About the Opera

Tosca is a musically powerful thriller with three memorable characters tangled in a web of love, jealousy, spies, murder, politics, religion and sex. It’s a historical drama based on real events in real places that occurred 100 years before the opera was written. In Scarpia, the sadistic police chief, Puccini has given us one of opera’s truly bad guys.

Background: Tosca takes place on a specfic day, June, 14, 1800, when Napoleon’s army defeated Austrian forces in the north of Italy at the battle of Marengo. The characters are fictional but the opera’s three scenes are set in specific sites in Rome.

The famed 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt was the original Tosca. A popular French playwright, Victorien Sardou, wrote the story, “La Tosca,” in 1887 specifically for Bernhardt and she performed it for more than 20 years. Puccini saw Bernhardt in performance, which only increased his interest in turning the play into an opera. It debuted on Jan. 14, 1900 at the Teatro Constanzi in Rome. The composer was 42 years old. It was Puccini’s fifth opera and a smash hit with the public, though a few critics complained about the violence. Unrelenting cold-blooded realism is indeed the opera’s hallmark. The critic Joseph Kernan, no fan of Puccini, famously called Tosca “a shabby little shocker.” A memorable put down, more clever than accurate, which has had zero effect on the opera’s lasting power and appeal to audiences.

Tosca is currently the fifth most produced opera worldwide. Several movie versions of the opera have been made as well as hundreds of recordings. Arguably the best is a 1953 performance recorded at Milan’s La Scala with Maria Callas as Tosca, Giuseppe di Stefano as Mario and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia.

Music: Puccini was the heir to Verdi and the Italian opera tradition, where singers and stand alone arias rule. At the same time, like other late 19th century composers, Puccini couldn’t escape the enormous presence of Richard Wagner, for whom the orchestra was paramount. Tosca shows this dual influence. There are lush, romantic arias combined with Wagnerian leitmotifs, such as the three ominous chords from the orchestra at the opening that signal Scarpia’s evil presence throughout the opera.

Puccini was scrupulous about the authenticity of his music. The plainsong for the Te Deum at the end of Act I reflects an actual Gregorian chant. To capture the mood in Act III, he stood on the roof of the Castel de Sant’Angelo at dawn to hear the St. Peter’s matins bells, signaling the end of the nighttime liturgy. To replicate the exact pitch of this sound, he then had four different foundries cast bells for the orchestra to play. “A folly because it passes completely unnoticed,” grumbled Puccini’s lyricist.

Things to watch for: The soprano Maria Jeritza, Puccini’s favorite Tosca, lost her balance and fell in the second act in a 1914 performance at the Met. Unable to quickly get to her feet, she sang the aria “Vissi d’arte” lying on the floor. Puccini was in the audience, loved the impromptu maneuver, and that’s the way most sopranos have sung the aria ever since.

Stage directors never tamper with what Tosca does immediately after stabbing Scarpia. She puts two lighted candles on the floor next to Scarpia’s head and then places a crucifix on his breast. A stunning demonstration of piety toward her would be attacker.

Tosca’s suicide in the opera’s finale calls for careful staging since the soprano leaps from the castle rooftop, hopefully to be caught by stagehands out of sight below. In one unfortunate production, a trampoline was used, causing Tosca to bounce back into view of the audience, diluting the drama of her death to a considerable degree. Montserrat Cabellé, the impressively large Spanish diva, refused to jump. After viewing Mario’s lifeless body, she would gather herself majestically and trundle slowly offstage, “like Queen Victoria sailing down the Nile on a barge,” in the words of one reviewer.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson