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The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

In the middle of Benoît Jacquot’s film Tosca (2001), the chief of police Baron Scarpia interrogates the painter Mario Cavaradossi about his connections to the newly escaped political prisoner Cesare Angelotti. During the interrogation, Cavaradossi’s responses have a heightened resonance that differ markedly from Scarpia’s vocal lines and the orchestral accompaniment. Moreover, when the police agent Spoletta intervenes (with the line “alle nostre ricerche ridea”/”he scorned us as we searched”) his voice also sounds with reverberation.1 Spoletta’s words make Cavaradossi turn around and laugh with a laugh that has the same special sound quality. In addition, it is synchronized with a sudden spotlighting of his face in close-up, bearing an expression of madness. This audio-visual rendering of the scene from Puccini’s Tosca poses a challenge to the conventions and expectations that surround this well-known opera. Furthermore, the high resonance in the voices of Cavaradossi and Spoletta is not legitimized by the visualized location; the characters are in one and the same place throughout the interrogation-section (Scarpia’s apartment inside the Palazzo Farnese). In addition, Spoletta’s line is sung from the background of the room, at a distance from Cavaradossi, while his echoing voice is dynamically foregrounded.

The use of visually and/or sonically manipulated opera in film has recently attracted attention among scholars who have discussed the implications of this phenomenon in feature films of the 2000s for the understanding of opera as a genre. In an article on the Bond film Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008), Marcia Citron has argued for a reconceptualization of the opera visit in film due to how an opera performance is treated. Besides not being connected to attentive listening in the fictional situation, the opera performance (a staged setting of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, 1899) is audio-visually fragmented in order to build up energy in an action scene (“The Operatics of Detachment” 317-318). Drawing attention to the use of the Habanera from George Bizet’s Carmen (1875) in the film Up (Pixar, 2009), Lawrence Kramer has pointed to a new way of conceiving opera. According to him, two conceptual supports have been removed, upon which the representation of Western art music (that he calls “classical music”) has depended: “the status of a relatively stable whole” and “a model of consciousness and attention” (42-43). He shows how the aria in the scene from Up is used to create an overall atmosphere, which means that it does not attract attention to itself and it is arranged for instruments in a way that clearly reshapes its character. Thereby it “does not act as a token of a larger whole” (48). It is a disconnection of the music from the meaning of belonging to a larger work, i.e. the “work concept” and the listener conventions that are included in this concept (41).

In this article, focusing on Jacquot’s film Tosca, I discuss this way of using opera that can be identified in feature film. I have also studied the implications of this for the representation of the opera singer by drawing attention to a film genre aiming at an audience with a special interest in opera.2 As Linda and Michael Hutcheon have pointed out “adaptations of opera to film” constitute a challenge because “since the Romantic period, opera’s tradition of Werktreue has demanded authenticity in realizing the operatic work authenticated by tradition” (305). Consequently, the adapted opera’s libretto and score are generally faithfully respected while directors may experiment with visual mediation. Visual experimentation may nevertheless contribute to subversions in relation to central aspects of opera as a genre. The visual language of Jacquot’s film has previously attracted the attention of Marcia Citron, who also relates it to the visual configuration of opera in Quantum of Solace (“Visual Media”).3 By  taking the audio-visual configuration into consideration in its totality, and focusing on three well-known arias in the opera, I argue that by bringing it in line with aesthetics of contemporary feature film aesthetics Jacquot’s film renegotiates the image of the opera singer. The idea of the opera singer is disconnected from the two conceptual supports pointed out by Kramer. More specifically, two aspects of the vocal performance that are central for the notion of opera as a “stable whole” and as a “model of attention” are subverted: the embodiment of an opera character and the showcasing of a singer as performer.4

In accordance with Hutcheons’ thinking, I regard “the audience’s memory and experience” as central to opera adaptations, since these “produce in the audience members who are familiar with what is being adapted” an oscillation between “what they remember and what they are experiencing” (307). An important point for the representation of the singer is thereby articulated through Jacquot’s music-image combinations. Not only do these make the singers fade as vocal performers, but the fictional characters are promoted in ways that differ from what is expected by an audience familiar with Puccini’s score, and the way this is often realized in live performances and film adaptations. To highlight this, Jacquot’s opera film is compared with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s filmatization of the opera: Tosca: in the settings and at the times of Tosca (1992), which was distributed globally as a live broadcast via television in the early 1990s and which was then released on DVD.5

I begin by outlining a short background to Jacquot’s and Griffi’s films; then I examine how the singers are featured in the films in three famous arias in the opera where Puccini’s score encourages vocal showcasing.6 The examination is methodologically informed by the analysis of screened opera through tracing effects of presence and distance in the audio-visual configuration; such studies have been carried out by Christopher Morris, Marcia Citron and Mary Ann Smart. I also consider an ongoing discussion in film music scholarship about the narrative function of the soundtrack in digital feature film. Finally, I discuss how the representation of the opera singer articulated by Jacquot’s audio-visual language, in addition to bearing the mark of a contemporary audio-visual style in mainstream film, is also linked to the director’s previous film production.

