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La Tosca

La Tosca (or simply Tosca) is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Illica and Giacosa. First production, Rome, January 14, 1900, Teatro Costanzi. The text is based on Victorien Sardou's drama which had been produced in Paris in 1887 and seen by Puccini in Milan, in 1887, with Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca. Puccini immediately asked his editor Giulio Ricordi to buy Sardou's rights, but these were finally bought only in 1893 to be given to Alberto Franchetti, another composer. Illica wrote his libretto, and in October 1894, Franchetti, Ricordi, Illica and Giuseppe Verdi met Sardou to present him the libretto. Verdi was particularly fascinated by this tragedy, but he would have never composed music for it unless it had another ending.

After a few months Franchetti finally admitted he was not able to compose music for this work, so Giulio Ricordi asked Puccini to do it. Puccini was still offended and only Verdi's intercession convinced him to accept. He started working on it in 1896, after the completion of Bohème; Ricordi put Giuseppe Giacosa on the side of Luigi Illica for the libretto, but Giacosa did not perform up to his own standards, and had several personal disputes with Sardou. Puccini too had disputes with Illica, Giacosa and Ricordi put together, in order to suppress a triumphal "Latin hymn" they had proposed for Act III, reducing it to only the eighteen measures of Trionfal... di nuova speme.

In October 1899, after three years of difficult cooperation, the opera was ready. Being a Roman story, it was decided that the prima would have been in the eternal town, at Teatro Costanzi. A notable curiosity had surrounded the work, whose preparation had been so long and troubled. Soprano Ericlea Darclée was Tosca, tenor Emilio De Marchi was Cavaradossi, baritone Eugenio Giraldoni was Scarpia. Leopoldo Mugnone served as Director. The Queen Margherita, prime minister Pelloux and many composers, among them Pietro Mascagni, Francesco Cilea, Franchetti and Sgambati, were among the public.

The success was complete, even if the difference between Tosca's and Bohème's atmospheres was quite surprising.

It is very briefly the story of a painter and his lover, a famous singer, who die because they have helped an escaped political prisoner avoid arrest; Tosca attempts to seduce the chief policeman, who tricks her and is killed by her, but has his revenge after his death.

Table of contents
1 Plot
2 A capital "work" in Opera
3 Anecdotes


Scene, Rome.
Time, June 1800.


Angelotti, an escaped political offender, seeks refuge in the
church of Sant'Andrea della Valle where his family has a chapel. Here his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, while praying for his release, has unconsciously served as a model to the painter Mario Cavaradossi for his picture of the Magdalen. Just a moment before a sacristan enters (followed after a while by Cavaradossi), Angelotti conceals himself in his private chapel; the sacristan assists the painter washing his brushes. Cavaradossi stops his work for a moment, regarding a medallion he had in his pocket: this medallion contains a miniature of Tosca and he makes a comparison between her and the model he was portraiting (Recondita armonia).

The sacristan makes a controcanto (Scherza con i fanti e lascia stare i santi - which became a proverb: play with servants but respect saints), then goes away. Cavaradossi is alone when a noise reveals the presence of Angelotti, who comes out at the painter's invitation. Angelotti confesses that he has escaped from Castel Sant'Angelo (papal roman prison) and Cavaradossi gives him some food while Tosca is arriving. Angelotti hides again in his chapel.

Floria Tosca is a singer, beloved by Cavaradossi; she is here to invite her lover Mario to a meeting later in the evening, but having heard voices by the closed door, she jealously imagines an intrigue with a woman, her fears being apparently confirmed by the picture. Appointed the meeting (Tosca: Non la sospiri la nostra casetta – “Our soft nest, hidden amid the trees.”) she departs. (Duet: Quale occhio al mondo – “What eyes are like thine eyes, my queen.”).

