Utah Opera

Leap Lore

Leap Lore

Jerry Seiner Cadillac

By Jeff Counts

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in the playbill for the 2015 production of TOSCA

Spend a few moments online in search of information about Tosca and you will quickly find yourself in a world of endless, torturous writerly riffs on the word “leap.” The headlines will cover everything from the innocent (“Celebrated Soprano Takes First Leap into TOSCA”) to the slightly lame (“[Insert city name] Opera Takes Leap of Faith with New TOSCA Production”) to some real eye-rollers (“Company Celebrates Leap Year with a Perennial Favorite”). You will, I promise, start looking for your own parapet before long. The legendary leap scene at the end of Act III is legendary with good reason and it’s no great shock that opera lovers are kind of obsessed with it. We love all our various stage legends. Disastrous opening night mishaps, unscripted pratfalls, onstage temper tantrums. There is a secret history behind what we see from our seats and, as the most dedicated observers, we feel like we’ve earned the right to peek behind the curtain. It thrills us because it colors the suspension of our disbelief with a touch of actual dramatic truth. We know why Tosca must leap at the end of the show, as she has for over a century now, but the technical how of her leap is an uncertainty we can savor.

Before we explore the how, let’s further discuss that why for a moment. The history of the leap as a stunt may have entered the realm of complex myth, but the reason for it is fairly simple, story-wise. Tosca has murdered Scarpia but learns that he tricked her before dying by making sure her beloved Cavaradossi would die as well. Faced with this stunning realization and the threat of her own firing squad, she jumps. We all might have. It is one of the most exciting closing moments in opera, this leap by Tosca, and that’s due not only to the dramatic efficacy of the scene in a fictional sense but also the physical act of the leap as it happens in real time on stage. We are fully invested in the plight of the character Tosca, but we are also constantly aware that the singer/actor Tosca has a big trick coming up. It fascinates us to think about the planning required to make the trick both safe and compelling. Safety, in this case, has never been guaranteed as the venerable Sarah Bernhardt might be quick to report. “Divine Sarah” was THE leading stage actor of the Belle Époque. Her participation in the original theater version of La Tosca eventually cost her a leg when she suffered a knee injury during a poorly executed leap scene and was forced to amputate some years later in 1915. Back in 1899, Verdi had already decided to keep the leap for his operatic version despite his librettist’s attempt to convince him that a “mad scene” would be preferable. Nothing as serious as a lost limb exists in the record since poor Ms. Bernhardt, but the opera Tosca has had its own share of noteworthy leap moments.

Which brings us back to the how. This was no second story apartment building Tosca throws herself from. If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve seen the Castel Sant’Angelo there on the Tiber River near Vatican City. It’s a huge, imposing 2nd century fortress. Pope Clement VII clearly knew what he was doing when he sought refuge there during the Sack of Rome in 1527. To leap from this massive structure would be a grand statement indeed, one that cannot be approximated with a simple flop behind some phony three-foot prop wall. To be remotely believable, our Toscas must fall, and I mean really fall, to give the impression of verticality and consequence. The distance, of course, can be faked through assorted theatrical means. You can do it with lighting and shadow play if you like. Maybe she can step into the darkness of a perceived open space and then remain still while the technicians project her form on a screen that artfully transports it down into a presumed oblivion. You can do something even more technologically sophisticated and cinematic if you want to, but nothing sells the scene like a real leap from the highest place on the set. It’s that genuine submission to gravity that adds a flicker of no-nonsense peril into the mix and it’s right there, in that willingness to embrace the practical effect over the special effect, that things can become really exciting.

The tried-and-true method for catching sopranos involves the careful placement of crash pads or mattresses. She merely has to see her mark and jump to it and if the set allows for it, she can really bring a lot of personal flair to the moment. There’s a wonderful article by Bob Bernard on the Opera League of Los Angeles website that compiles (mostly) eyewitness accounts of how various famous divas have handled this challenge over the years. Some really went for broke, launching spread-eagle into the void without a trace of fear, while others were more nervous, bracing for impact well before they left the sightlines of the audience. Still more refused the ruse outright. Montserrat Caballe apparently just walked offstage as if she was looking for her dressing room and a great debate raged among the quoted commenters about whether Renata Tebaldi ever leaped either. Some said always, others never but a few were certain they saw it at least once. Who knows? In a 2011 interview with the Washington Post, Stage Director David Kneuss recalled the many Tosca’s he’d worked with during his career. A few, Patricia Racette being the most recent example for Kneuss at the time, were daredevils that he feared might enthusiastically over-leap the pads. Eva Marton was another who displayed considerable commitment and courage and once broke the pads with the force of her landing. Though not quoted in the Bernard piece, Kneuss had worked once with Caballe too and confirmed that it had been necessary to create an illusion that allowed her to disappear behind a curtain. Kneuss’ experience also included Tebaldi. He worked with her in New York, in her last ever Tosca appearance apparently, and remembered her having to be pushed at the last moment! Does that even count as a leap?

LEAP, MEMORY One part of the leap lore that won’t die no matter how much we might protest is the legend of the bouncing Tosca. As the story goes, the crash pads in a particular production were replaced with a trampoline (you know, for extra safety) and the soprano in question (there are many names associated with this, but none validated) forgot to roll on impact and bounced back up into view a few times before finally settling into her demise. It’s a hilarious if harrowing anecdote but the desire for it to be true seems to outpace the evidence. Such is the abiding resilience of the Tosca leap in our collective consciousness. It is proof that, on occasion, the production of a thing becomes as important to us as its meaning. But lest we lose sight of caution entirely, we must remember “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt. Her leg was re-discovered in a Bordeaux University storeroom back in 2009 and, much more than a historical curiosity, that famous relic is a grisly remark on risk and reward to which even we in the performing arts should pay heed.

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