Operapedia: Tosca
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Operapedia: Tosca 

HENRY STEWART uncovers the popular history behind Puccini’s crowd-pleasing, ahistorical tragedy.

Operapedia Puccini hdl 415  The Basics

The title’s God-fearing opera-singer heroine bargains with Rome’s sinister chief of police for the life of her lover, a painter sympathetic to political rebels, but it gets out of hand, and everyone dies.

First Performances

Four years after La Bohème, Tosca had its premiere on January 14, 1900, at what’s now the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, the city’s leading opera house, and in just over a year, it had played on four continents, from Odessa to Buenos Aires. Its Met premiere was on February 4, 1901, and it has since been performed at the house 937 times, making it the fifth most-produced opera there — more than Die Zauberflöte and Le Nozze di Figaro combined.

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Operapedia Bernhardt lg 415  Time and Place

Puccini puts the romantic above the political. Madama Butterfly is about one woman’s suffering more than it is about Japanese–American relations; La Bohème focuses on a doomed love affair, not on how hard it was to sell a play during the July Monarchy. That’s partly why the composer endures as a popular favorite: as time goes by, the fundamental things apply, but political winds shift. Puccini’s librettists adapted Victorien Sardou’s French play La Tosca — an international hit for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt — by reducing the original’s five acts and twenty-two characters to three acts and nine characters, scaling back the contextual specificity. Both are still set during the Napoleonic Wars, in June 1800 — the day news of Bonaparte’s major victory at the Battle of Marengo reached Rome. But who cares about nascent Risorgimento or Napoleonic liberalism, right? History, for Puccini, just sets star-cross’d tragedy in motion; it’s flexible, so directors have felt comfortable moving the action up to modern or Mussolini times.


Despite the opera’s popularity with audiences, its critical reputation is more divided. To its detractors, as Anthony Tommasini explains in The New York Times Essential Library Opera, it “seems little more than a manipulative melodrama, with religious pageantry, sadism, torture, an attempted rape, a murder, an execution, and two suicides.” Musicologist Joseph Kerman dismissed it in class terms. “Tosca, that shabby little shocker, is no doubt admired nowadays mostly in the gallery,” he wrote in Opera as Drama (1956), referring to the cheap seats. But musician Alan Mallach writes, in The Autumn of Italian Opera (2007), “Tosca is a brilliant opera. Time after time, Puccini finds exactly the right musical gesture to correspond to and amplify the dramatic events taking place onstage.” (Nonetheless, Mallach prefers Bohème!)
Hit Tunes

Puccini’s popularity depends not just on his romantic plots but on his easily accessible dramatic music, including Tosca’s two legendary arias. In the haunted, mournful “E lucevan le stelle,” Cavaradossi recalls erotic pleasure as he awaits his execution; it sounds as though it would be best howled at midnight. In “Vissi d’arte,” Tosca’s crisis-of-faith moment, she wonders, with to-the-rafters feeling and a teary tune, why God would force her to choose between sex with Scarpia and Cavaradossi’s life after she has lived so honorably. Its opening lines — “I lived for art, I lived for love” — could be a fitting epitaph for any sensitive OPERA NEWS reader.


Operapedia Tosca hdl 415 
Spoiler Alerts

The sanctimonious and lip-lickingly villainous police chief Scarpia promises Tosca that if she lets him have his way with her, he’ll let her lover live. Instead, after securing a guarantee that Cavaradossi’s execution will be faked, she kills Scarpia. But then the firing squad doesn’t fire blanks after all; Cavaradossi dies, and Tosca copes by leaping to her death. Men in opera often struggle to choose between embodiments of female sexuality and chastity, sampling the former before realizing they should’ve settled for the latter — it happens to Carmen’s Don José, and to Tannhäuser. Tosca faces a similar conflict, between Scarpia’s brute sexuality and Cavaradossi’s nobler (if also sexualized) love, but she never indulges raw desire — she rejects Scarpia’s sex outright, even murders to escape it, and still dies. This is what we mean by double standards. 

In Popular Culture

Puccini’s publisher sued Al Jolson and songwriter Vincent Rose in 1921 for allegedly lifting the first ten notes of the clarinet obbligato that introduces “E lucevan le stelle,” transposed into a major key, for the first ten notes of the refrain of the hit song “Avalon.” If that sounds like a stretch, it was! But Jolson and Rose settled anyway — for $25,000 each (about $330,000, adjusted for inflation) and future royalties. That didn’t stop “Avalon” from becoming a jazz standard, repopularized somewhat in 2010 when Martin Scorsese used it in the Boardwalk Empire pilot.


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Surprise Showstopper

If Tosca is at all political, it’s anticlerical. Against the driving chords of the Act I finale, “Tre sbirri, una carrozza,” Scarpia confesses his dishonorable intentions — he’s not trying to catch an escaped prisoner; he’s trying to get into Tosca’s boudoir — in counterpoint to a choral hymn. By setting such grand religious music against such petty humanity, Puccini underscores that the most outwardly pious can also be the most inwardly depraved — presaging The Godfather’s baptism scene by seven decades.

Operapedia Turner lg 415  The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

Legend has it that, once upon a time, a certain diva who sang Tosca was so hated by the stage crew that when she leapt from the battlement she landed on a trampoline — and kept bouncing up into view until the curtain came down. Eva Turner, in the documentary I Live for Art, Tosca, cops to having been the bouncing diva, though her version can’t be confirmed. Even if it’s apocryphal, we still wish we’d seen it happen to someone, somewhere.

Something Completely Different

Some physically unfit or “mature” sopranos have decided not to jump at the end and instead just walk offstage, presumably to leap off some unseen battlement. New Yorkers first saw Tosca not jump in 1889, when Sardou’s play first opened in an English translation; audiences protested the suicide, so subsequent performances had her shot by soldiers — because that’s better? Victorian morality is so impenetrable.

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