Aria Code S3 Ep 7
“E lucevan le stelle”
from Puccini’s Tosca
KERR: People at the end of life are recalling their core relationships. So you can be 95 years old, lost your mother when you were five, but it’s her perfume you smell, it’s her voice you hear say, “I love you.”
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
ABBATE: How do we remember something? Do we remember it loudly? Or is memory a quiet thing, because it’s something that’s half lost?
GIDDENS: Every episode we take apart a single aria so we can understand how it works. Today, it’s “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca by Giacomo Puccini.
CALLEJA: Literally he’s closing his eyes and he’s describing how her kisses felt, how her skin felt, how she walked among the fields like she’s floating.
So about a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, my son came downstairs. He was 7 at the time and he’d clearly been cogitating on something, and he just, out of the blue -- this was before breakfast -- he said, “Mom if all we’re gonna do is die, what’s the point of living?” and I hadn’t had my coffee, and I was just like, reeling with this existential crisis in my kitchen, and it really made me think about death. You know, how do I answer this question? And there’s this horrible silence, because I didn’t really know what to say. Death is not something we talk about a lot in this culture. We’re afraid of it, but it’s one of the two things we all do no matter what, we’re all born and we all die. And all I could tell him was we just have to live each day the best we can, so those final moments before you die are filled with memories that make you happy, that bring you peace.
And those memories are what today’s aria is all about. It’s from Puccini’s iconic opera Tosca.
It tells the story of an opera singer, Floria Tosca, and her boyfriend, Mario Cavaradossi. They live in Rome in 1800, and Cavaradossi’s gotten caught up in the messy politics of the time. He’s arrested, interrogated, and tortured by the chief of police, Scarpia. And then, he’s sentenced to death.
“E lucevan le stelle” -- “And the stars were shining” -- finds him in his prison cell one hour before his execution. He knows his life is over, and what does he do? He gets lost in a beautiful daydream about his love, Tosca.
And as it turns out, dreams and visions of loved ones are something that people often experience near the end of their lives. We’ll hear all about that -- and about this aria -- from today’s guests.
First, tenor Joseph Calleja. He’s been singing the role of Cavaradossi for a couple of years, and he sees a lot of himself in the character.
CALLEJA: Mario Cavardossi, a bit like me, is a man of extremes. If I’m going to learn how to bake bread, I want to make the best bread. If I want to make pizza, I want to make the best pizza. You know, it has its good sides, but also its negative sides.
Next, Carolyn Abbate. She teaches music at Harvard University and writes about opera.
ABBATE: What’s so extraordinary about Puccini is that he conjures the ghosts from earlier Italian opera, giving expression to some very personal ideas and feelings, and those are the moments I always return to and I say, “How did he do that?”
And finally, Dr. Christopher Kerr, CEO and Chief Medical Officer at Buffalo Hospice and Palliative Care.
KERR: People come from cancer hospitals knowing where to park and how much coffee costs, but they actually don’t know how they’re going to die. And that’s a void that’s tragically filled with fear. So our role is often to go to those places that are dark and fearful and to kind of walk that journey with our patients ‘til they get to that point of comfort and peace.
Chris recently wrote a book called Death is But a Dream, about the dreams and visions that many people experience at the end of their lives.
Now let’s visit with Mario Cavaradossi in the final minutes of his life. Here’s “E lucevan le stelle” from Puccini’s Tosca.
ABBATE: Tosca premieres in 1900 and becomes the first really modern Italian opera.
CALLEJA: Puccini was so ahead of his time that his operas are extremely cinematic and I have no doubt if Puccini was around today, he would be. Probably working in, in movies.
ABBATE: Tosca’s focus is really intensely on three characters; Tosca, the soprano, who is a soprano: she is an opera singer.
Cavaradossi, the tenor who also is an artist, he's a painter. But is a painter who's been involved with, leftist political action.
[singing “Recondita armonia”]
And then Scarpia, the baritone, who is the chief of police, and who's the villain.
They are in a kind of fraught triangle with Tosca at the apex. She's loved by Cavaradossi and desired by Scarpia. Scarpia is therefore jealous and scheming to get them apart. And the method he comes up with is essentially to arrest Cavaradossi for political treason and imprison him.
CALLEJA: Even though he's being tortured, he's defiant, he tries to fight Scarpia, you know? But he loses. They take that fight out of him.
KERR: I think when we're confronted with the topic of dying, we have our own kind of visceral response built in towards fighting our own mortality. I think we're overwhelmed with fear of loss and of suffering. But there's another story on the more experiential side which is this level of acceptance. Dying inherently changes your perspective. And what the patient is experiencing, isn't necessarily a heart that doesn't work or a leg that's infected. What they're given is a vantage point that forces them to reflect and to remember, and what they draw on is the best parts of having lived and having mattered. And those typically focus on our relationships.
