Bang in the middle of the fast-paced James Bond film Quantum of Solace, the action spills over onto the stunning set of Giacomo Puccini’s opera thriller Tosca on a floating stage (Seebühne) of the historic opera house on the shore of Lake Constance or Bodensee, in Bregenz, Austria.
When the publicity director of the Bregenz Festspiele (Bregenz Festival) received a phone call from an English-speaking film producer who didn’t want to divulge too many details about the film, she jokingly said to her colleagues that it could be a Bond film. Many months later, she was surprised to find her hunch had been correct.
The Bond production team had originally been interested in the sets for the previous opera production Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“The Masked Ball”) and one can see why. The very title suggests concealed identity and classic cloak-and-dagger potential. The set for this opera had a large skeletal hand turning the pages of a book. However, once a Bregenz opera production completes its two-year lifespan, the sets are destroyed. Fortunately, QoS director Marc Forster loved the set of Tosca as well. Both he and producer Barbara Broccoli were profoundly impressed – by the unique location on the shore of Lake Constance, the imposing stage set with its high level of technical sophistication, and the modern architecture of the Festival Opera House. This set featured a gigantic moving eye.
In an interview, Forster explained “I just loved the location, and I think the eye just has a great metaphor for Bond. Eyes and titles of Bond films and the gun barrel in the circle at the beginning. And I liked that it was ‘Tosca.’ And Puccini’s opera is also a metaphor of what is going on as well. I thought the whole thing was convenient…Tosca is a terrific metaphor for Bond on so many levels”.”
In the film plot, for some reason the “bad guys” choose to have a conference meeting through microphones and earpieces during a performance of Tosca while seated scattered about the opera house. Bond (Daniel Craig) eavesdrops on their conversation before breaking it up. The conspirators begin to exit from their seats, revealing their identities to Bond, and prompting the lone one of them who stays behind to shrug as he says “Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone”.
Both the sets and the scenes from Tosca add atmosphere to the Bond film. The roving big eye also is an emblem for the police state that 1800s Italy had become in the opera, with the evil Baron Scarpia at its apex. And Bond is the eye in the film, spying on the clandestine meeting unobserved until he reveals his hand. The very word ‘spy’ apparently derives from the Indo-European root meaning to observe, behold, or look.
The choice of excerpts from the opera is also significant. Scarpia’s lustful aria “Va Tosca”, the finale of Act I, is a meeting of the sacred and the profane as it is juxtaposed with the Te Deum by the chorus as it rises to a swell to the heavens. It is as good a metaphor as any for the forces of good pitted against those of evil, as Bond does battle with the villains.
This is a powerful example of Puccini’s brilliant writing, and this particular episode possibly inspired Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather trilogy, where the baptism of Don Michael Corleone’s godchild is played out at the same time as his enemies are being systematically and ruthlessly eliminated.
Back to Quantum of Solace. The execution of Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi by firing squad on stage launches the gun battle that then erupts between Bond and the villains. It is depicted brilliantly, like a silent film, interspersed with flashes of scenes from the opera
The German magazine Der Spiegel applauded the way in which under Forster’s direction, “the aria drowns out the hail of bullets”. It went on to say “This artistic intent is new in the Bond film series. Action before never meant anything other than action…..Forster by contrast stylises the shoot-out as a fascinating ballet of death, and Bond is just one of the dancers”.
The scene where Tosca stabs Scarpia to death at the end of the Bregenz sequence in the film seems to foretell what will happen in the film. In the opera, this happens before the execution of Cavaradossi, but this is artistic license.
It all happens in seven-and-a-half minutes in the film. But short as the sequence was, the film crew spent a lot of time, effort and money on it. It took thirteen days to shoot, during which time the whole area was cordoned off. 1500 extras were recruited (from the thousands more that applied) to play the part of opera-goers at a sold-out performance in which the action takes place. At the time, all the extras knew was that they were being cast in “Bond 22” as the film title was still a closely guarded secret. Every one of the 1500 extras had to go to the make-up and grooming department, to be worked upon by dozens of stylists. Those who didn’t have their own tuxedo or evening gown had one provided for them.
In the Bregenz production of Tosca, Sebastien Soules and Karine Babajanyan sing Scarpia and Tosca respectively, with Brandon Jovanovich as Cavaradossi.
The raw emotions of power, love, deception, jealousy and revenge are common to both the opera and the film, and this is why the Bregenz sequence works so well.
Die-hard opera fans however had a field day discussing this in cyberspace, at the very gall of people talking during an opera performance, (never mind that it’s just a film) without being shushed by those seated next to them in the audience! You may have a license to kill, Bond, but please everyone keep quiet during a performance. The world can be saved after the fat lady has sung and the final curtain falls.
(An edited version of this article was published on 31 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)