The Story Behind the Opera "Tosca" by Puccini
“Tosca” is a three-act opera crafted by Giacomo Puccini, with Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica setting the Italian libretto. It premiered on the 14th of January, 1900, at Rome’s “Teatro Costanzi.” It is set at the time when Rome is threatened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion.
Puccini saw Victorien Sardou's play in 1889 and obtained the rights to the work in 1895. It took four years to convert the French play into an Italian opera, with Puccini repeatedly arguing with his publisher, and librettists during the whole time. The opera finally premiered in Rome, albeit under a time of turbulence. The original performance had been delayed by 24 hours to tackle any unwarranted disturbances.
Victorien Sardou, a French playwright, had crafted more than 70 plays in his successful career. “La Tosca” was his third play with Sarah Bernhardt, the eminent French actress. It was heralded as an outstanding success, commanding above 3,000 performances in his country France alone. Puccini had viewed it twice, in Turin and Milan. 1889, he contacted Giulio Ricordi, the publisher to acquire Sardou's permission to turn it into an opera, but was rebuffed. However, Sardou preferred a French composer, citing the violent receptions in Italy as further evidence of declining Puccini. He further expressed his concern after agreeing to a deal. Puccini took offense at this cynicism and withdrew from the negotiations, which were sealed a day before.
Later, Puccini again took an interest in “La Tosca,” and, with the help of Ricordi, successfully acquired the rights. In August 1895, the composer signed an agreement to take the official reigns.
The first act takes place in “Sant'Andrea della Valle,” a church in Rome. Cesare Angelotti, a political prisoner and former official of the Roman Republic, escapes and hides inside the church. He takes refuge in Attavanti’s private chapel, with the help of Marchesa Attavanti, who had hidden a key at the feet of Madonna’s statue. Soon, the church sacristan arrives and starts cleaning, and subsequently prays to the sound of the “Angelus.”
Mario Cavaradossi, a painter, arrives at the scene to continue working on a painting of Mary Magdalene. The sacristan states a certain resemblance his portrait has with a blonde woman who had recently visited the church, which is originally Angelotti's sister Marchesa. However, Cavaradossi describes it as a contrast he wanted to portray in reference to Floria Tosca, his dark-haired partner. The aria “hidden harmony” accompanies the scene. As the sacristan leaves, Angelotti reveals himself to his old friend Cavaradossi and narrates how he is being followed by Baron Scarpia, the Chief of Police. Cavaradossi agrees to help him out, only after nightfall. Angelotti quickly hides after hearing an approaching Tosca’s voice.
Tosca arrives and is immediately suspicious that Cavaradossi is cheating on her, and cajoles him for some personal time through the song “Do you not long for our little cottage.” She also recognizes the woman in the painting as Marchesa and becomes further jealous. However, Cavaradossi reassures her of his commitment and sings the aria “What eyes in the world,” expressing his fondness for her beautiful eyes. Tosca is convinced and leaves.
Next, Angelotti plans with his painter friend his escape routes and decides to utilize his sister’s clothes as a disguise. Cavaradossi further gives him the key to his villa, requesting him to hide in the disused well in his garden. A cannon is heard, announcing the discovery of Angelotti's escape. The friends flee the church.
The sacristan re-enters the church, closely followed by Baron Scarpia and his agents. The police suspect that Angelotti is hiding inside and rummages the chapel. The Attavanti coat of arms is discovered along with an empty basket of food, confirming their suspicions. Scarpia interrogates the sacristan and is further infuriated upon hearing about Cavaradossi’s visit. The police chief doesn’t trust the artist and considers him complicit in the escape. Tosca arrives at the church again, looking for Cavaradossi. Scarpia ignites her jealousy further by indicating an affair between her partner and Marchesa Attavanti. Tosca falls into the trap and leaves to confront her lover. Spoletta and some agents are assigned to follow her, in the assumption that it might lead them to Angelotti. Scarpia is secretly ecstatic, as he plans to execute the painter and control Tosca.
The next act occurs at Scarpia’s residence in the evening. At supper, Scarpia requests a meeting with Tosca, with a plan to kill two birds with a stone. He already had knowledge that Cavaradossi is under arrest brings him in for an interrogation. The painter, however, persistently denies all charges against him. In the background, the voice of Tosca becomes prominent, belting out a cantata from the depths of the Palace.
Tosca comes face to face with his partner, who is being dragged into an antechamber. He warns her not to disclose anything. Scarpia, however, proclaims that she can save her partner by giving away the whereabouts of Angelotti. Tosca initially resists, but the sound of shouts and screams from the chamber eventually gets to her. She tells the police chief to look in the unused well in Cavaradossi’s villa. The bloodied painter is immediately brought back, completely shattered that his friend has been betrayed. He is eventually dragged away for mocking Scarpia.
Scarpia then makes a lewd proposition to Tosca - he will let Cavaradossi go if she agrees to be with him. Tosca rejects his advances repeatedly. However, drums are soon heard outside, declaring an execution which entitles her to break into prayer through the aria, “I lived for art,” questioning God for abandoning her in the hour of need. She attempts to bribe Scarpia but is rebuffed.
Spoletta soon announces that Angelotti has taken his own life upon discovery, and Cavaradossi’s execution has been prepared as per orders. In her despair, Tosca gives in Scarpia’s demands. The police decide to hold a mock execution. Next, Tosca appeals to Scarpia for a safe passage out of Rome for Cavaradossi and herself. He agrees and goes over to his desk to draft the document. Tosca stealthily takes a knife from the supper table, and while embracing the chief of police stabs him, bellowing, “This is Tosca’s kiss!” Once Scarpia is dead, she pockets the safe-conduct from him, lighting some candles as an act of piety, and placing a crucifix on the body before departing.