Angelotti reappears, and his escape is planned, Cavaradossi gives him the key of his villa, which Angelotti will flee to in woman's dress (that his sister had hidden in the altar). A cannon shot from the fortress (Castel Sant'Angelo) warns that his escape has been discovered and impels him to flee; the painter goes with him.

The sacristan returns surrounded by a laughing crowd of choir boys and acolytes. (Sacristan and chorus: Tutta qui la cantoria! – “Quick! into the sacristy.”) They falsely believe that Napoleon has been defeated and are there to sing a thankful Te Deum, when Scarpia, chief of police, arrives with Spoletta and some of his men in search of the escaped prisoner. In the Attavantis' chapel Spoletta finds the fan of the Marchesa, and the painter's basket emptied of food and wine, which appears suspicious, since Cavaradossi did not have the key to the chapel.

Scarpia suspiciously asks the sacristan about this; when Tosca, also suspicious, returns Scarpia watches her from behind a pillar, while the church fills up and a Cardinal prepares for the Te Deum. Scarpia arouses Tosca's jealousy by producing the fan, and she departs in anger. Ordering his agent to follow her (Tre sbirri, una carrozza...), he passionately avows his love for the singer, then kneels devoutly in prayer. (Scarpia: Va' Tosca, nel tuo cuor s'annida Scarpia; Chorus: Adiutorium nostrum – “Rise to the heavens.”; Scarpia: A doppia mira tendo il voler – “Twofold is the goal I aim at”)


In the Farnese palace (now the embassy of France) where he lives, Scarpia is dining, while popular celebrations are heard outside. He sends a servant to invite Tosca when she finishes with her recital. Cynically he sings of pleasure (Ella verrà per amor del suo Mario and Ha più forte sapore la conquista violenta) presuming she will surrender to his power.

Spoletta, his agent, enters with Cavaradossi in custody, Angelotti having eluded him. Scarpia closely questions the painter without result, and sends him to the torture chamber. Tosca arrives and crosses the painter who is brought in a near room (Scarpia: Ed or fra noi parliam da buoni amici – “Now, let us talk of pure friendship”) Scarpia describes to her in detail her lover’s anguish under torture. She can hear his groans, but is powerless to help him. At last, utterly prostrated, she divulges Angelotti’s hiding-place. The painter is brought out, and in his pain and humiliation denounces Tosca for her betrayal of the secret.

Distant drums announce the probable victory of Bonaparte over Vatican forces. Cavaradossi, exulting (Cavaradossi: “Vittoria!”), is dragged away to prison. Tosca tries to follow him, but Scarpia holds her back. She asks him to free Mario, which is his price (Scarpia: Già, mi dicon venal – “Venal, my enemies call me.”) He avows his passion for her and demands her virtue as the price of her lover’s freedom. During the struggle drums are heard. Tosca repulses Scarpia again and again and asks the Lord the reason of all this cruelty against her (Tosca: Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore – “Love and music have I lived for”; Scarpia: Sei troppo bella, Tosca, e troppo amante – “Too lovely art thou”). Spoletta enters to announce that Angelotti committed suicide just as Scarpia’s agents discovered him in the well at Cavaradossi’s villa.

Tosca finally pretends to yield. Scarpia then orders Spoletta to organise for a mock execution of Cavaradossi, and Tosca also extracts a safe-conduct for herself and the painter to leave the country. She waits until he writes it, then, having secured a knife from the table, stabs him as he advances to embrace her (Questo è il bacio di Tosca). Having piously composed the body for burial, she departs to the sound of drums in the distance (E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma).


Bells announce the beginning of the day while a shepherd sings a stornello in romanesco, the Roman dialect. Cavaradossi in prison at dawn awaits his execution. He bribes a policeman, giving him a ring in return for his promise to take a message to Tosca. Cavaradossi starts writing a farewell letter (E lucevan le stelle – “The heavens blaze with stars.”) and finally cries, musing sadly on Tosca’s beauty and their love.

