Spotlight on: TOSCA

At Seattle Opera January 10-24, 2015

Music by
Giacomo Puccini

Libretto by
Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

First Performed Rome, 1900| In Italian with English Captions | Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

Long Story Short:
“Sleep with me, or your boyfriend dies!” sings wicked police chief. What will Tosca do?

Who’s Who?

Floria Tosca, a singer, is a devout Catholic, a compassionate, warm-hearted individual, and a passionate, jealous lover.

Mario Cavaradossi, a painter, loves life, liberty, and Floria Tosca (and maybe a striking blonde as well).

Baron Scarpia is a lecherous, power-mad chief of police.

Cesare Angelotti was once the consul of the short-lived Roman republic; now he’s a political prisoner newly escaped from Scarpia’s jail.

Spoletta is Scarpia’s sadistic lackey.

Sciarrone is another of Scarpia’s evil henchmen.

The Sacristan works in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

The Jailer works at the Castel Sant’Angelo.

The Shepherd likes to take his sheep out to graze along the Tiber and sing sad songs in the very early morning.

Where and When?
Rome, June 17 and 18, 1800.

What’s Going On?
Mario Cavaradossi, the great painter, has been romancing the great singer Floria Tosca. Every so often, the two of them enjoy a weekend together in Cavaradossi’s villa on the outskirts of Rome. Meanwhile, the leering eyes of Scarpia, the vicious police chief currently in command of the imperial city, have fallen upon Tosca as well. The personal and political conflict between Mario and Scarpia will quickly destroy all three of them.

The action of the opera takes place over the course of a few hours, in three actual locations (you can still go visit them and see if the scenic designer did his research) near each other in Rome not far from the Vatican. More so than most operas, Tosca requires carefully designed, realistic scenery to reflect the authenticity and detail of the stage action.

Act One: The church of Sant’Andrea della Valle (Bill Mohn, photo)

This act takes place in a church because: 1) Angelotti, who has just escaped from Scarpia’s prison, hides in his family chapel, accessed by a special key held only by family members. His sister, the Marchese Attavanti, helped him escape and left food and a change of clothes for him in the chapel. 2) Mario Cavaradossi is painting a Magdalene for the altar of the church. (He took the beautiful blond Marchese as his model while she was there arranging Angelotti’s escape, much to the annoyance of the jealous Tosca.) And 3) the act concludes with the terrific irony of Scarpia, hot in pursuit of Angelotti, lusting after Tosca as the assembled churchgoers sing the Te Deum.

Greer Grimsley sings “Va, Tosca” from Seattle Opera’s 2008 Tosca

Act Two: A room in the Palazzo Farnese (Wikipedia, photo)
This palace, built in the 1500s for a pope’s residence, is today the French Embassy in Rome. In 1800, it housed the king and queen of Naples; in the opera, it is the personal headquarters of Baron Scarpia. In fact, this entire act belongs to Scarpia. We witness him torture Mario until Tosca confesses that Angelotti is hiding in the well in Mario’s garden, and shiver with dread when Tosca agrees to exchange her sexual favors for Mario’s life. And we’re delighted when Tosca’s eyes light upon an extra-sharp dinner knife and she thinks of a way out of her unpleasant bargain with Scarpia.
Greer Grimsley, Vinson Cole, Carol Vaness, and Paul Gudas sing a scene from Act Two of Seattle Opera’s 2001 Tosca

Act Three: Atop the Castel Sant’Angelo (Carly Griffin, photo)

Tosca’s final scene takes place in the prison where Mario awaits his execution. Today a museum, this enormous castle was built over the tomb of the Roman Emperor Hadrian; it acquired the name “Castle of the Holy Angel” when the archangel Michael appeared there in the plague year 590, according to legend. When Tosca leaps from the parapet at the end, she falls some 100 feet. (That’s why no one has ever performed this opera on location.)
Frank Porretta sings “E lucevan le stelle” from Seattle Opera’s 2008 Tosca

Historical Background
Although Tosca is really a thriller about love, jealousy, sex, murder, and suicide among three memorable characters, it also wears the costume of historical drama, a genre which first became popular in the nineteenth century. The action of the opera takes place a hundred years before the opera was written, and it doesn’t hurt for Tosca audiences to be familiar with the politics of Scarpia’s Rome.

Scarpia (Greer Grimsley) sings his Act 2 credo
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Scarpia himself is a fictional creation, but you’ll hear the characters talking about Napoleon, the Queen of Naples, and the Battle of Marengo. In 1800, Napoleon was First Consul of France; he had spent most of the late 1790s “liberating” the peoples of Italy from Austrian, papal, and Neapolitan rule (only to substitute French rule). But the French government, nervous that Napoleon was becoming too powerful, sent him to Egypt in 1798, where he dabbled in archeology, fought the British at sea and lost, and fought the Ottomans on land and won.

