Tosca - out with a bang

OPERA singer Fabio Armiliato must be thinking that Tosca is his profession's equivalent of Macbeth as a work of ill luck.

Appearing as the eponymous heroine's beloved, Mario Cavaradossi, in the production's first night at the open-air arena in Macerata last week, he was stretchered off near the end of the opera after being hit in the leg by debris from blanks fired in the execution scene.

For Friday night's performance, the tenor bravely hobbled back on stage - then fell and broke his other leg in two places while standing in the wings at the end of the first Act. He returned to hospital by ambulance, commenting from his stretcher: "Could it be that I am destined never to leave this theatre on my own two feet?"

He told RAI state television: "It was incredibly bad luck. I put my foot down wrong." His injury will keep him out of action for two months. Earlier he had said he had resumed his role so as not to disappoint the fans at Macerata, whose festival is a highlight of Italian summer opera.

Armiliato's shooting was a grimly appropriate conclusion to an opera that has suffered more than its fair share of mishaps down the years. Indeed, in the context of the opera itself, the death of Mario is something of a mishap, since both he and Tosca believe that the rifles aimed at him are not loaded and that their salvation is nigh once the mock execution is over.

It can't have helped Armiliato's mood, as his legs gave way beneath him, to hear his co-star sing one last line about how convincingly he had just faked his own death. Fiction became hopelessly entangled with reality - and not for the first time in a production of Tosca.

Back in the 1920s, at the Met in New York, the knife with which Tosca (Maria Jeritza) murders the evil Baron Scarpia (Antonio Scotti) at the end of Act II failed to retract and the singer was stabbed. During the famous Covent Garden production of 1965, Maria Callas's hair caught fire while she was singing the title role and had to be put out by a quick-witted Scarpia, played by Tito Gobbi.

The firing squad scene has caused problems before now. Also in 1965, at Rome's Caracalla Baths, the gunfire scorched Gianni Raimondi's face.

A rather different mishap occurred in a previous Macerata festival, when the sound effects failed and the rifles made no noise. Next day a local paper wrote: "Cavaradossi dies of a heart attack."

Any number of calamities have attended the final moment, when Tosca flings herself off the ramparts, supposed to be those of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. Legend has it that one particularly portly soprano in the 1920s landed on the offstage trampoline and bounced straight back up in full view of the audience. More seriously, the American singer Elisabeth Knighton Printy jumped off the wrong side of the stage in St Paul, Minnesota, two years ago and plunged more than 30ft to the ground, breaking both legs.

Going to the opera is such a respectable pursuit that there is something strangely heartening about such stories of disaster and incompetence. Yet all the ingredients for unexpected catastrophes, from high emotion to low cunning, are right there in the genre itself. Tosca is far from the only casualty. Indeed, Fabio Armiliato himself was in hospital once before, after a sword pierced his foot during a production of Carmen.

He has many illustrious precedents. At a performance of Rigoletto in Chile in 1970, as the tenor Louis Quilico threw his head back to start singing, a feather floated down from the rafters straight into his mouth. He passed out without uttering a sound.

Rather higher drama was on offer in Montevideo in 1934 when an orchestra member pulled out a gun and killed the conductor in mid-performance. It turned out that the conductor, Franco Paolantonio, had been sleeping with his wife.