Background to Jacquot’s and Griffi’s films

The French film director Benoît Jacquot (born in 1947) has a background in the European art film tradition The French New Wave, and his production includes more than forty films. Some of them have been distributed internationally, such as A Single Girl (La Fille seule, 1995), Seventh Heaven (Le Septième ciel, 1997) and The School of Flesh (L’École de la Chair, 1998) (Brunette and Peary 23). In an interview with the director, Peter Brunette and Gerald Peary characterize his films as dealing with incidents and situations rather than with narrative, and they describe them as “thoughtful, talky, literary” (23). Moreover, they draw attention to the director’s predilection for female beauty, which is expressed in close-ups of women’s faces (23). Tosca (2001) is Jacquot’s only opera film. According to the director, it was Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the film’s producer, who asked him to make the film and he had eventually agreed, even though he had no previous experience of directing opera and had never heard Puccini’s Tosca as a whole (“Interview with Benoît Jacquot”).7 His ambition for the film had been to turn Puccini’s opera “into a movie, not a filmed opera” (Riding).

In the film, the musical direction is carried out by Antonio Pappano and the opera’s three main characters are played by Angela Gheorghiu, (Tosca), Roberto Alagna (Cavaradossi) and Ruggero Raimondi (Scarpia).8 Jacquot lets the opera’s course of events be narrated through an interweaving of three kinds of visualizations, which Citron (“Visual Media” 932) has called three “discursive modes”. The main part (which was filmed in a studio in Cologne) shows the singers in the roles of the opera characters (they mime to the pre-recorded music) along with elements of illuminated décor that suggest the setting where the storyline takes place according to Puccini’s score. The visualization is characterized by chiaroscuro (a contrast between light and dark), illuminating the characters (along with the décor) against a dark background. In addition, a tableau-like structure is created in that the camera is often stationary and the shots are long (longer vocal parts are often visualized in one shot). The second kind of visualization is inserted shots in black and white from the recording session (which took place in a studio in London), where the singers appear as themselves with the orchestra and the conductor. According to the director, his ambition was to show characters who do not pretend “to be singing but are really singing” (“Interview with Benoît Jacquot”). To achieve this, he created a combination of fiction and documentary (“Interview with Benoît Jacquot”).9 Inserted manipulated images of details from the real locations in Rome where the storyline takes place according to Puccini’s score (Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant’Angelo) constitute the third kind of visualization. These shots were taken in Rome with a handheld camera (Riding). According to Jacquot, these images should act as “evocations” instead of “illustrations”; he posits that it should be like “you hear music and you close your eyes and images pop into your head” (Riding).

In Tosca: in the settings and at the times of Tosca, directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, the relationship between the singer and the song is instead clearly articulated as this originally was a live broadcast of the opera.10 However, this production also creates an interesting intersection between fictional representation and authentic presentation as the performance is set in the real buildings in Rome where the storyline takes places as written in the score (Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant’Angelo), and at the same times of day (at noon on Saturday, July 11, at 8.15pm the same day, 6am on July 12). The opera was originally performed and televised around the world in real time.11 The orchestra was situated in a studio in another part of Rome and was visually transmitted to the singers by monitors. By using modern technology, the ambition was to create the “same sense of partial reality as a TV news clip” (Cowell 5). According to Alan Cowell, who presents the production in the booklet to the DVD of the recording, the “sharp focus of modern technology […] actually blurred the line between artistic creation and reality” (5).

Due to the audio-visual anchoring in the score and the way in which the singers’ vocal ability comes into focus through the live broadcast, this is a film adaptation that nevertheless articulates what Kramer regards as a traditional understanding of classical music (the idea of opera as a stable whole and as an object of attention) (42-43). Discussing the image of opera communicated by recent screen media, João Pedro Cachopo has used the production as an example of what he considers a paradox in “our media-saturated culture,” namely that “the remediation of musical-theatrical works is often treated as a means of enhancing, rather than of questioning, a sense of authenticity, uniqueness, and presence” in relation to opera as a genre (266).

Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte”

Returning to Jacquot’s film, a key question emerges: what image of the opera singer is articulated audio-visually when the vocal performance’s double role, which is characteristic of opera as a genre, is clearly promoted in Puccini’s score; that is, the embodying of an opera character and the spotlighting of a singer? One such place is the aria “Vissi d’arte,” which is performed by the opera’s main female character in the opera’s second act.12 Tosca here turns to the Madonna and begs for mercy with a lyrical expression, where the voice is manifested with several high notes and a final climax (Score 317–323). Puccini is said to have considered deleting this aria at a late stage in the opera’s production because it suspended the plot (Carner 50). It is performed in Scarpia’s apartment in Palazzo Farnese. According to the score, before the aria, Scarpia quickly moves away from Tosca to another part of the room where he drinks his coffee while regarding her (“Freddamente Scarpia va ad appoggiarsi ad un angolo della tavola, si versa il caffè e lo assorbe mentre continua a guardare Tosca”, Score 316). The singer is thus by herself when performing the aria, which gives the opportunity for vocal showcasing, while Scarpia’s presence in another part of the room acts as an anchor in the fictional situation.

In Jacquot’s film, the singer (Angela Gheorghiu) is not only by herself when she performs the aria, but the visualization does not reproduce any of the fictional context described in the score. Gheorghiu mainly appears against a dark background and Scarpia (played by Ruggero Raimondi) emerges only after she has performed the final cadence. In spite of this visual spotlighting, however, it can be noted that Jacquot’s audio-visual language serves to challenge the singer’s status as vocal performer. The vocal melody is introduced (at the word “Vissi”) slightly before the singer is seen performing it (during a long shot, where Scarpia’s dinner table also appears, showing her from behind and from above in front of a fireplace) and then bridges a cut to a shot of her in medium close-up in profile lit by the fire, surrounded by darkness. With this initial music-image combination, the song binding together two shots, discrepancy is created between the singer and the vocal expression.

This discrepancy is then maintained throughout the aria. The aria is set in one take and Jacquot lets the camera follow the intensity of the music. With the initial declamatory motivic repetitions (the aria’s first two lines) the camera, just like the music, is stationary and shows her in profile (see Figure 1).

The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

Johanna Ethnersson Pontara

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Angela Gheorghiu in the role of Tosca singing “Vissi d’arte”. Screenshot from Tosca, directed by Benoît Jacquot, 2001.

Thereafter, the shot slowly begins to travel and when the lyrical melody is introduced in the orchestra, at the start of the fifth line, “Sempre con fe’ sincera” (“always with sincere faith”), it starts to zoom in on the singer’s face and moves around her, showing a greater part of her face as she picks up the main melody, doubled by strings and flutes. The camera then becomes stationary, slightly before the words “Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto” (“I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle”), and shows her in medium close-up from the front, which makes her face clearly visualized during the vocal high points of the aria’s second part. Although the visualization thus gradually reveals more of Gheorghiu’s face, the singer reveals little performative effort through facial expressions and bodily movements. During a large part of the aria, the singer moves her lips only slightly and at the end her lips are almost closed. This makes the song appear as an accompaniment to the visualization of her rather than as a vocal expression generated by her.

If turning to how the scene is rendered in Griffi’s film, it can be noted that the fictional context outlined by Puccini’s score is an important ingredient in the audio-visual configuration. Although Scarpia (played by Ruggero Raimondi) has left the room when Tosca (played by Catherine Malfitano) performs the aria, he is seen in the background during the vocal high points of its second part, drinking his coffee in an adjacent room as he is observing her. The specific spatial context of the situation is also manifested by the visualization; the aria opens with a wide shot displaying an interior of the Palazzo Farnese, which forms the spatial environment during the first four lines. The camera slowly pans around the room (the view is momentarily blocked by a pillar) which is lit by a golden light, while the singer performs in the shadow in the middle of the camera space. At the start of the fifth line, “Sempre con fe’ sincera” (“always with sincere faith”), the camera starts to zoom in on her and the lighting changes; it is she who is illuminated instead of the background. The lyrical main melody is initially in the orchestra, whereas Tosca’s part is more declamatory. The zoom stops at medium close-up, just as she picks up the main melody, doubled by strings and flutes. This audio-visual synchronization, at the moment when the music’s lyrical quality is reinforced by the human voice, creates an effect of “presence.” It creates a heightened sense of awareness of what is presented that occasionally eludes the fictional context (cf. Morris “Digital Diva: Opera on Video” 114). A sudden manifestation of the singer’s body and voice occurs. The camera then continues to pan to the right, making Scarpia come into frame exactly at the end of the phrase “Nell’ora del dolore perchè, perchè, Signore, perchè me ne rimuneri così” (“Why, why God, in this hour of grief, do You repay me this way?”), which creates a narrative context to the words and makes the performance anchored in the fictional situation.