Meanwhile, Austria and Naples retook most of Italy from the disorganized French; thus in the opera, Scarpia rules Rome as deputy of King Ferdinand IV of Naples (who in reality was ruled by his wife). The Pope had been sent packing by Napoleon years earlier. Napoleon, seeing in the Italian situation an opportunity to return to Europe in glory, suddenly appeared in northern Italy as the French General Masséna was losing more ground to the Austrians. Napoleon’s surprise victory in the battle of Marengo turned the tide back in France’s favor. Thus, zealous republicans like Angelotti and Mario Cavaradossi are overjoyed when news of Napoleon’s victory reaches the stage of Tosca, while Scarpia curses. If only the liberal-minded Cavaradossi had lived to watch Napoleon become a tyrant and dictator like so many others...
The Sacristan (Peter Strummer) tries to keep order in his church
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Puccini’s famous Tosca—one of the most frequently performed operas of all time—is based on a forgotten play by a forgotten French playwright, Victorien Sardou (1831-1908).

Victorien Sardou

Sardou wrote “well-made plays,” a form of nineteenth century French theater which rated concision and theatrical excitement above profundity. Although wildly popular in their day, Sardou’s many plays tend to get dismissed as melodramas today by literary historians who value theater only if it offers some redeeming social value. The great British playwright George Bernard Shaw went so far as to condemn the plays as “Sardoodledom,” and Tosca was once memorably described as “that shabby little shocker.”

Sardou wrote his play La Tosca for the incomparable nineteenth-century actress Sarah Bernhardt, who first essayed the role in 1887 and was to continue performing it until 1909 (when she was 65). Puccini, who had been wanting to turn the play into an opera ever since its publication, saw Bernhardt as Tosca in 1896. He contacted Sardou and set his librettists, Giacosa and Illica, to work on adapting Sardou’s long French text into a terse Italian libretto. The eager Sardou offered all sorts of unnecessary help with the adaptation; Puccini later described him as “a strange man, all full of vitality and fire, and full of historico-topo-panoramic inexactitudes!”

Since the rise of Puccini’s opera, few actresses have essayed the Sardou Tosca, while every dramatic soprano worth her salt knows the Puccini. From her first offstage cry of “Mario! Mario!” to her final, hair-raising “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” (Scarpia, [we meet] before God!) all Toscas get to negotiate some of Puccini’s trickiest music, not to mention utter some of the greatest lines in Italian opera. Her take on murdering Scarpia:

Stabbing him:
"Questo è il bacio di Tosca!"
(This is how Tosca kisses!)

"È morto…or gli perdono."
(He’s dead…now I forgive him.)

"E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!"
(And before him trembled all of Rome!)

About the Composer
Giacomo Puccini was born in 1858, during the glory days of Italian opera. When Puccini died in 1925, the world was a different place: fascism was taking root in the young nation of Italy, America was emerging as the world’s most powerful nation, and motion pictures were replacing opera as the dominant art form in our culture. The many-faceted career of this last great Italian opera composer reflected the multitudinous changes taking place in the world around him.


Although Puccini came from a long line of composers, at first it looked like he wouldn’t amount to much. He was a terrible student: lazy, always bored, easily distracted, and in his final year of high school he flunked out. But Puccini was determined to become a composer and to make some money at it. His father had died when he was five years old, and as a boy Puccini (and his six sisters) had felt the bite of poverty. Puccini saw a performance of Verdi’s Aida when he was 18 and decided that he would become the next Verdi.

So he applied himself diligently to the study of music, earning a diploma from the Institute of Music in his hometown of Lucca and eventually graduating with honors from the Conservatory in Milan. During his years in Milan, young Puccini made many important connections and wrote two operas. He was only one of a handful of young composers all hoping to inherit the throne of Giuseppe Verdi, the undisputed king of Italian opera. With the support of the all-powerful music publisher Giulio Ricordi, Puccini emerged victorious from the struggle for succession. The year 1893 saw the premieres of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, and Puccini’s first triumph, Manon Lescaut.

With his earnings from Manon Lescaut, Puccini built himself a villa on the lake at Torre del Lago, a small town near Lucca. He also ran off with Elvira Gemignani, the wife of a childhood friend. Puccini’s stormy relationship with the jealous Elvira was to last until his death. During this period, Giulio Ricordi helped Puccini develop a wonderfully productive relationship with a pair of writers, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Giacosa and Illica wrote for Puccini the libretti to three of the most popular operas of all time: La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. These operas use accessible and captivating music to explore three very different worlds: a Bohemian world of starving artists in La bohème, the world of historical melodrama in Tosca, and the (to Italians) exotic land of Japan in Madama Butterfly.