ABBATE: In the third act, which is set in the prison, Cavaradossi is waiting for his execution. And while he is waiting, he remembers something from the past.
CALLEJA: He knows that he is facing death at this stage, and he's reminiscing about his nights of passion, his nights of love, with Floria Tosca.
KERR: People die in totality. They don't die by organ failure. And dying is really a progressive lessening, it's a lessening of appetite, of function. And as people drift and sleep architecture changes, they kind of have a foot in two worlds. One where they're intensely dreaming or visualizing or remembering or recalling. And that tends to be very vivid. The common themes are seeing people who you've loved often who you've lost, and these provide the greatest comfort.
ABBATE: When this act begins, there's a lot of noise and it's specifically noise that's outside what we see, it's outside this little room in the tower where Cavaradossi is. It's out there in the landscape and the city that surrounds him. There's a lot of bells ringing in the distance. There's this whole world outside this tiny prison. And gradually the sounds from outside are going to be quieted down and fade away. And we're going to come to the internal world, which is just the room, the desk, the candle. And then finally this memory that assails him.
CALLEJA: He's keeping his sanity by projecting his thoughts in the past, and what happened between him and Floria Tosca.
KERR: We have coined the term “end-of-life experiences” to describe the subjective events. The things I hear most commonly from patients are, “I don’t normally dream,” or “I don’t recall my dreams,” or “You don’t understand, this was different.” So our patients are telling us these aren't dreams. And I think it's distinguished by a number of things. I think the vividness -- people at the end of life are recalling again, these simple things in life that best defined their core relationships. Time and distance seem to be irrelevant. So you can be 95 years old, lost your mother when you were 5, but it’s her perfume you smell, it’s the smell of lavender, the smell of her cooking, it’s her voice you hear say “I love you.”
Aria - Beginning
ABBATE: We've come into this internal space, and there are directions that say dolcissimo, with the utmost sweetness and softness. Cavaradossi is sitting there and he is writing a letter to Tosca and at a certain point the stage directions say he is “suffused with memories.” And he stops writing, he puts the pen down. And the harp comes in with an arpeggio and the clarinet plays the melody that is the main theme for the aria. This is so quiet. It's a harp, it's the solo clarinets. It's a flute, it's the strings playing with the mutes on. And they are really only playing very, very dimly in the acoustic distance some chords that are underlaying the singing and the woodwind sounds.
CALLEJA: “E lucevan le stelle” starts narrative. He is reminiscing, he's remembering little moments of intimacy with Floria Tosca. It's literally his closing his eyes and he's describing in the Aria, how her kisses felt, how her skin felt, how she walked among the fields, like she's floating, like she's caressing the vegetation, the corn, whatever it was.
ABBATE: And in that first verse, there's barely any singing. Cavaradossi is intoning what he says really quietly. Sometimes just on single notes, repeated over and over again. The aria goes through all these senses and perceptions. So: I see something, the stars were shining. I smell something, the earth was scented. I hear something the garden gate creaked. He says, “Her footstep grazed the sand and she entered perfumed.” And then that verse ends when he says she fell into my arms.
CALLEJA: Make no mistake, “E lucevan le stelle” is about sex. He's recounting really a bout of lovemaking that was magical to him. It's as simple as that. It was a very physical relationship and what he recalls, you know, he doesn't say, “Damn, I'm never gonna eat the pasta she did, you know, the carbonara.” I mean, he could have said that. Right. But instead it's like, “I'm never gonna touch her again. I'm never gonna kiss her again. I'm never going to be able to smell her essence.” Chemistry cannot really be explained, but it's there, it exists. And, he had this with Floria. They really, really loved each other and they loved each other for their idiosyncrasies, in the inverted commas, the lesser good things, the bad things, the, the quirks, the unorthodox behavior. That's when you love someone. I like to even close my eyes in the aria and I just, you know, imagine the scene and just let the passion go through, the passion of the moment.
KERR: One patient, Horace, was in the eighth decade of life and his wife had predeceased him and, uh, he was dying of terminal lung disease. As he got closer to death, he would experience his reunions with his deceased wife that were really beyond his ability to capture in words.
He has a hard time not crying, because he's so warmed and overwhelmed, with the beauty that he's seen and experiencing. And as he says, “it's like all my troubles went away.” And he says repeatedly, “It's better than I imagined. It's more than what I have seen. She looked more beautiful, even though she was always beautiful to me.” So there's no darkness, there's no fading, there's no fighting. He was trying to get back to her. Cause when he closed his eyes, that's where they were reunited.
Aria - Middle
ABBATE: Then there's a kind of second verse. And this is the place where for the first time Cavaradossi actually sings the melody that the clarinet had played at the beginning of the aria.
