Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome
A few years ago I discovered the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD and the Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Season programs, which revolutionized my enjoyment of opera. Since this discovery, I have been able to watch more and better quality opera performances in a movie theater only 20-minutes’ drive from where I live. Through these programs, initiated about 15 years ago, two prominent opera houses – the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the Royal Opera House of London – broadcast their performances live in select movie theaters around the world. I am lucky to have one of those movie theaters close to my home. The goal of the programs is to reach as many audiences as possible. What a great idea, and what a fantastic opportunity for opera lovers, who are typically unable to attend many performances in New York or London.
In January 2018, through Live in HD, I watched the Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, one of the most beloved operas of all time, which premiered in 1900. I enjoyed the performance very much and learned that the setting of its third act is Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, which I had visited years earlier, but not knowing its connection to the opera, had not paid much attention to it. Tosca, especially the music, setting, and the events featured in its ominous third and final act, made a huge impression on me and deeply moved me. The lyrics of several arias were dear to me, and the music was absolutely divine. After the performance, I felt grateful the Live in HD program had made it possible to enjoy such a high-quality performance in the comfort of a nearby movie theater.
During the summer of that same year I was in Rome. While there, having been smitten by the Tosca bug, I decided to visit Castel Sant’Angelo (built in 125 AD, by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself), which is now a national museum and open to visitors. I wanted to inspect it more closely – this time, from an entirely different perspective. One afternoon, I walked over from my hotel to the historic site which has always been popular with tourists. Not surprisingly, it was crowded. After reaching Ponte Sant’Angelo, the bridge over the River Tiber leading to the gate of the castle, I stopped to admire the beautiful cylindrical structure from afar. The bridge itself is elaborately decorated with magnificent statues of angels (hence its name), and the castle looks impressive and imposing. The cylindrical shape of the castle is beautiful, and the color of its façade and its surroundings, light brown with small traces of yellow and pink, is very distinctive. As I admired the view, there was no question in my mind as to why Puccini had selected this location as the setting for the final act of Tosca. It was perfect! Although only imaginary, he could not have chosen a more suitable setting for the dramatic events that unfold in the last act.
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A brief synopsis of Tosca: 1800 Rome. Mario Cavaradossi is a painter who inadvertently becomes a fugitive as he is trying to help hide a friend, a political prisoner who has escaped from the police. Baron Scarpia (the chief of police, a corrupt and merciless character) and his men find and arrest Mario and imprison him in Castel Sant’Angelo. Mario is scheduled to be executed before dawn the next day. Floria Tosca, Mario’s lover, is a beautiful, feisty, and very devout opera singer. To save Mario’s life, Floria agrees to Scarpia’s demand to submit herself to him. In return, Scarpia would arrange a fake execution of Mario sparing his life. However, when Scarpia attempts to have his way with Floria, she cannot bear it and kills him with a knife. She hopes to leave the castle with Mario before the guards discover Scarpia’s dead body.
At dawn, Mario awaits execution on the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo. Floria appears and explains what has happened. The two imagine their future in freedom. As the execution squad arrives, Floria implores Mario to fake his death convincingly, then watches from a distance. The soldiers fire and depart. When Mario doesn’t move, Floria realizes the execution was real and that Scarpia has betrayed her. Scarpia’s men rush in to arrest her, but before they can, she leaps from the ramparts to her death.
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Getting back to my visit at Castel Sant’Angelo, as I got closer, I started to relate the castle’s layout and its various landmarks to the setting of Tosca, the opera. I could see where Mario is shot to death in the final scene: in the open courtyard right beneath the very large statue of Michael the Archangel decorating the top of the castle. What was less obvious was the side of the castle from which Floria jumped to her death. I made an educated guess that Floria probably jumped from the left side, which has a clear view of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Earlier, while reading Tosca’s synopsis, I had seen a reference about the visibility of the Basilica on the morning of those tragic events. With this in mind, I decided to start my tour of the interior from the left side.
Inside the castle, everything looked interesting. I especially enjoyed the spectacular views of Rome from the top of the castle. I also tried to imagine what the site would look like at night. One of Mario’s last arias, And the Stars Were Shining (E Lucevan le Stelle), is sung during the night as he awaits execution. Similarly, when Floria realizes Mario has been executed and is dead, she jumps to her death as the sun is rising. In short, the entire third act of Tosca takes place at night. This is why I was curious about the look of the site at night. Then I remembered that I did not have to do much imagining – I had tickets for a performance of Tosca (select arias only) the following night, at a venue located only a few meters away from Castel Sant’Angelo. So, I was going to have the opportunity to see and experience the site first-hand at night.
The next evening, at the opera house across the river from Castel Sant’Angelo, when I took my seat at the circular seating arrangement constructed specifically for the opera, I was excited. What a treat this was going to be! I could barely wait to listen to some of my favorite arias. Then, beautiful melodies and divine voices started to fill the air. It was pure magic, and it continued for 90 delightful minutes. I was enthralled by all I was hearing and seeing, but above all, Puccini’s music was definitely touching the depths of my being. That night, long after the performance ended, a heart-wrenching aria, the one Mario sings on the eve of his execution, continued to play in my mind, over and over:
And the stars were shining,
And the earth was scented.
The gate of the garden creaked
And a footstep grazed the sand…
Fragrant, she entered
And fell into my arms.
Oh, sweet kisses and languorous caresses,
While trembling I stripped the beautiful form of its veils!
Forever, my dream of love has vanished.
That moment has fled, and I die in desperation.
And I die in desperation!
And I never before loved life so much,
Loved life so much!
Thank you, Live in HD and Live Cinema Season for bringing so much opera into my life. And, of course, thank you Giacomo Puccini for creating such a timeless treasure as Tosca! I sometimes wonder if Puccini was familiar with British poet John Keats’ words, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Keats died in Rome, about 80 years before Puccini composed Tosca. I hope Puccini had heard of Keats’ words, for his Tosca is surely a thing of beauty, and no doubt, it will continue to bring joy to audiences forever.
Aysel K. Basci is a nonfiction writer and literary translator currently working on various titles. She was born and raised in Cyprus and moved to the United States, in 1975. Aysel is retired and currently resides in the Washington DC area. Her writing recently appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, the Bosphorus Review of Books, the Adelaide Literary Magazine and Entropy.