Opera Australia Blog

Cheat Sheet: Tosca

Everything you need to know about Puccini’s blood-soaked, lustful melodrama Tosca.

Who was the composer?


Giacomo Puccini. Born in Tuscany in 1858, Puccini is an Italian composer who took Verdi’s crown as the most prominent composer of Italian opera in his day. Renowned for his love affairs, Puccini left a trail of broken hearts across Italy, but also left us music-lovers 10 beautiful operas, three of which are regularly in the top 10 of operas performed around the world.

What makes Puccini Puccini?

Puccini’s music is sweeping, uplifting, enchanting and always intensely moving. His real genius, however, was to combine that music with stories about ordinary people.

The composer himself once said his success was due to putting “great sorrows in little souls”.

What happens in the story?

In a beautiful church, the painter Cavaradossi is working. When an escaped prisoner bursts in, Cavaradossi risks his own life to help Angelotti hide from the Fascist police. But Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca, overhears him talking and becomes jealous. In spite of Cavaradossi’s ardent assurances of love, it is easy for the chief of police, Scarpia to fan the flames of her jealousy. He wants Tosca for himself.

Scarpia arrests Cavaradossi on suspicion of aiding Angelotti, and as he is tortured, Tosca is made to listen to his cries. She has a fateful choice before her: give into the hateful Scarpia’s lascivious demands and save her lover’s life, or save her honour and kill Cavaradossi. In that terrible moment, Tosca makes a choice, and the consequences play out in a heart-rending Act III.

Who are the main characters?

Alexia Voulgaridou as Tosca and John Wegner as Scarpia in Opera Australia's 'Tosca'. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Alexia Voulgaridou as Tosca and John Wegner as Scarpia in Opera Australia’s ‘Tosca’. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Floria Tosca – a singer (soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi – a painter, Tosca’s lover (tenor)
Baron Scarpia – Rome’s Chief of Police and the villain of the opera (baritone)

What’s the big hit?


Vissi d’arte

Although Puccini ended up resenting this stunning aria, because he believed it slowed down the fast-moving plot, it has become an audience favourite and a star-making showpiece for the sopranos that conquer its notes.

E lucevan le stelle

Act III brings us a beautiful moment of light as Cavaradossi, sentenced to death, reflects on happier times, in a tenor aria guaranteed to bring the crowd to its feet.

Something to listen out for

Cover of the libretto of Tosca, created by Alfredo Montalti and dating from 1899. Public Domain.

Each character has its own theme, or leitmotif. Scarpia’s is the easiest to listen out for – it opens the work and repeats several times. The ‘tetrachord’ is four long, threatening notes: dissonant, slow, loud and rough, it conveys both his evil and his power. Listen out for how it changes as [spoiler] he lies dying in Act II.

Want more? Watch our Associate Music Director, Anthony Legge unpack the music in this video:

This production is … ?

… the work of legendary Australian actor and director John Bell. This production cuts right to the heart of Puccini’s thriller. Bell sought to recapture the shock that audiences must have felt at its premiere, so he has relocated it to a setting we all recognise: Fascist Italy in 1943, under German rule. He wanted the audience to recognise the everyday banality of evil, he said.

John Wegner as Scarpia and Yonghoon Lee as Cavaradossi in Opera Australia's 2013 production of Tosca. Photo by Prudence Upton.

John Wegner as Scarpia and Yonghoon Lee as Cavaradossi in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of Tosca. Photo by Prudence Upton.

“A tyrannical regime, resistance fighters hunted down, women forced to give sexual favours in order to protect a loved one,” Bell explains,  “these things are still happening, and always have been, during war.”

Michael Scott-Mitchell designed the breathtaking set, a faithful reproduction of the spectacular Sant’Andrea della Valle church in which Puccini set his opera.

You can read more about Bell’s vision for the work in this interview.

A little history

An 1899 illustration of Tosca by Adolfo Hohenstein, taken from the first piano score. Public Domain.

Puccini based this opera on Sardou’s play La Tosca, a play written to showcase the talents of Sarah Bernhardt. Puccini was desperate to secure the rights, writing to his publisher/agent Ricordi: “In this Tosca I see the opera that suits me perfectly, with no overblown proportions, not envisaged as a decorative spectacle and not requiring the usual superabundance of music.” It was a competitive process, with publishers, librettists and Sardou himself getting into conflict over whether he could make an opera out of the play.

In the end, Puccini got the rights, and work began. The composer insisted upon a Roman premiere as a reflection of the opera’s setting, but the opening night was delayed a few times and eventually put on watch for fear it might attract anarchist bombings. In spite of this, the Prime Minister of Italy along with other composers and even local royalty attended.

It was a box office success from the get-go, although critics were slower to come on board, calling it vulgar, licentious and ‘three hours of noise’. They were clearly mistaken – today, Tosca is one of the world’s most popular operas.