CALLEJA: It means that her beautiful shapes melted in the sheets. It's very erotic. And of course, when you have the kind of love, when you, when you have the kind of passionate love making, it's usually soft.
ABBATE: It still says here, pianissimo. This is supposed to be extremely quiet. And when you think about it, it makes sense, psychologically. How do we remember something? Do we remember it loudly? Or is memory a quiet thing, because it’s something that’s half lost. It’s not really there anymore, we’re reconstructing it.
CALLEJA: Right now, he’s recalling that in his eyes, she was the perfect being.
KERR: So Benny and Gloria had a storybook romance. And, when she died, he really didn't want to go on. His daughter said he lived more in his dreams where he'd returned to his native Polish language and be talking to her. He was healthy. He was vibrant. He drove around town all day. And he insisted on going to his wife's grave every day. And he would sit there. One day was sub-zero -- and this was Valentine's day. And his daughter said, “You know, you’ll catch a cold and die out there.” And he said, “I would rather.” So he was left at his wife's grave site. His daughter came back later to pick them up and couldn't figure out what he was doing because he was walking around his wife's grave in a very particular pattern. And what it turned out he was doing was he was making a path in the shape of a heart around her tombstone. And he had so overexerted that when he came home, he was breathless, went to the emergency room and it turns out he had had a massive heart attack. So he literally was dying of a broken heart while trying to make a heart for his deceased wife.
And he ended up coming into hospice and passing shortly thereafter.
Aria - End
CALLEJA: Then there's, of course, a rude awakening, towards the end of the aria where he says, [Italian].
ABBATE: ”My dream of love has vanished. That moment has fled. It's gone. I am dying in desperation.” And that line is repeated.
CALLEJA: “My dream of love that I was living, that I found, many people never find it. It's gone. And the hour has passed. It's not going to come back and I'm going to die a desperate man.”
ABBATE: And this final part is louder. So the past is all in quiet and pianissimo and the present has suddenly become very real and very loud. Being pulled into the present has this force.
CALLEJA: …culminating in the phrase [Italian], “I never loved life so much.” It's a declaration in the end of, of a desperate man who wants to relive even one more second of this wonderful love he had.
You know, basically we've all lost someone, we all miss someone, we all had a love that didn’t work out, a heartache. So if you use these emotions from the past. You lend them to the opera to try and provoke those similar emotions and how good a tenor is, is how far can he push the audience to believe that at that moment in time, they can actually picture what Cavaradossi is singing about, Floria Tosca. How she looked, how she smelled, how she walked in, how she took off her clothes, how she kissed him, how she caressed him. That is the art of the tenor, to transport the audience on a journey that makes them see what's not there.
KERR: When you’re treating people at the end of their life, you're, you're, you're somewhat naked and alone. There's less to actually intervene on, and you're left just at the bedside being present. And what you learn is to have reverence for things that you can't necessarily measure or biopsy or image. And you're just left to bear witness and to have respect for really something that's much more powerful and unseen. And that doesn't mean that it's interpreted in a paranormal or religious or afterlife perspective at all. I think what gets lost in our story is that dying, as life, is just a mystery unto itself. And this is a part that we should just take notice of. And that it's a more hopeful version than the one we fear or imagine.
ABBATE: What would I reminisce about in my final hour? I would be thinking about my two sons when they were children. I would remember this moment with my older son, Carl, when we're sitting in a meadow and we have a discussion about if we were mice, how would we build a house in this field? What would our mouse house be? Just with the things that were around us, right there in the meadow, how would we build it? And the sun was shining and we could smell the grass and we could hear the birds around us. He’s 29 now -- he’s 29 -- but I can still remember that mouse house discussion.
Professor Carolyn Abbate, palliative care doctor Chris Kerr, and tenor Joseph Calleja…
...decoding “E lucevan le stelle” from Puccini’s Tosca. Joseph will be back to sing it for you after the break.
Mario Cavaradossi is sitting in his prison cell at dawn. His execution will take place one hour from now. And there’s only one thing on his mind: his beautiful Tosca. He slips into a waking dream about the sweetness of love in “E lucevan le stelle.” Here it is, sung by Joseph Calleja on stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
“E lucevan le stelle”
Good thing I brought a big box of tissues today… holy moly, Puccini, you are gutting me with “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. But what opera lover doesn’t like a good cry? Joseph Calleja, you brought it.
And as we know, opera is full of extremes, so next time we’re pulling from the spicy end of the taco with some old-fashioned revenge and matricide. Two weeks from now, we’re back with an aria from a woman who will stop at nothing to avenge her father: Richard Strauss’s Elektra.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Max Fine is our assistant producer, Helena de Groot is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannis Brown.
I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next lifetime!
CALLEJA: My pizza is really the best. I'm not kidding. I do it with sourdough. I raise the dough slowly in the fridge, you know, like three days, proper Neopolitan stuff.
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