From the more lyrical part that begins with the words “Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto” (“I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle”), the singer is seen in medium close-up directing herself towards the camera with stylized gestures while Scarpia is seen in the background turning around and looking at her. Against Spoletta’s more naturalistic way of moving in the background, Tosca’s stylized acting has a distancing and artificial effect; it is a combination of acting styles that, according to Mary Ann Smart examining filmed opera, serves to manifest the singer as a performer (162; 166-167).13 Moreover, the focus on Malfitano’s face and shoulders highlights the effort of the singer, borrowing the words of Morris, the camera makes us witness “the labour and corporeality of opera” (”’Too much music’: the media of opera” 111).14 In Griffi’s film, bodily effort is especially emphasized with the high notes during the final climax after which the singer’s facial expression and gesticulation appear to be more standardized (see Figure 2).

The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

Johanna Ethnersson Pontara

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Catherine Malfitano in the role of Tosca singing “Vissi d’arte”. Screenshot from Tosca: in the settings and at the times of Tosca, directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, 1992.

From initially serving to portray the character Tosca and her worship in a specific environment, the audio-visual configuration thus eventually serves to manifest Malfitano as a real-life singer through effects of immediacy and stylization.
            The audio-visual and visual techniques by which the singer is promoted as a performer in Griffi’s film is clearly avoided by Jacquot. The way in which this director instead creates discrepancy between the singer and the vocal expression can be compared to the audio-visual vocabulary characterizing the French opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s TV operas, a circumstance that has been noted by Phil Powrie. According to Powrie, the recurrent “mismatches between what we hear and what the singers’ lips are doing” in the film can be compared to Ponnelle’s way of creating interior monologues (28).15 Jacquot’s rendering of “Vissi d’arte,” however, also challenges a status as Tosca’s interior monologue since the voice’s sound quality changes unexpectedly. With the intensifying transposition of the vocal melody at the fourth line, “quante miserie conobbi, aiutai” (“helping the poor and depraved”), the voice is suddenly reinforced by reverberation and in this way has a sound quality that is distinct from her earlier vocal expression as well as from the orchestral accompaniment. Reverberation is also added to the voice at the aria’s vocal high points. These sound transformations, as in the initially mentioned interrogation section, undermine a perception of the vocal expression as realistic in relation to the fictional situation.

In a recent article on how concepts of “divadom” are articulated today, Clemens Risi has pointed out that “one of the great attractions of opera” is “the tension between the voice and the body as symbolic, as capable of incarnating a character, and as sheer physical materiality” (157). Although the vocal performance’s connection to a specific situation in the plot, and its role as showcasing the singer, is always the subject of negotiations in opera films, the tension between these two roles is clearly subverted by Jacquot’s way of challenging a realistic expression both in relation to a fictional and an actual situation.16 According to Morris, experiments with “media of visual perception” in filmed opera may in this way function as destabilization of “the imagined source of voice in the image of the performing body” (”’Too much music’: the media of opera” 112). The sound transformations also serve to subvert a manifestation of visual beauty and of the star singer, which are further features that have been pointed out in Ponnelle’s audio-visual language (cf. Smart 168). Challenging the fidelity of the operatic song, these transformations contribute to create distance in relation to the portrayal of the singer as a real-life singer.

Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia”

During the aria “Recondita armonia,” in the first act of Puccini’s opera, Cavaradossi expresses his emotions for Tosca as he paints a fresco in the church, in part based on her features. However, this “lyrical enclave,” as expressed by Mosco Carner, also introduces the character into the opera almost immediately with a build-up of the vocal melody to a climax of high notes (95). According to the stage directions in the score (Score 24), the initial motivic configurations in the orchestra (which return in the aria’s second part) are connected to events that take place in the fictional world (the painter’s brushstrokes and the Sacristan’s cleaning of the brushes). However, when the vocal melody is introduced, the orchestra turns into a means of manifesting the singer’s voice. The vocal melody gradually becomes more and more promoted; in the aria’s second part first the clarinet and finally the full orchestra doubles it in octaves (Score 26–30) (this doubling technique is known under the Italian term “sviolinata”). It can be noted that Puccini’s librettist Giuseppe Giacosa sarcastically called the character Cavaradossi “signor tenore” because his role was to showcase the singer (Carner 17).

