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?
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?
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
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.
“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
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.
- 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.