Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca
Premiere: Teatro Costanzi (now the Teatro dell’Opera), Rome, 1900
Puccini’s melodrama about a volatile diva, a sadistic police chief, and an idealistic artist has offended and thrilled audiences for more than a century. Critics, for their part, have often had problems with Tosca’s rather grungy subject matter, the directness and intensity of its score, and the crowd-pleasing dramatic opportunities it provides for its lead roles. But these same aspects have made Tosca one of a handful of iconic works that seem to represent opera in the public imagination. Tosca’s popularity is further secured by a superb and exhilarating dramatic sweep, a driving score of abundant melody and theatrical shrewdness, and a career-defining title role.
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) was immensely popular in his own lifetime, and his mature works remain staples in the repertory of most of the world’s opera companies. His operas are celebrated for their mastery of detail, sensitivity to everyday subjects, copious melody, and economy of expression. Puccini’s librettists for Tosca, Giuseppe Giacosa (1847–1906) and Luigi Illica (1857–1919), also collaborated with him on his two other most enduringly successful operas, La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. Giacosa, a dramatist, was responsible for the stories and Illica, a poet, worked primarily on the words themselves. Giacosa found the whole subject of Tosca highly distasteful, but his enthusiastic collaborators managed to sway him to work on the project. The opera is based on La Tosca by Victorien Sardou (1831–1908), a popular dramatist of his time who wrote the play specifically for the talents of the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
No opera is more tied to its setting than Tosca: Rome, the morning of June 17, 1800, through dawn the following day. The specified settings for each of the three acts—the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo—are familiar monuments in the city and can still be visited today. While the libretto takes some liberties with the facts, historical issues form a basis for the opera: the people of Rome are awaiting news of the Battle of Marengo in Northern Italy, which will decide the fate of their symbolically powerful city.
The score of Tosca (if not the drama) itself is considered a prime example of the style of verismo, an elusive term usually translated as “realism.” The typical musical features of the verismo tradition are prominent in Tosca: short arias with an uninhibited flood of raw melody, including the tenor’s Act I soliloquy shortly after the curtain rises and his unforgettable “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were shining”) in Act III; ambient sounds that blur the distinctions between life and art (the cantata heard through the window in Act II, the passing shepherd’s song, and the extraordinary tolling of morning church bells as dawn breaks to open Act III); and the use of parlato—words spoken instead of sung—at moments of tension (Tosca’s snarling “Quanto? Il prezzo!” in Act II as she asks the price she must pay for her lover’s life). The opera’s famous soprano aria, “Vissi d’arte” in
Act II, in which Tosca sings of living her life for love and her art, also provides ample opportunity for intense dramatic interpretation. One of Tosca’s most memorable scenes is the Te Deum, in which the baritone’s debased inner thoughts are explored against a monumental religious procession scored for triple chorus and augmented orchestra including bells, organ, and two cannons.
Tosca at the Met
A year after its world premiere in Rome, Tosca premiered at the Met with an all-star cast that included the great baritone Antonio Scotti as the evil Baron Scarpia. Scotti would go on to sing Scarpia 217 times at the Met, a house record for an artist in a lead role. Among his principal Toscas were Emma Eames, Geraldine Farrar, Olive Fremstad, Emmy Destinn, Claudia Muzio, and Maria Jeritza. Farrar headlined a new production in 1917, which, incredibly, was in use for half a century. Renata Tebaldi, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting, headlined a “revised” production in 1958, and in 1968 a new one directed by Otto Schenk starred Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, and Gabriel Bacquier. Maria Callas brought her legendary portrayal of Tosca to the Met for six performances, two each in 1956, 1958, and 1965. A production by Franco Zeffirelli premiered in 1985 starring Hildegard Behrens, Plácido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting. Luc Bondy’s current production opened the Met’s 2009–10 season with Karita Mattila in the title role, Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi, and James Levine conducting the opera of his 1971 Met debut.