Jacquot lets the initial motivic configurations in the orchestra accompany the Sacristan (played by Enrico Fissore) when he collects brushes and paints and winds them up to Cavaradossi (played by Roberto Alagna), who is standing on a scaffolding, and they are combined with prominent sound effects from this action. With the aria’s introduction, however, the sound effects are muted and Alagna’s vocal melody is dynamically foregrounded. The visualization also promotes the vocal performance of the singer. While the camera captures the suggested spatial context (the church room) before the aria, focus is on the singer when the song begins (with occasional cuts to the Sacristan at his cues), and the fresco serves as a backdrop for his performance; the camera gradually zooms in on the singer from a long shot and shows him (mainly in profile) against the fresco.

However, as in “Vissi d’arte,” a closer examination of how the singer is featured through the aria rather points to a subversion of the vocal performance’s “symbolic” and “material” aspects (cf. Risi 157). When he starts to sing, his voice is distinguished from the sound of the accompanying orchestra through striking reverberation. Additionally, the vocal melody’s change into a lyrical character with the description of Tosca at the start of the second line, “È bruna Floria” (“Floria is a brunette”), is synchronized with a cut to a close-up of Angela Gheorghiu in profile, although not in the role of Tosca, but as a real-life singer during the recording session. Accordingly, the visualization does not serve to give narrative context to Cavaradossi’s words. Moreover, the fact that the shot is in black and white marks it out as a distinct entity. The editing contributes to this impression; the shot is unexpectedly introduced just as the singer has begun a new vocal phrase. One more cut to the studio session occurs during the aria, namely at the end of the lyrical passage of the fourth and fifth lines: in the middle of the line “Tosca ha l’occhio nero!” (“Tosca has dark eyes”). Here, the visualization of Cavaradossi changes to a close-up of Gheorghiu’s eyes looking out from behind Alagna (see Figure 3).

The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

Johanna Ethnersson Pontara

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna during Alagna’s singing of “Recondita armonia”. Screenshot from Tosca, directed by Benoît Jacquot, 2001.

Just like the sonic quality of the singer’s voice, the intercut images (details of Gheorghiu’s face in black and white) make the vocal expression dissociated not only from the fictional situation but also from the singer’s performance.

An interesting point in this sense is also the musically expressive doubling in the second part of the aria. At the build-ups and high points of this part, the visualization shows the singer squatting down with downcast eyes and the final climax is performed with the singer closing his eyes. At this musically intense moment the narrative dimension of the vocal expression (the “symbolic” side of the performance) thereby seems to be clearly present; the song appears through the singer’s empathy as part of Cavaradossi’s inner feelings. However, abruptly intercut images of the Sacristan constitutes a contradiction to this representation; the Sacristan is seen in medium close-up from a high angle, from above, performing his lines with brusque movements and an agitated facial expression, which create visual exaggeration (see Figure 4).

The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

Johanna Ethnersson Pontara

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Enrico Fissore in the role of the Sacristan during Roberto Alagna’s singing of “Recondita armonia”. Screenshot from Tosca, directed by Benoît Jacquot, 2001.

Moreover, his cues are dynamically integrated with the orchestral accompaniment to form an overall sonic design, instead of backgrounded to indicate that they are uttered from a distant spatiality; that is, from the floor behind the scaffolding where he occupies himself. In this way his words are integrated into a sonic unit that is separated from the visualized situation.

In Griffi’s film, the audio-visual presentation of the singer during “Recondita armonia” instead supports the combination of the “symbolic” and “material” aspects of the vocal performance, as suggested by Puccini’s score. The orchestra’s initial motivic configurations accompany the Sacristan who is blending the paints, while Cavaradossi (performed by Plácido Domingo) takes a portrait of Tosca from his pocket, which he studies. When he starts to sing, his vocal expression is thereby connected to Tosca. He then turns to the image indicated by the text he sings; the fresco he is painting, suggesting an unknown beauty. The interior of the basilica initially functions as a spatial context (the final words of the first part are accompanied by a zoom out revealing the spatial depth of the room), and its various parts successively attract the singer’s attention. However, at the doubling, the basilica comes to form a backdrop to the performance (he appears against a fresco in another part of the building), while he directs his singing out into the open air. He is seen in medium close-up in profile, from a low angle, performing with standardized gestures, surrounded by a golden light (see Figure 5).

The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

Johanna Ethnersson Pontara

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Plácido Domingo in the role of Cavaradossi singing “Recondita armonia”. Screenshot from Tosca: in the settings and at the times of Tosca, directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, 1992.

