Tosca

An Opera by Giacomo Puccini

About

Adolf Hohenstein Poster for Tosca

Tosca is one of the most lethal of operas. None of the central characters make it to the end alive, hero or villain. Unsurprisingly then, it's a thrilling melodrama often dismissed as one-dimensional and tawdry. You’d be foolish to go in with this attitude however, Puccini takes an overtly theatrical tale and makes it astonishingly moving.

Tosca is fundamentally historical fiction, a vague knowledge of the period is highly useful, though it is very much the 18th Century as seen through 19th Century eyes. Luckily it still works as seen through 21st Century eyes because at its core, Tosca is tale of romance over politics; featuring a heroic painter, a despicable ruler and an opera superstar, Tosca herself!

Productions of Tosca can go a variety of ways though predominantly it remains an opera that is staged fairly literally. Expect a big church to open the evening and an impressive battlement to close it.


Characters

NameVocal TypeDescription
Baron ScarpiaBaritoneOfficially the Chief of Police. An absolutely despicable chap whichever way you look at it, combining an attraction to Tosca with strong rape tendencies.
Cesare AngelottiBassA republican fugitive who having escaped prison seeks sanctuary in the church. Cavaradossi then hides him down a well. The only character to die off-stage.
Floria ToscaSopranoA famous singer in the stereotypical Diva mode. True of heart but relentlessly jealous.
Mario CavaradossiTenorPainter by trade and the lover of Tosca. A republican to a fault who is not well liked by Scarpia.
SpolettaTenorSeriously creepy fellow. Largely a one dimensional lackey to Scarpia.
The SacristanBassA sweet, bumbly priest who gets his facts badly wrong in Act I.
  • Baron Scarpia

    Baritone

    Officially the Chief of Police. An absolutely despicable chap whichever way you look at it, combining an attraction to Tosca with strong rape tendencies.

  • Cesare Angelotti

    Bass

    A republican fugitive who having escaped prison seeks sanctuary in the church. Cavaradossi then hides him down a well. The only character to die off-stage.

  • Floria Tosca

    Soprano

    A famous singer in the stereotypical Diva mode. True of heart but relentlessly jealous.

  • Mario Cavaradossi

    Tenor

    Painter by trade and the lover of Tosca. A republican to a fault who is not well liked by Scarpia.

  • Spoletta

    Tenor

    Seriously creepy fellow. Largely a one dimensional lackey to Scarpia.

  • The Sacristan

    Bass

    A sweet, bumbly priest who gets his facts badly wrong in Act I.

Synopsis

Act I - Running Time: 45 mins

We begin in Sant'Andrea della Valle, a large church in Rome. Angelotti comes pelting in, he has just escaped from prison, and hides in a small, private chapel within the church. Our hero for the evening, Cavaradossi enters to resume his work. He is a painter and has been commissioned to paint a picture of Mary Magdalene for the church. The scristan bumbles about and offers Cavaradossi some food, which he refuses. Cavaradossi gets his first big aria of the evening, “Recondita Armonia”.

Jonas Kaufmann sings "Recondita Armonia"

Angelotti bursts out, revealing himself to Cavaradossi. They are old friends but as Cavaradossi is on the brink of assisting Angelotti, who should show up but Tosca herself. Cavaradossi quickly gives Angelotti his food and hides him away again.

The jealous Tosca is convinced she overheard Cavaradossi talking to someone, believing it to be another woman. She sees Cavaradossi's new painting, recognizing the image as that of Marchesa Attavanti and turns jealous again. Cavaradossi calms her down with “Qual’occhio al mondo”, what eyes in the world could compare to hers!

Tosca Act I, Metropolitan Opera
Tosca (Karita Matilla) and Cavaradossi (Marcelo Álvarez), Met Opera

She leaves, still demanding that he change the eyes, and Angelotti reappears. Cavaradossi shows him a secret way out and gives him a key to his villa, informing him of a hiding place in the well of the garden. Cannon fire is heard, announcing the escape of a prisoner (Angelotti), Angelotti quickly flees.

Scarpia, Metropolitan Opera
Scarpia (Falk Struckmann), Metropolitan Opera

The sacristan returns with the church choristers, celebrating the news that Napoleon has been defeated. However things quickly turn sour as Scarpia arrives with his lackeys. They believe Angelotti is hiding in the church and searching the place find the empty food basket and a fan belonging to Attavanti. Scarpia interrogates the sacristan and learning Cavaradossi has been here, becomes convinced that he is on the right track.

Tosca comes back looking for Cavaradossi. Scarpia connives to make her jealous by showing her the Attavanti fan. He succeeds and Tosca leaves to confront Cavaradossi unaware that she is to be followed by Scarpia’s men. A truly epic scene of gloating is delivered by Scarpia culminating in the magnificent, “Te Deum”.

Act II - Running Time: 40 mins

It is later the same day and the curtain rises on Scarpia’s apartment. He has been unable to find Angelotti but has arrested Cavaradossi and sent a note for Tosca to come to his apartment. Cavaradossi is dragged in and interrogated. He reveals nothing and as Tosca arrives he is taken away to be tortured. In his parting words he tells Tosca to tell Scarpia nothing, no matter his suffering.

Cavaradossi Sings his joy, Sarasota Opera
Cavaradossi Sings his joy, Sarasota Opera

Tosca initially resists Scarpia but after hearing Cavaradossi’s screams of pain she crumbles and reveals the location of Angelotti. Cavaradossi is dragged back in and upon hearing that Tosca has broken, he is absolutely devastated. Sciaronne arrives with the news that Napoleon has been victorious at Marengo. This is extremely good news for Cavaradossi and he unleashes “Vittoria, vittoria” in celebration, before being dragged off to be executed.

"Vittoria, vittoria" sung by Luciano Pavarotti

Left alone with Tosca, Scarpia presents her with a hideous bargain. If she will give herself to him, Cavaradossi will be released. She rejects his advances and sings one of the most famous tunes in the opera, “Vissi d’arte” - I lived for art.

Sondra Radvanovsky sings "Vissi d'arte"

Spoletta enters with the news that Angelotti was found but killed himself before he could be arrested. Furthermore, the execution of Cavaradossi has been arranged. Hearing all this, the now broken Tosca agrees to Scarpia’s deal. Scarpia tells Spoletta to complete the execution in the same manner as the execution of Count Palmieri.

Tosca presses Scarpia to also grant her and Cavaradossi safe passage from Rome the next day. He agrees and while writing out the letter... Tosca finds a knife on the dinner table. As Scarpia moves to rape her, she stabs him to death.

Tosca takes the letter from him, lights candles and places a crusifix on him as a gesture of piety before fleeing the scene.

Tosca lays candles, Royal Opera
Tosca (Martina Serafin) lays candles, Royal Opera

Act III - Running Time: 30 mins

The battlement of the Castel Sant’Angelo early the next morning. A young boy is heard singing as the bells chime for matins. Cavaradossi is led in and informed this will be his final hour, he has no interest in seeing a priest but asks for some paper to write a letter to Tosca. He sings “E lucevan le stelle” - and the stars shone.

Tosca arrives and quickly explains everything. The execution will be faked, the firing squad will use blanks so Cavaradossi must pretend to die. They joyously sing of the life they can now have together.

The Shooting of Cavaradossi, Royal Opera
Tosca (Angela Gheorghiu) watches Cavaradossi shot, Royal Opera

Cavaradossi is led away to be shot. The marksmen fire, Cavaradossi falls to the ground. The marksmen depart as Tosca runs over to Cavaradossi. Surprise, surprise! She finds him dead, Scarpia had tricked her all along. Spoletta is heard off stage with soldiers, Scarpia’s body has been found!

Tosca runs to the parapet and crying “O Scarpia, Avanti a Dio!” - Oh Scarpia, we meet before God! She flings herself over the edge.

Tosca Falls, English National Opera
Tosca (Amanda Echalaz) falls, English National Opera

Major Arias

NameSung byExcerpt
E lucevan le stelleMario Cavaradossi
Gia mi dicon venalBaron Scarpia
Ha piu forte saporeBaron Scarpia
Recondita armoniaMario Cavaradossi
Va, Tosca!Baron Scarpia
Vissi d'arteFloria Tosca
  • E lucevan le stelle

    Sung by: Mario Cavaradossi

  • Gia mi dicon venal

    Sung by: Baron Scarpia

  • Ha piu forte sapore

    Sung by: Baron Scarpia

  • Recondita armonia

    Sung by: Mario Cavaradossi

  • Va, Tosca!

    Sung by: Baron Scarpia

  • Vissi d'arte

    Sung by: Floria Tosca

Where in the World

Tosca takes place entirely within the city of Rome in 1800. Each Act takes place in very specific, real locations in Rome.

