A sumptuous beauty, a lecherous villain, barefaced treachery and murder, all capped off by a spectacular suicide: Puccini’s “Tosca” never fails to provide the drama audiences crave.
And one scene that never fails to stun is the break-neck suicide leap that the title character, Floria Tosca, makes from a castle parapet at the opera’s end. The scene has been the subject of lore since the early 1900s: While performing “La Tosca” — the play Giacomo Puccini would later adapt into his opera — the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt leapt and injured her leg so severely it was eventually amputated.
“I’ve probably worked with the 20 best Toscas in the world for the last 35 years, just about anybody who’s done the thing,” says David Kneuss, who is directing the Washington National Opera’s current “Tosca,” with soprano Patricia Racette in the lead role. “Everyone has a different approach to this.
“Some pride themselves on their extraordinary gymnastic skills. . . . And some don’t want to deal with the jump at all. Some you have to figure out a way that they can walk off stage so they don’t actually have to jump.
“I did it for Montserrat Caballe,” he says during a rehearsal break at the Kennedy Center. “It was the opening of one season at the Metropolitan Opera. She was singing with Luciano Pavarotti and she was a wonderful Tosca in so many ways and . . . she had very strong sex appeal. She was a bit overweight and she had bad knees and she just wouldn’t jump.
“So we had to build the set in a way so she could run, as she kind of did, and pretend to jump and just end up kind of hiding behind a piece of scenery.”
He continues: “I’ve had Toscas that were real athletes. Eva Marton was this . . . mighty volleyball player, and she jumped in the air and landed on this mattress with such force she split the mattress in half.
“And then there’s . . . Cynthia Lawrence, who was [a college] gymnast. When she did her jump, she flew through the air. I mean, she didn’t do any somersaults or anything. It wasn’t quite allowed.”
[Lawrence, who holds a chair in music at the University of Kentucky, says the 26-foot leap at Royal Albert Hall is her personal record.]
“There’s always a lot of lore attached. People always talk about the story of a soprano hitting the mattress and bouncing back up. Never happened in my world,” Kneuss continues.
“I think Pat [Racette] bounces up a little bit, but she’s out of view of the audience when she does that.
“She does a very, very aggressive jump. She says she’s a daredevil, and I believe it.
“I remember when I first started working at the Met there was a very famous soprano, Renata Tebaldi. The New Year’s Eve performance was her last performance as Tosca, and the guys who [played] the spies came offstage afterward and said, ‘We’re going to be fired.’ . . . They said, ‘We went up and Ms. Tebaldi stopped; she wouldn’t jump.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean? She jumped.’ And they said, ‘No, we pushed her.’
“You know, when you’re standing up, your eyes are already five feet higher from where your feet are . . . so it immediately adds to the fear factor,” Kneuss adds. “In this production, it’s very high from the stage floor, so there’s a possibility of thinking you’re going to fall 25 or 30 feet.
“I’m really not worried about Pat too much. I’m worried that she’s going to jump past the mattress, so we’re very careful about that. We use these Crash Pads, they’re called.
“It’s very dramatic and it’s very passionate, and while singers all tend to have a lot of drama going on in their lives, there are some with more fire in them — and those are the ones who are the best-suited,” Kneuss adds. “Pat’s one of those fire girls.
“She probably can twirl fire batons as well.”
Leiby is a freelance writer.
At the Kennedy Center through Sept. 24. Tickets and information at 800-444-1324, 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.