His performance is sonically foregrounded whereas the vocal interjections of the Sacristan that intersect with the climax are muted and barely audible. After the vocal climax, the camera begins to zoom in on his face and stops at close-up at the final words “sei tu!” (“it is you”). Thereby, the focus is especially on the singer at the place where the applause usually starts in a live performance; it is an audio-visual presentation based on conventions of the opera house. In the words of Cachopo, these audio-visual configurations of the film “underline the characteristics of the original,” in the sense of opera being a genre performed live (267). Through this close-up of the stylized appearance of the singer, after the effort of the final climax, the camera also promotes the “material” side of the singer’s performance; it is a manifestation of the real-life singer rather than the character he plays (cf. Morris “The Mute Stones Sing: Live from Mantua” 58).

The way in which Jacquot, as in “Vissi d’arte,” on the contrary recurrently avoids to anchor the song in the visualized performer, through sonic transformations and visual editing, can be related to the concept of “rendering.” This was an aspect coined by film scholar Michel Chion and used by James Buhler when examining soundtracks of recent digital film. The concept implies “a re-creation of sound (or image) through imaginative reshaping so that it corresponds not to an actual sound but rather to its visceral emotional impact” (Buhler 264). Instead of creating a perception of real events, rendering is about affecting the film viewer through spectacular effects and stylization. Also, the way in which the fictional situation is challenged during the performance of the aria can be understood through this concept. The dynamic integration of the Sacristan’s cues with the orchestral accompaniment along with exaggerated shots of his face, in the second part of “Recondita armonia”, articulates an “experience of feeling and gesture” in relation to the fictional situation (Cavaradossi’s painting in the church) instead of functioning as “a reproduction and screening of real events” (Buhler 257). Buhler has pointed to how the blurring of the distinction between diegetic sound (in Jacquot’s case the Sacristan’s cues) and non-diegetic music (in Jacquot’s case the orchestral accompaniment) not only “dislocates the sound from the image” but also “destabilizes the diegesis” (257). In regard to the opening of the film Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010), he posits that “through its implication of a world beyond the image we see, the soundtrack establishes a degree of relative autonomy determined by a logic that relates to the image without being determined by it” (272).

Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle”

The impression of the music as related to the image, without being determined by it, is also relevant if one takes into account the director’s interpretation of “E lucevan le stelle.” In Puccini’s score this aria, which is performed by Cavaradossi in the third act, also highlights an intertwinement between emotional representation and spotlighting of the singer. The aria gradually builds up to a vocal climax. Initially having a fragmentary character, as if grown from images brought to life in Cavaradossi’s mind (he recalls a moment with Tosca), the vocal line with the second part (lines 7-12) takes over the lyrical melody (doubled by strings) performed by clarinet in the first part (lines 1-6) (Score 383). The technique of manifesting the vocal melody’s continuous culminations by the strings, and later by the full orchestra, doubling it in multiple octaves, then reigns exclusively in the aria’s second part (whereas in “Recondita armonia,” on the contrary, the initial motif of the orchestra returns before the build-up to the climax, and the vocal interjections of the Sacristan intersect with the climax).

Jacquot sets the aria in one take and it opens with a wide shot; Alagna as Cavaradossi appears in dark, bluish tones against a large building suggesting Castel Sant’Angelo, with a guard walking in the background. During the introductory clarinet melody, he is seen from the side walking forward, while the camera moves forward slightly faster and keeps the environmental context visible. Then, when the singer starts to sing, the pace of the visual movement increases, which creates distance to him, and before the second vocal line, “e olezzava la terra” (“and a fragrance filled the land”), the camera pans to show him from the front. After the third line, “stridea l’uscio dell orto” (“She strode through the garden gate”), the camera then becomes stationary while Alagna continues to walk and approaches the film viewer. Accordingly, from initially serving as a way of representing Cavaradossi in a specific fictional context, the visualization gradually comes to spotlight the singer. This promotion is carried on further with the phrase at the sixth line, “mi cadea fra le braccia” (“and I fell into her rapturous arms”), as the camera starts to zoom in on the singer’s face while he is stationary. In this way, the camera is close to his face at the doubling initiating the aria’s second part, where the audience’s attention is in general directed towards the singer’s vocal performance. However, as the singer vocally approaches the phrase’s cadence, the pace of the zoom gradually increases, which makes the film viewer aware of the camerawork. This way of making the technology behind the production visible creates an effect of artificiality. Contributing to this effect is the fact that the sound quality of the vocal melody is separated from the clarinet melody by clear reverberation beginning with the second line, which challenges expectations of the song’s connection to the real-life singer.

