometimes wore a red shawl or throat ribbon even when not attending a bal des victimes….”
The fashions were a by-product of the French Revolution, one of the truly reprehensible moments in history. The power vacuum created in France led to the rise of Napoleon. It is said that the victims of the guillotine went to their death, silently, with dignity. Legend says they came to an end when a young woman defied custom and screamed and cried the entire way, protesting her innocence, condemning those who were going to murder her. It is said people were so sickened by her reactions, and her battle to live, that they turned away in disgust. The Reign of Terror lasted for nearly a year, from September 5, 1793 – July 28, 1794. The most disgusting part of the entire nightmare was that it drew inspiration from Thomas Jefferson, who never once, until later, uttered a word condemning the nightmare and slaughter, as did John Adams. At least 40,000 were executed. Many of them were priests, nuns, and those who professed to be Christian.
“…Another anti-clerical uprising was also made possible by the enactment of the Revolutionary Calendar on 24 October. Hébert’s and Chaumette’s atheist movement initiated an anti-religious campaign in order to dechristianise society. The program of dechristianisation waged against Catholicism, and also eventually against all forms of Christianity, included the deportation or execution of clergymen and women; the closing of churches; the rise of cults and the institution of a civic religion; the large scale destruction of religious monuments; the outlawing of public and private worship and religious education; the forced abjuration of priests of their vows and forced marriages of the clergy; the word “saint” being removed from street names; and the War in the Vendée.
The enactment of a law on 21 October 1793 made all suspected priests and all persons who harbored them liable to summary execution. The climax was reached with the celebration of the goddess Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November. Because dissent was now regarded as counter-revolutionary, extremist enragés such as Hébert and moderate Montagnard indulgents such as Danton were guillotined in the spring of 1794. On 7 June, Robespierre, who favored deism over Hébert’s atheism, and had previously condemned the Cult of Reason, recommended that the convention acknowledge the existence of his god. On the next day, the worship of the deistic Supreme Being was inaugurated as an official aspect of the revolution…”
Tosca takes place in June of 1800. It is convoluted and you need a history lesson. The real life Angelotti was in prison for trying to assassinate the Pope. He was trying to bring about a French style revolution in Italy. The Reign of Terror in France was all about the elimination through violent means anyone who was Christian.
Tosca was performing at night. Women had only been allowed to sing opera on the public stage for about 3 years. Just being Floria Tosca was a scandal in itself.
My all-time favorite moment from Tosca: