Did Cavaradossi (and Tosca) Have to Die?
A Discussion of Civil Disobedience
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the use of offstage sounds in this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Tosca experts.
This is also a good time to recall the fates your students proposed for Tosca and Cavaradossi in writing their own “Act III” synopses as part of the follow-up to the main Classroom Activity (page 8). How did Puccini’s ending compare to theirs? Who was most successful in rounding out a thriller storyline for Tosca—and why?
No matter who your students believe to have been most successful indeciding the end of the opera, an important ethical question lingers near Tosca’s beginning. It involves the painter, Mario Cavaradossi.
By the middle of Act II, audiences are aware that Tosca has become involved with Scarpia only to save the life of her lover, Cavaradossi. For Scarpia’s part, he is driven by his dual lust—for power and for Tosca. But why does Cavaradossi get mixed up in all this?
As the opera opens, Cavaradossi doesn’t seem to be a political activist:his main concern is his painting. He’s thinking about the model for his Magdalene, Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, who is blonde, while his girlfriend, Tosca, is brunette. But when Angelotti appears, Cavaradossi decides to help him. Why? Out of friendship? Where does Cavaradossi stand politically? Does he understand the risk in offering Angelotti a place to hide? Would your students do what Cavaradossi does?
From this perspective, Tosca offers an opportunity to engage your studentsin a conversation about the responsibilities of a citizen when he or she is opposed to the government in power or to its policies. Is Cavaradossi performing an act of civil disobedience? How might he (or your students) justify action that he knows to be illegal?
In considering this issue, students might be interested in the arguments put forth by Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Civil Disobedience” and by Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Whether orally or in writing, they can argue the question that gives this activity its title: Did Cavaradossi have to die? Did Tosca? Why? And what lessons does this opera hold for our own lives in the 21st century: how far should citizens go in defense of the principles they hold dear? Might there be times when breaking the law is actually a more ethical act than obeying it?