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.
Officially the Chief of Police. An absolutely despicable chap whichever way you look at it,
combining an attraction to Tosca with strong rape tendencies.
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.
A famous singer in the stereotypical Diva mode. True of heart but relentlessly jealous.
Painter by trade and the lover of Tosca. A republican to a fault who is not well liked by Scarpia.
Seriously creepy fellow. Largely a one dimensional lackey to Scarpia.
A sweet, bumbly priest who gets his facts badly wrong in Act I.
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”.
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!
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
E lucevan le stelle
Gia mi dicon venal
Ha piu forte sapore
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 takes place within the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle
Act II takes place within Scarpia's apartment located in the Palazzo Farnese
Act III occurs on the Battlements of the Castel Sant' Angelo
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
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.
Tosca has been wildly popular since it's premiere and was the 5th most performed opera from
2007 to 2012 according Operabase.
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...
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.
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 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.
Composer Giacomo Puccini
Librettist Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Date of premiere Jan. 14, 1900
Number of Acts 3
Music length 1 hours, 55 minutes
There have been dozens of recordings made and books written about Tosca. Here are some of our favourites.