Tosca – Te Deum

Today I want to share with you an aria from the opera Tosca, composed by Giacomo Puccini. The aria I am sharing, “Te Deum,” is not the most popular one, but it is one of my favorites. In addition to the music of the orchestra and the remarkable baritone voice of the character Scarpia, Puccini packed this aria with organ, choir, and the background sound of church bells, creating an incredibly rich, powerful sound. 

And then there is emotion. We feel it most strongly in the singing of Scarpia, who plays the chief of police, the villain of the story. He is in love with Tosca, but to get Tosca he needs to send her lover, Cavaradossi, who is hiding from the law, to face a firing squad. You see the duality of Scarpia: an evil mastermind but also a soul tortured by unrequited love for Tosca. The last words of Scarpia in this aria are those of a tortured soul: “Tosca, you make me forget God.” We see all the evil that may be caused by misguided love. Do we hate Scarpia a little bit less once we understand him? 

According to the American baritone Cornell MacNeil, who sang this opera over eight hundred times, “When you put together interpretation, action, acting, movement, custom, the attitude, and the voice… it is tremendous. It is the most demanding role.” 

Who is your favorite Scarpia? We are lucky that there are a lot of great performances of Tosca and this ar1a – after all, Tosca is one of the most-performed operas. It is right up there with La Boheme, Carmen, and La Traviata. 

The Ruggero Raimondi performance adds a visual dimension to the opera: It is beautifully filmed. Also, if your Italian is rusty, it has subtitles. Watch this version of the aria to gain a visual overview of the whole opera. 

The performance of “Te Deum” by Evgeny (Zhenya) Nikitin is very special to me because he was my childhood friend. Zhenya grew up in Murmansk, and we were in the same class until eighth grade (at the time Russia had a ten-grade system). We lost touch when I left school for technical college (the Murmansk Marine College). Zhenya completed his training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and in 2002 he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera. I am biased, but his interpretation of Scarpia is one of my favorites.  

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who also sang the role beautifully, was a Russian (post-Soviet) opera superstar. He sadly passed away in 2017 at the age of 55. In 2015, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he canceled all his performances; but he could not stay away from the Met and Anna Netrebko, and he travelled to New York to give his last three performances in Verdi’s Il Travatore.


Why do I torture my kids … with classical music?

Lately I’ve been pondering on this question. At first, it was a subconscious decision. Somewhat by inertia, I was following in the footsteps of my parents. That’s what they did, and that’s what I’m supposed to do. However, I realized recently that I am re-gifting a gift. Instilling a love of classical music is one of the best gifts my parents gave me.

Just as in any typical Jewish family, my older brothers suffered through several years of music school. Neither one liked taking piano lessons, but they took them. My parents finally saw the writing on the wall and pulled them out of music school when my oldest brother pulled some keys off a piano keyboard.

I was spared from taking piano lessons but for a different reason: my mother passed away when I was ten years old. My father was suddenly alone with three kids. He signed me up for piano lessons, but when I showed little interest, he didn’t have the energy to nudge me further. I quit after only a small handful of lessons.

Eleven years later, when I was twenty-one, I took piano lessons again, this time completely of my own free will. But I didn’t want to start with the basics – that was too boring. I went right for the (classical music) jugular: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, my favorite piano concerto. Which also happens to be one of the most technical piano concertos ever composed. Needless to say, I failed at it miserably.

Both of my older kids have taken piano lessons, but neither one showed much interest (my youngest is only two and a half and has so far been spared). My wife and I tried different teachers, but in the end we realized piano was not in the cards for our oldest kids. It is my job as a parent to nudge my kids to try new things, and maybe push them a little (enough to overcome their natural laziness – it’s a lot more fun playing outside than practicing the piano). But at the same time, as a parent I need to know when to cut my losses and move on.

Though my parents nudged us to play piano, they never forced us to listen to classical music. They taught by example. They listened to classical music when we were around. They always spoke positively about it. They admired people who listened to it. They took us to concerts. I didn’t care much about the music but patiently waited for intermission – those were the rare occasions when they’d buy me dessert (a huge treat in Soviet Russia).

This exposure made it easier for me to fall in love with classical music later in life.

Classical music is complex. I’m generalizing, but classical music is often more complex than pop music. There are a lot of themes (stories) going on in the music; they are like underground currents that you don’t encounter unless you swim in the river awhile. Though we can instantly fall in love with some pieces, many require us to work – we need to listen to them more than once to hear them, to “understand.”

By exposing me to classical music my parents created a musical foundation for me. My mother loved Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – she played that record many, many times. I liked small parts of it when I was very young, but when I heard Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto when I was eighteen, the whole piece suddenly clicked with me – I “understood” it.

My parents opened an incredible world to me that has definitely made my life better and richer. Classical music, just like any art, has an ability to unearth emotions we did not know we had and that our dictionaries often cannot describe. It makes us feel. Yes, just feel. That is an incredible gift. Today I could not imagine life without it; it would be plain, pointless, and simply boring. So now I know why I torture my kids. My job as a parent is to pass this gift to them, though they may not unwrap it until decades later.

Today I want to share with you a few arias from Puccini’s Tosca (I am taking my daughter Hannah to see it on Friday).  “Vissi d’arte,” sung by Angela Gheorghiu

or another version– she is my favorite Tosca.

“Va, Tosca” – my favorite scene in Tosca.

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