A Real Time Shocker: Puccini's 'Tosca'

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TV's hit series 24 -- which has a brand new version on the drawing board -- introduced a key element both seen and heard before and after each commercial break: a ticking clock, to keep track of how much of time elapses in the episode's story as the viewers are "away," watching ads. The clock is essential because the series also introduced another groundbreaking device. Its action takes place in real time: 60 TV minutes equal sixty minutes of the story.

In opera, things are generally quite different. In some operas, as audience members sip a drink or two in the lobby between acts, decades can pass in the plot line. Still, there is one style of opera that does employ a sort of real-time story telling, though not quite 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 reliance on scenes of physical and psychological torture, and on particularly nasty villains. In fact, with Baron Scarpia, Tosca showcases one of the most repugnant of all operatic villains.

Puccini based his opera on the 1887 play La Tosca, by the French writer Victorien Sardou. The composer secured operatic rights to the drama immediately after he first saw it and began composing his own Tosca in 1896. Puccini called it, "an opera that I need."

It's easy to see why. He always took a "no holds barred" approach to his operas, and he turned the play into a sensational, roller-coaster of a drama that's one of the most popular operas of all time.

Yet the piece has also had some eminent detractors. Benjamin Britten, for example, said he was "sickened by the cheapness and emptiness" of Puccini's Tosca -- proving that what one great opera composer sees as poison can be milk and honey for another.

Even for Puccini lovers, Britten's statement is easy to understand. While listening to Tosca, with all its undoubtedly sensational aspects, it's easy to question its redeeming values. But surely, it has plenty. There's the music, for one thing. It's as beautiful as anything Puccini ever composed. And while the drama is extreme, it's also masterful -- poking at the darker side of our desires, and even satisfying them, at least vicariously. There's nothing like Puccini for highbrow entertainment with soul, often leading to a guilty grin.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Tosca from the Grand Liceu Theater in Barcelona. The stars are soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, tenor Jorge de León as Cavaradossi and baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Scarpia.