Act I

Act I takes place within the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle

Sant' Andrea della Valle
Inside Sant'Andrea della Valle © Claudio Di Ludovico

Act II

Act II takes place within Scarpia's apartment located in the Palazzo Farnese

The Parlazzo Farnese
The Palazzo Farnese © zio Paolino

Act III

Act III occurs on the Battlements of the Castel Sant' Angelo

Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome
The Castel Sant' Angelo at night © Lorenzo Ferrara

History

Puccini's Tosca had the longest gestation period of any of his operas. Victorien Sardou's drama La Tosca was first suggested as a possible subject in 1889, but Puccini wrote and premiered two other operas (Manon Lescaut and La Boheme) before settling his energies on Tosca, which finally premiered in January 1900. The opera likely would never have been written, at least not by Puccini, if it weren't for the esteem of a respected elder and the jealousy inspired by a contemporary.

Sardou and Puccini
Sardou and Puccini

In 1894, Alberto Franchetti was already working on an opera based on Sardou's play and his libretto was being written by Luigi Illica, who was also working on Puccini's La Boheme at the time. One day in Paris while Sardou was meeting with Illica to discuss what he had written so far, Giuseppe Verdi - the most successful operatic composer in the world - stopped in. Verdi, who appreciated Sardou's work but in his 80s was too old to take on a new project, was deeply moved by what Illica had written. Once Puccini heard about this meeting, he had to have the opera so Illica and another mutual friend went to Franchetti and basically sandbagged him into giving up the opera.

The premiere took place in Rome at the Teatro Costanzi. Despite rumors of a possible bomb threat because of the current political unrest, it went off without incident. It was well received by the public although less so by the critics.

Fun Facts

Popular?

Tosca has been wildly popular since it's premiere and was the 5th most performed opera from 2007 to 2012 according Operabase.

Exit with...

The instruction "exit with the principals" doesn't fully work in the case of Tosca. In older times when opera productions were sometimes only minimally rehearsed, a director might have said such a thing to the supernumeries. The, no doubt apocryphal, story goes that the soldiers in the final Act of Tosca were given just this instruction and as Tosca leapt over the battlements -- they all went over with her!

Another popular myth relating to Tosca's suicide, and this seems a more likely tale, is the placement of a trampoline rather than a mattress for extra safety for the falling Soprano. The audience as a result got not only Tosca's initial fall but also a series of successive appearances and disappearances behind the battlements...

Well-made?

Victorien Sardou
Victorien Sardou

La Tosca by Sardou is a “well-made play”. This term isn’t a mark of quality but a specific form of theatre that conforms to certain criteria. An artificial, mechanical method of playwrighting that required a slow suspenseful build up to a climactic scene when all the plot threads become resolved. The plot usually hinged on props rather than people, letters a popular option. If this all sounds a bit ridiculous then consider that Sardou was by no means the only one writing these, it was the dominant form for much of the 20th Century, though constantly scorned and Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov amongst many others were highly influenced by it. Wilkie Collins summed it up as, “Make ’em laugh, make ’em weep, make ’em wait.” which didn’t stop him using many aspects of the well-made play in his own work.

Live

Sardou specified that his story took place from 17 June 1800 to dawn the following morning, and while Puccini's libretto just states June 1800, he intended the same specificity. Because of that detail and the fact that each act takes place in a single location in Rome, and those locations still exist, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would try to film the opera at the correct times and places. This actually occurred in 1992 with Catherine Maliftano in the title role.

Another version of less interest, but deserving of mention maybe just because of its cast, is the 2001 Tosca directed by the French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot. Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna star as Tosca and Cavaradossi, but while the film presents the opera in a linear fashion, it does so using video of a studio session interspersed with performance footage from a soundstage and handheld video shots from Rome. Overall the actual opera loses much of its visual power.

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca
Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca

Puccini saw the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt play Floria Tosca in Sardou’s drama La Tosca twice. The first time in 1890 at Milan’s Teatro dei Filodrammatici and the second in 1895 in Florence. Despite speaking no French, he was enamoured of the performance (although less so the second time, according to biographers). The play was written as a showcase for Bernhardt and it was she who initially wore the silk dress and plumed hat and carried a cane and bouquet of flowers that have become standard fare for second act Toscas on their way to the cathedral.

In Brief

  • Name Tosca
  • Composer Giacomo Puccini
  • Librettist Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
  • Language Italian
  • Date of premiere Jan. 14, 1900
  • Number of Acts 3
  • Music length 1 hours, 55 minutes

Quiz

Recordings

There have been dozens of recordings made and books written about Tosca. Here are some of our favourites.

Royal Opera 2011 DVD

Kaufmann, Terfel and Gheorghiu, one of the finest casts in living memory all under the baton of Antonio Pappano. A terrific Royal Opera DVD.

La Scala 1953 CD

Perhaps the definitive recording with Callas and Gobbi on historic form. The sound quality shows its age a little but the digital restoration is extremely fine.


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