The first scene unfolds in the upper parts of the Castel Sant’Angelo. A shepherd boy is heard singing the aria, “I give you sighs” as the church bells toll. Cavaradossi is brought in for his execution, as he seeks permission to pen a farewell to Tosca. He starts to write, but soon finds himself swept away by memories, as manifested by his song, “And the stars shone.”
Tosca arrives, displaying the safe-conduct pass she had obtained. She tells him that she has murdered Scarpia and that the impending execution is a setup. Cavaradossi must fake his death so that they can quickly escape before Scarpia’s body is found. Cavaradossi is overwhelmed and belts out the aria, “Oh sweet hands.” The couple ecstatically visualizes their future life before crafting up the requisite plan. Cavaradossi must take a leaf out of Tosca’s theatrics on stage and feint death when the blanks are fired.
As the shots are fired, Cavaradossi slops down as planned, much to the delight of his partner. However, when the soldiers leave, Tosca realizes that the bullets were real, and she has betrayed her. Heartbroken, she sobs over her lover’s lifeless body.
Spoletta and the soldiers are soon heard proclaiming that Tosca has murdered Scarpia. As the men rush in, Tosca hurries towards the edge of the roof, evading them. She eventually shouts, “O Scarpia, we meet before God!” and throws herself to her death.
“Tosca” doesn’t have a prelude, with the opening “fugitive” motif leading to Angelotti’s sudden distressful appearance. The lively “buffo theme” accompanying the sacristan lifts the mood instantly. It is further followed by another cheerful colloquy, complementing Cavaradossi’s appearance. The aria “hidden harmony” is played in high “B-flat,” with a contrasting counter-melody. The themes clearly indicate the mystery of the portrait and its apparent resemblance to Marchesa. Tosca enters like a storm, but Puccini serenades her in a composed and devotional tune. Tosca and Cavaradossi’s argument and subsequent romance are beautifully caught through a sensuous love duet.
The entrance of the police chief is marked with a menacing and brooding theme, the mood slowly turning darker. The “fugitive” motif is repeated thrice, becoming more and more emphatic, quietly signaling Scarpia's apparent. The scene where Tosca and Scorpia meet is ushered by the alarming church bells, indicating the upcoming peril. The last scene is a juxtaposition of the profane and the sacred, as Scarpia's lustful melody collides with a swelling chorus, ending in a thunderous reincarnation of Scarpia’s motif.
Puccini is at the height of his musical caliber in the second act. The act starts by musing about the potential downfall of the two friends, Cavaradossi and Angelotti. The “torture” motif makes its debut here, as an appetizer of the impending catastrophe. The protagonist also performs a cantata with a chorus, adding to the tension. The finale of the act offers a sudden orchestral turmoil after the sluggish movement of “Ninth Symphony” by Ludwig van Beethoven. The final motif is in a much minor key.
The beginning of the third act oozes tranquility, a well-earned respite from all the turmoil. The introductory theme, a 16-bar composition for the horns, is repeated in the finale. The subsequent orchestral prelude is further highlighted by the church and sheep bells and the shepherd song. This is a direct tribute to the composer’s early morning adventures of Rome. Puccini also dictated the incorporation of the phrase “I die in despair” in Cavaradossi’s aria “And the stars shone.” The lover’s duet “Only for you did death taste bitter for me” concludes the opening act. Soon, a prevalent loud theme emerges, culminating in the death of the protagonist.
- In July, 1900, “Tosca” premiered at Royal Opera House in England
- It crossed the Atlantic in February, 1901 and was performed at the Metropolitan Opera.
- In October, 1903, it premiered in France, at “Opéra-Comique.”
- Maria Callas is considered the most important artist to play the protagonist, mostly due to her 1964 performance at London’s Royal Opera House. This production continued until 2006, before being replaced.
- Maria had first performed the opera in 1942. In 1965, she again performed “Tosca” at a charity event, which was her final on-stage concert.
- In 1986, Jonathan Miller produced “Tosca” at the “Maggio Musicale Fiorentino,’ but changed the setting to the Nazi invasion of Rome.
- In 1992, a televised version of “Tosca” was produced, and was filmed at the exact locations that Puccini had prescribed.
- In 2007, Philipp Himmelmann produced the opera at the “Bregenz Festival.” The special effects were compared to a James Bond movie.
During Puccini’s time, the classic opera structure had already evolved. The late 19th century saw the original format of duets and arias, and combinations of dialogue and recitatives being abandoned, even in Italia. Operas were incorporated with a continuous “surge of music,’ even eliminating all perceptible set-pieces. “Tosca” was Puccini’s grand tune - a collection of distinguishable set-pieces strung by equally memorable melodies. The composer perpetuates a substantial amount of lyricism, rarely utilizing recitatives.
This piece is considered as Puccini’s strongest association with Richard Wagner, due to his usage of utilizes leitmotifs. However, Puccini doesn’t modify or develop them symphonically but constructs them as a reference point - small reminders to magnify the narrative. It is indeed an Opera that is “thoroughly composed,” with choruses, recitatives, and arias woven together seamlessly. However, it did face a huge critical uproar, some experts even calling it “shabby.” However, the power and inventiveness of its orchestration and score id widely acclaimed. The dramatic energy of the opera continues to captivate the audiences and critics. It is still frequently performed, both in live performances and studios. The musical cues and the verbal vociferousness, however, offer a conflict, incorporating a pinch of controversy. This may not be resolved, but the naivety and vulnerability of “Tosca’s” music blends hostility and electricity to the highest degree. “Tosca” remains creepy, compelling, and exciting at the same time.
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