This stylized presentation is reinforced at the doubling, where the voice takes over the lyrical melody of the clarinet, “Oh! dolci baci” (“Sweet kisses”). Here, the camera is stationary and shows the singer in medium close-up from the front, not only directing himself towards the camera, but looking into the camera lens. The camera, thereafter, moves to show the singer from a high angle and becomes stationary with the expressive line, “Svanì per sempre il sogno mio d’amore” (“My dream of love has vanished forever”). This visualization – the singer in dark bluish tones directing himself towards the camera from below, meeting the gaze of the film viewer – has a distancing effect (see Figure 6).

The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

Johanna Ethnersson Pontara

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Roberto Alagna in the role of Cavaradossi singing “E lucevan le stelle”. Screenshot from Tosca, directed by Benoît Jacquot, 2001.

A further contribution to this effect is the sonic quality of the song, which is marked by emphasized reverberation beginning with the emotional culmination of the second line, “le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!” (“languid caresses!”). It is interesting to note that the voice through this sound quality differs from how Alagna’s song sounds in the scene that precedes the performance of, “E lucevan le stelle” (Cavaradossi writing a farewell letter to Tosca), where it does not have this type of resonance at all. Moreover, for this previous scene, Jacquot initially uses the black and white images from the recording session where Alagna appears as himself instead of in the role of Cavaradossi. The fragmentary character of the audio-visual configuration is reinforced by the insertion of a manipulated take of the sky from Castel Sant’Angelo, just before the aria.

Turning to Griffi’s adaptation of the aria, Cavaradossi is seen successively ascending the terrace of Castel Sant’Angelo during the clarinet melody; initially only his head is visible and finally he appears in full-length. A pan and zoom-out follow him onto the terrace, and the camera becomes stationary precisely when Cavaradossi begins to sing. This audio-visual synchronization has the effect of “suspended” time, and contributes to emphasize the fictional character and the words he utters. He is seen in profile from a distance performing against a lighted backdrop; the spatial context being experienced from the terrace of the historical building. He is kneeling on the roof, directing his words out into the open air toward the Cupola di San Pietro. After he has got up and begun to walk on the terrace with the camera following him from behind, there is a cut to a wide shot; Cavaradossi is seen from behind in the middle of the frame with two guards in the background. This intermediate long shot (creating narrative context) contrasts with the beginning of the aria’s second (lyrical) part, and the doubling of the vocal melody (the “sviolinata”), where there is a shift of visual focus to the singer, with a medium close-up. This medium shot reinforces the effort of the singer, his gestures and facial expression, although the gestures appear standardized. In combination with the highly emotional “sviolinata,” this visual focus on the singer (and his standardized acting) makes the viewer engaged with the presence of him as a performer and distanced from the narrative (cf. Smart 166–167).17

The context of the narrative is then promoted with the first word of the second phrase, “Svanì per sempre il sogno mio d’amore” (“My dream of love has vanished forever”). As the singer turns around, and there is a cut to a long shot, he is seen walking on the roof, the fully lit Cupola di San Pietro again forming a backdrop. With the final vocal climax, however, the scene presents a change of lighting, camera framing and gestures. Cavaradossi is seen from the side against the backdrop in the middle of the frame, bent back by emotion, stretching his arms out, and finally bending forward with his hand against his heart (see Figure 7). The visual configuration suggests the abstract quality of a staged performance. It is a stylized mise-en scène that again reinforces the singer as a performer.

The Opera Singer of the 21st Century?
Representations of the Singer Articulated by Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca (2001)

Johanna Ethnersson Pontara

, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 7: Plácido Domingo in the role of Cavaradossi singing “E lucevan le stelle”. Screenshot from Tosca: in the settings and at the times of Tosca, directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, 1992.

Jacquot’s adaptation of “E lucevan le stelle,” on the contrary, both creates distance to what is visualized and puts the fidelity of the singer’s vocal performance into question. If making use of semiotic terms, the music-image combinations can be seen as serving to negotiate the iconic relationship between the depicted world and the real world (that is, a relationship governed by resemblance). Moreover, the way in which the sonic quality of the voice is manipulated (in post-production) also challenges the depictions’ indexical relationship with reality (a relationship governed by cause and effect).18 The sound does not appear to be generated by the persons visualized. As expressed by Buhler when taking film scholar Tom Gunning’s discussion of animations into consideration to explore the narrative implications of the digital soundtrack, it is an audio-visual configuration that “displaces both reproduction and representation as the ground for assessing the ‘believability’ or ‘reality’ of the imagined world” (269). By creating this type of destabilization at three central points, in the arias, when the singer is expected to showcase himself/herself through singing, a significant impact on the image of the opera singer is communicated.

Concluding remarks

In his exploration of representations of opera via screen media, Cachopo notes that the genre opera film offers great opportunities for directors to challenge a traditional understanding of opera as it provides the possibility of both “interpreting the opera and translating it into a new medium” (278). The analysis has shown how the questioning of authenticity, uniqueness and presence that Cachopo calls for in opera remediations and that he finds missing in Griffi’s film is realized by Jacquot’s audio-visual language. In the famous arias “Vissi d’arte,” “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle,” where the vocal performance is interposed between representation and vocal display (and where the film viewer’s attention is thereby especially attracted to the singer’s performance), the camerawork, editing and sonic manipulation contribute to create discrepancy between voice, orchestral music and images.19 This audio-visual presentation influences how the singers are perceived both in the sense of characters in the plot and as performers. By manipulating the sonic quality of the voice in culminations and climaxes – vocal high points in arias – important characteristics of the operatic performance are subverted: the vocal showcasing of a singer and the musical incarnation of an opera character expressing herself/ himself in a fictional situation. Similar to Kramer’s views in relation to recent feature films, Jacquot’s Tosca thereby not only challenges the notion of opera as a “stable whole” in relation to Puccini’s score and the conventions surrounding its interpretations, but also opera as a vocal “object of attention” for the film viewer.

What role then does this way of representing the singer play if the overall characteristics of the director’s oeuvre are taken into account? It can be noted that Jacquot has often narrated what he himself has called “strange things” (Brunette and Peary 26). In an interview he has posited that his favourite narrative form is “bizarre tales” and that he likes the German idea of “the uncanny” (strange things in familiar situations) (Brunette and Peary 26). When the director turns Puccini’s Tosca into a “movie,” he makes strange things happen in familiar situations in a similar vein, through the audio-visual configuration of the three arias. In turn, since these features are linked to the singer, this contributes to “unsettle” the opera genre by renegotiating one of its central premises: the solo vocal performance.


1  Transl. Fisher 72. I make use of Burton D. Fisher’s translation of the libretto throughout the article (45-96).

2  On the image of the opera singer provided by feature film of today, see Ethnersson Pontara. Another example of an opera film where opera as a unified whole is challenged is Kennet Branagh’s The Magic Flute (2006).

3  See also Vincent, who has focused on how the film deconstructs an illusion of reality and identification.

4  See Hutcheons on how the “feats of performance that music elicits from the singer” are of importance for the construction of a “voice-character” of the libretto’s “plot-character” (313).

5  Citron has also compared the two films, but more generally with focus on the visual aspect (“Visual Media”). Griffi’s film was, just like Jacquot’s film, highly innovative at the time of its production. See also Christopher Morris who has explored a similar production as Griffi’s Tosca film based on Verdi’s Rigoletto (“The Mute Stones Sing: Rigoletto Live from Mantua” 51-66).

6  On the various stages involved in opera as adaptation, see Hutcheons.

7  Toscan du Plantier has in turn produced several opera films, such as Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni (1979) and Francesco Rosi’s Carmen (1984), which were considered highly innovative for their time.

8  The crew includes the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Tiffin Boy’s Choire.

9  A parallel to this approach is found in Jean-Luc Godard’s Prénom: Carmen (1983) (cf. Baumgartner).

10 The opera’s main characters were played by Catherine Malfitano (Tosca), Plácido Domingo (Cavaradossi) and Ruggero Raimondi (Scarpia) and the orchestra was the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of RAI, which was directed by Zubin Metha.

11 For details of the production, see Citron Opera on Screen 64-66 and White 269-295.

12 On the special nature of Puccini’s arias, see for example Carner 95.

13 On the distancing effect of stylized gestures in screened opera, see also Citron Opera on Screen 51-52.

14 According to Cachopo, by this type of visualization the TV (or film) medium reinforces the originality of opera as a genre (270).

15 This has in turn been explored by Citron (When opera meets Film 123).

16 On this negotiation, see Citron Opera on Screen.

17 According to Andrew C. Davis, Puccini’s orchestral technique of doubling the vocal melody in the strings (or even in the full orchestra, at the unison or at the octave, or multiple octaves), contributes to a “very strong sense of affective immediacy” (30).

18 On these terms in relation to the digital soundtrack, see Buhler 266.

19 Another moment where Jacquot otherwise clearly experiments with the singers’ relationship to the song is the love duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca in the opera’s first act. From the passage that begins with Cavaradossi’s line “Qual occhio al mondo” (“What eyes in the world”, Score 73), Gheorghiu (as Tosca) and Alagna (as Cavaradossi) express the text in speech against the recording of the same words performed in song by Alagna. On this passage, see Citron “Visual Media” 937.

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