Lisa Daltirus and Frank Porretta sing their Act Three duet from Seattle Opera’s 2008 Tosca

In 1907, Puccini was invited to New York to supervise performances of his operas at the up-and-coming Metropolitan Opera Company. Puccini ended up writing an opera for the Metropolitan: La fanciulla del west, a melodramatic tale set in a California mining town. During World War I he tried his hand at writing a Viennese-style operetta, La Rondine. Fascinated by new currents in music and art, Puccini was never content with repeating himself, even at the risk of public approval. As the war ended, he wrote Il trittico, a series of three one-act operas for the Metropolitan Opera in New York: Il tabarro, a gritty story of jealousy and murder among Parisian lowlifes; Suor Angelica, a sentimental story set in a convent and featuring an all-female cast; and Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comedy.

Puccini died while working on his final opera, Turandot, a sadistic and erotic fairy tale set in a legendary China. The opera was completed by a friend and first performed a few months after Puccini’s death. Turandot was the last Italian opera to achieve widespread popularity, just as Puccini was the last great composer of Italian opera.

The Music of Tosca

Puccini’s music, for many of us, is opera as it was meant to be: beautiful, soaring, passionate, romantic, and lush. His gift for extroverted melodies that come out of nowhere and take you straight to heaven, one after another, is unmatched in the history of lyric theater. Some opera-goers contend that Puccini was only inspired to write such appealing music when his characters were torturing each other up on the stage. And they’re right; Puccini was always drawn to plots involving savagery and sadism. But by pushing his characters thus to the brink of human experience, he motivates them to sing music of so much humanity that generations of listeners have been captivated.

Cavaradossi (Brandon Jovanovich) tries to save Angelotti (Jason Grant)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Duets. The musical building block of Tosca is the duet--in Puccini, an extended scene for two characters involving both exposition of plot and musical elaboration of the characters’ complicated emotions. All of Tosca can be broken down into a series of duets: in the first act, duets for Mario and Angelotti, Mario and Tosca, and Tosca and Scarpia; an enormous duet for Scarpia and Tosca in the second act; and a final duet for Mario and Tosca in the third act. The duets give intimacy and personal emotion to an opera which might otherwise be engulfed in its historical background and scenic splendor.

Lisa Daltirus and Frank Porretta sing the Act One duet from Seattle Opera’s 2008 Tosca

Arias. But we really treasure Puccini’s score for its memorable arias, when the individual singer steps forward and sings for us the emotional state of his character. Mario, who doesn’t participate in the great duet that takes up the bulk of Act Two, does sing two of Puccini’s greatest tenor arias: “Recondita armonia,” in the first act, and “E lucevan le stelle” in the third. In the first, he compares Tosca’s beauty to that of the blond Marchese d’Attavanti, while painting the latter as Mary Magdalene; in the second, moments before his execution, he remembers the bliss of an evening with Tosca in his garden and laments his approaching fate. Tosca’s show-stopper aria is “Vissi d’arte,” sung while Scarpia is torturing Mario (and, emotionally, her); she reflects on her life and wonders why God treats her so cruelly.

Lisa Daltirus sings “Vissi d’arte” from Seattle Opera’s 2008 Tosca

And Scarpia brings the first act curtain down on the church scene with his famous “Va, Tosca,” in which he relishes the prospect of conquering Tosca and murdering her lover, accompanied by noisy church bells ringing and the assembled chorus praying loudly in Latin. Finally, crying out “Tosca, you make me forget about God!” Scarpia joins his voice to the chorus.

Motifs. Puccini, like many nineteenth-century opera composers, liked to use short musical ideas over and over again in his opera scores. Sometimes he does so in connection with some element of the story. For example, he associates Scarpia with a musical idea or motif characterized by its brash, noisy arrogance. This motif is the first thing we hear in the opening moments of the opera; it dominates the musical texture of the first act the way Scarpia dominates the drama. (We hear it again when Angelotti and Mario discuss Scarpia in their duet—and again, impressively, when Scarpia first appears.)

Puccini also uses motifs to unify his musical texture. For instance, several of the torture scenes--the scene of Mario’s physical torture, the emotional torturing of Tosca at the end of the second act, and the entire scene of Mario’s (fake) execution--coalesce musically because Puccini’s orchestra insistently repeats musical themes over and over again as the scenes unfold. The themes in each case are puny, stunted, and emotionally void; their obsessive repetition makes us scared and uneasy--just like the characters onstage.

Recommended Recordings
De Sabata (EMI, 1953) with Callas, Gobbi, di Stefano

Mehta (RCA, 1973) with Price, Milnes, Domingo

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