She enters with Spoletta and a sergeant, bringing the safe-conduct and tells him her news (Tosca: Il tuo sangue o il mio amor volea – “He asked thy life or my love”), explaining the need for a mock execution. He agrees to this and they part happily. (Cavaradossi: O dolci mani mansuete e pure – “O soft hands”; Duet: Senti, l'ora è vicina – “The time is short.”) Mario is overcome by emotion (Cavaradossi: Amaro sol per te m'era il morire; Tosca: Amore che seppe a te vita serbare; final duet: Trionfal... di nova speme).

The soldiers fire; Mario falls. Tosca playfully compliments Mario on his marvellous acting (Chi si duole in terra più?).

But it happens that the execution is real; Scarpia had never intended to spare Cavaradossi, but had given Spoletta orders to execute him. Cavaradossi lies dead. As Tosca realises the truth, Spoletta, who has discovered Scarpia's death, enters with soldiers, denouncing her as a murderess. He comes forward to take Tosca prisoner, but she forcibly thrusts him back, and leaping from the castle parapet is dashed to pieces.

References and external links: Plot taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.
Revised with regard to Casa Ricordi's libretto and notes.

A capital "work" in Opera

Tosca is generally considered of capital importance in the history of opera because of its many highpoints.

It begins with a tragic atmosphere much more darker than those that Puccini had got his public used to, but the composer is able to insert a basso buffo (the sacristan - Puccini was always very careful with minor characters) that gradually introduces to the sweet Recondita armonia (which requires vocal intensity and extension, together with a deep interpretation), that is enriched by a famous paradigmatic controcanto.

Angelotti is again on the scene and music is hollow again. But Tosca is quite soon introduced by the lighter duet that begins with the sensual Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, while the orchestra turns to a timbre very near to elements of so-called French impressionist music.

Once again Angelotti is back, once again Puccini brings back a tragic atmosphere, of similar depth as in first scenes; Angelotti is clearly the musical key of the tragedy, much more than Scarpia.

A nearly comic intermezzo regards the sacristan, with choir, before Scarpia arrives. The orchestra is now deep and obscure again, but with energy and power this time, personifying the character of Scarpia the tyrant, the investigator, the judge. Every accent and word of Scarpia are underscored by Puccini to depict a character with a depth of evil that finds comparison perhaps only in Verdi's Otello and Falstaff.

Cavaradossi's questioning is in the style of "conversable", and ends with a notable external voice of Tosca singing a Paisiello cantata, a recalling of baroque as well as a realistic addition, as the story is set in June 1800.

Another time of stile di conversazione is suddenly broken with the Cavaradossi's intermezzo (Vittoria, vittoria), which was attentively awaited by loggionisti (spectators of the higher seat in the theatre, "loggione", the most technical ones) in order to test tenor's high notes.

The following episode is violently and nervously rendered by orchestra, and will end in the most famous melodic Vissi d'arte, which requires the singer to show most of her capabilities: here loggionisti will test soprano's legato, high notes, consistency of central region, energy and fraseggio.

Act III begins with a memorable Roman symphonic harmony and ends in clamours, having passed through the outstanding E lucevan le stelle.


Many anecdotes made this opera even more famous and enjoyable, if possible.

The tale of the bouncing Tosca: Tosca jumps, as usual, from the walls of Castel Sant'Angelo. But the stage workers had improved her safety by replacing the mattress with a trampoline: and so Tosca appeared two or three times from behind the wall

The tale of the collective suicide: the stage director gave last-minute instruction to the supers hired as soldiers, who had had no stage rehearsal, and he gave them a standard instruction "exit with the principals". When Tosca leapt from the parapet, seeing no other principals left on stage, they all dutifully jumped after her, giving a Shakespearean greatness to the final tragedy.

(Source for anecdotes: Casa Ricordi - freely translated and adapted)

Gobbi also paid tribute to the ferocity of Callas’ acting in this role, noting that he was often afraid during their performances that she really would kill him in Act II.