Maria Callas (1923-77) is a name known to all who love opera – and perhaps to just as many who don’t. Her colourful lifestyle ensured that she was a frequent focus of media attention, especially later in her life, when she became associated with Aristotle Onasis. She possessed all the qualities you might expect for a true diva: amongst them a soprano voice with enormous range; but, equally important, a stage presence which totally held the attention of her audience – as well a reputation for the occasional tantrum. Music lovers are divided about the quality of her voice, (and her technique was certainly found wanting from time to time), but its power is beyond dispute, until it waned in the ’60s after a sudden weight loss, bringing her career to an early end. Of the roles she made her own, few were more dramatic than the doomed Tosca in the opera of that name by Puccini (1858-1924).
Today’s aria “Vissi d’arte”, taken from the second act, is a moving plea, in which she concludes “Oh, Lord, why do you reward me like this?” She can hear as her lover, Cavaradossi, is being tortured by the henchmen of Scarpia, the chief of police in Rome, to reveal the whereabouts of an escaped convict. Scarpia, a thoroughly unpleasant individual, has lyingly promised Tosca that if she allows him to have his wicked way with her, he will ensure Cavardossi’s safety. Well, she’s having none of that. In a nutshell, the aria says “I’ve lived for art and love, I’ve been a good girl and said my prayers, so why, Lord are you rewarding me like this?” Sadly her pleas fall on deaf ears, as it all goes horribly wrong for everyone.
If you’ve not heard this before, you’re in for a treat. Puccini is another of those top tune writers! Be patient, it’s a slow lament, but at only just over three minutes long, it’s worth the wait. It’s all about the build up to a wonderful high Eb, a note Callas reaches without the slightest strain, as she was actually capable of going a few higher.There are obviously many renditions of this piece (a close second for me is sung by Kiri de Kanawa). I chose Callas for two reasons: first, if you asked any opera lover to name a famous Tosca, Callas would undoubtedly feature more than anyone else; and secondly, it is not just the peak which is tremendous here, but also the way Callas sings the two glorious notes which immediately follow it on the way down. The power of her voice is quite extraordinary.
When the opera was first performed in 1900, it led one critic to describe it as a “shabby little shocker”, but with its cocktail of love, passion, jealousy, murder and revenge, it has now become one of the repertoire’s favourites and most widely performed. The ending sees Tosca realise that her lover has not participated in a fake execution, but that Scarpia, whom she has previously stabbed, has ensured that it’s the real thing. The curtain falls as Tosca flings herself off the parapet in despair. The opera has a number of stories linked to it, amongst the most famous of which, probably attributed to many divas in the role, relates how one stage crew became royally fed up with the antics of the leading lady. Instead of placing a thick mattress to await her fall, they replaced it one night with a tightly strung trampoline – ensuring that the helpless hysterical heroine was seen a few more times before the curtain fell.