Conversation starters

  • The love duet between Tosca and Cavaradossi is so evocative that maestro Burton Fisher once described it as a kind of ‘pornophony’
  • Playwright Sardou was so determined to keep his hand on the developing opera that he managed to get his own name listed ahead of the librettists Illica and Giacosa in the first edition
  • Puccini set each act of his opera in three very specific locations, all of which you can still visit today: the Sant’Andrea della Valle church in Rome, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’ Angelo over the River Tiber. More on the buildings here.
  • More fun facts, including a risque musical pun.

9 Responses to “Cheat Sheet: Tosca”

  1. Lou Speziale

    I would love to see this opera, but I will not be attending.

    I do not enjoy seeing opera removed from their original settings, in my opinion it often makes a mockery of the composer’s work. I have seen live productions of Rigoletto and Tosca , and a filmed version of Il Trovatore plus excerpts of several others and disliked all of them. I would rather stay at home and bring out one of my many complete recordings and enjoy the music without your ridiculous “reproductions”.

    When you produce operas as the composer intended, you will get be back.

    • Bill Harley

      I cannot agree with you. This was the best performance I have seen of any opera, with performers, sets and costumes that blew me away. The underlying message was spine chilling but this is what John Bell was trying to portray. I was speechless at the end. I’m seeing it again next Friday.

  2. linda

    I completely agree with Lou. We will be in Sydney only one night, coming from the US, and it is such a great disappointment that this director is so bored or egotistical that he has taken it upon himself to change something that has been loved for so many years. I will keep my money until the next trip to Sydney, and hope Mr Bell is not in charge then.

    • Bill Harley

      I cannot agree with you. This was the best performance I have seen of any opera, with performers, sets and costumes that blew me away. The underlying message was spine chilling but this is what John Bell was trying to portray. I was speechless at the end. I’m seeing it again next Friday.


    I am sorry the people who made the comments above did not see the excellent production. I am going to see it again tomorrow. John Bell is an extraordinary director and perhaps overseas patrons are not aware of that.

  4. Marianne

    Having just sat through “Tosca” this afternoon (in an Opera Theatre emptier than I have ever seen it in over 40 years of opera-going) I totally agree with Lou’s comments: LEAVE AN OPERA IN ITS ORIGINAL SETTING. The music today was truly magnificent – but the production was abysmal (and I wonder what our overseas stars think of the way Australia’s mind works when asked to participate in such an offensive production.)

    • Chris

      I too only had one chance to see an Opera in three ywars. I have been living in China for over 5 years and when I visit my family in Australia I always try to catch an opera as there is no chance to get this kind of thing in the North East of China. One of the problems I have is that there is usually a short list of the more popular operas which are mounted each year so one gets a little jaded of seeing the same thing. I guess it is because of the small market the opera appeals to in Australia so the management have to stick to safe bets for their money.
      The fact that the operas on this short list have endured so long is testament to the fact of their universal and timeless appeal… of the music, the story, the characters, the relevance of the issues involved to any generation of audience and the passion behind it all.
      I attended the performance on Wednesday 4th of February, I had no idea what to expect and was blown away by the confronting images of Nazis giving a hail salute in a church. It sent shivers down my spine. Which was exactly the impact Mr Bell was aiming for. And it is my understanding was the impact the original creators intended.
      I saw the detail of Mr Bell’s direction through the performances of the actors and I realized that Mr Bell had made this opera extremely accessible by today’s generation as I was struck by the notion that I was watching a live movie rather than an esoteric operatic performance.
      Scarrione was made all the more sinister by associating him with Nazis
      The Orchestra was superb under the baton of the extremely energetic Andrea Battistoni who seemed to be channeling Puccini in the passion with which he conducted and the energy that flowed out from him into the musicians and performers.
      The music was lush and seamless, so much so it sounded like a score of a movie it fitted the action and characterizations so well.
      The only negative point which is maybe a personal preference was the over use of vibrato in the singing style of the performers. I am not an expert but I have noticed there seems to be singers who produces a clear note and use vibrato sparingly just to sweeten the sound. And others that have continuous vibrato, Which has the same effect in my ear of a distortion pedal on a guitar. For me this muddies the note. So when singers sing in duet or chorus the effect is a muddied distorted noise. However the soloists certainly threw their heart into their arias! and brought tears to my eyes.
      IN response to the previous comments, I understand their reservations in that reimagining an opera is a risky venture in that they could get it wrong. But Mr. Bell is a veteran at directing drama and they should have trusted in his expertise and given the opera a try.
      I also saw ‘Sweet Charity’ which had also been reimagined and made more contemporary with disastrous results. In their attempt to bring the music up to date we ended up with a raucous mess where the melody of the various songs was trashed in the interests of emphaising the coarseness of the subject matter of call girls (I assume), most of the time the band drowned out the singers who were top notch. The other show I tried was dirty dancing at the lyric which was performed so mechanically and in quick short sharp scenes as they raced to the finale with the main song and dance that everyone was waiting for. ….Apparently.
      I saw the opera on my last night in Australia and was so glad I did. I was swept away by the performers and the music and my faith in Australian theater was restored.

    • JaCkie Townley

      Was it the same production with the state of the Virgin Mary. I went to that in melbourne with my mother and was horrified. I am with you. It’s great for a reason and Tosca is soooooo beautiful


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