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Friday, July 28, 2017

Death, Congress and Tosca

On Twitter with Puccini and the banality of evil.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Cover art for the CD issue of the 1980 Karajan Tosca.
Image © 1980 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG.
It started because I couldn't sleep.

Tonight was the super-stealthy midnight vote by the Republican Party to enact a so-called "skinny repeal" of the Affordable Care Act, the health care achievement by President Barack Obama that has enabled me to continue my career both as a freelance writer and as the author of Superconductor, my very own classical music publication that you're reading if you're reading this right now.

I picked up my phone, flipped to the "Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan" music folder (yes, I have such a thing, and I use my own ripped MP3s, not Spotify, especially for operas) and hit "play" on the 19-_ Deutsche Grammophon recording of Tosca that the maestro made with José Carreras, Ruggero Raimondi and Katia Ricciarelli in the title role. Before any of you purists or Callas fans squawk, I own those recordings too, but I had bought this Tosca out of curiosity for a few bucks on Amazon.com last year.

The first act started. Big, burly orchestral playing and Carreras singing with a purity of tone that was long gone by the time I started seriously listening to opera. And the Berlin Philharmonic responding ably to Karajan's baton, a powerful, red-blooded reading of the famous Scarpia chords, and a start of worry and dread in my gut as Twitter began to carry reports of Republican shenanigans as they worked feverishly to kill my health care.

Now, Tosca is pretty dramatic stuff. Its heroine is an opera singer, her boyfriend an artist with political leanings, and its villain, one of the greatest in opera, a lusting and corrupt police chief that probably would have a place in the cabinet of President Donald Trump. When Scarpia's signature chords slammed out in the middle of the first act, that ball of anxiety in my chest increased in weight. I was going to lose my health care. A bunch of old men in Washington were more interested in erasing President Obama's legacy than they were in the chronic issues of a middle-aged man who had the bad luck to be an opera critic.

And still, I persisted. Tracking posts from pundits, friends and yes, friends who are pundits on Twitter as the drama unfolded. And yes, Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States (and the deciding vote in case of a 50-50 tie) had arrived, Scarpia-like on the Senate floor. Still, I did my best to focus on the massive and muscular Te Deum with Raimondi's bass cutting through the choral textures and Karajan's expert management of the huge orchestal and choral forces required at the end of that act. But things didn't look good for health care. I still couldn't sleep.

Hope started to dawn with the second act, as Scarpia had his "poor supper" and (in a marvelously engineered acoustic) listened to Tosca singing a cantata down in the "street" from the windows of the Palazzo Farnese. (This is one of the few operas that is absolutely tied to physical locations that are still standing today.) Raimondi was exceptionally fine here, with snide asides to his henchman Spoletta and an oily tone as he greeted the captured Cavaradossi and began the interrogation scene.

That's not relaxing music. Puccini was a master of ratcheting up the tension in the orchestra, and as the band of iron spikes began to close about the head of the hapless tenor, things came to a crunch on the Senate floor. A panicked Mitch McConnell was running over to John McCain. Pence was deep in conference, and left the floor at one point. And then the truth dawned: the Republicans did not have the votes to pass their so-called "skinny repeal", a measure that would have made it easier for their party to gut health insurance and fiscal aid for hard-working low-income writers like myself. Salvation seemed possible.

Three Republicans including cantankerous Senator John McCain, voted against this cruel and unnecessary legislation. And as the news came down on Twitter that we would not lose our health insurance, Katia Ricciarelli began to sing "Vissi d'arte." This is the soprano's signature bring-down-the house moment, where Tosca sings that for her, it is the sacred art of music that shines brighter than all others and that it is art that is what she has always lived for. It is at that moment that the heroine finds her strength and her resolve, and it was at that moment that this country, or at least Senators McCain, Murkowski and Collins, found their conscience and voted against the cruel Republican party line.

As I write these lines, I am sitting in my work chair, my laptop balanced and my headphones still filled with the third act of this excellent and most interesting Tosca. José Carreras is singing "E lucevan le stelle" over a superb orchestral accompaniment. And democracy and health care live to survive another day, just as Tosca does when she stabs the evil Baron Scarpia in the heart. May this day carry forward and may our country refrain from hurling itself, screaming from a great height like Puccini's heroine in the troubled days to come.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.