When in Rome

During the Met’s 2017–18 season, Sonya Yoncheva, one of opera’s most exciting artists, took on the riveting title role of Puccini’s Tosca for the first time in her career. In his new production of the classic melodrama, Sir David McVicar transports audiences to the gritty, glittering, and gripping world of Rome in 1800. By Christopher Browner

As is true for many masterpieces of the operatic repertoire, the story of Tosca, based on an 1887 play by French dramatist Victorien Sardou, sets the rather intimate, private struggles of its main characters against a sweeping backdrop of political conflict—in this case, Rome in 1800, a place of warring empires, radical ideologies, and the inescapable influence of the Catholic Church. And while Puccini and his librettists—Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica—were very specific about the dates and times of the opera’s three acts, they favored dramatic emphasis over factual accuracy.

Tosca is a very interesting piece because it’s history, but it also isn’t history,” comments Sir David McVicar, director of the Met’s production. “Certainly there are historical events that drive the plot of Tosca—principally the false news of the victory of the Allied Forces against Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo—but other details are pure fantasy.” The libretto teems with historical inaccuracies: from small details like the lack of a full moon on the night of June 17, 1800, contrary to Tosca’s musings in Act I, to the far more important fact that the Papacy had yet to return to the city after a two-year-long exile. In other places, though, the composer strives for total realism, as in the opening of Act III, which faithfully recreates the tones of the various bells chiming in churches across Rome. Throughout, Puccini conjures his own reality, one that melds historical truth with theatrical invention in order to heighten the drama at every turn.

“It was a very complex period, and the city was constantly going from regime to regime,” notes McVicar, “and when that happens, unrest and turmoil are inevitable, and people pay the price.” Into these chaotic circumstances, Puccini thrust characters who embody the dominant ideals of the age. The painter Mario Cavaradossi became the personification of Enlightenment thought—a highly educated artist who, despite his family’s noble Italian roots, believes fervently in the liberal values of the recent French Revolution. Baron Scarpia, the malevolent chief of police who employs brutal tactics to ensnare both criminals and sexual conquests, represents the opposite extreme.

image073alq.pngCostume designs by John Macfarlane

But with the demanding title role, the composer instead offers a flawed yet sympathetic figure with qualities from both sides of this dichotomy. A foundling raised in a Veronese convent, Floria Tosca is an opera singer in a city where, only a decade earlier, the stages were dominated (by law as much as by popular taste) by men, especially castrati, alone. She represents both the progressive sensibilities of a performer and the deep superstitions of ancient religion. Above all, she lives passionately, experiencing every emotion—jealousy, love, horror, the lust for vengeance—to its fullest. It is a role that requires a soprano who can combine vocal intensity, theatrical instinct, and fearless commitment.

Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva—who, after a last-minute debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 2013, quickly tackled several of opera’s greatest leading ladies on the Met stage—headlined the production’s New Year’s Eve premiere. Emmanuel Villaume led the mighty Met Orchestra and Chorus in one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the season.


Despite its formidable trio of principal characters, Tosca’s greatest character is arguably the city of Rome itself. Each of the opera’s three acts plays out in a historical Roman site, and each represents one of the city’s centers of power—religion, politics, and the military. As with many of the details in Tosca, however, when Puccini translated these settings to the operatic stage, he did so with a focus on drama rather than documentary.

The brazen, thunderous chords of Tosca’s first measures are “one of the most wonderful openings of any opera ever written,” McVicar says. “They raise an expectation, even to a newcomer who’s never seen Tosca, that there’s a certain grandeur that needs to be onstage. We certainly hope we’re going to supply that—and not in an empty, cosmetic way, but in a way which we feel is intrinsic to getting the character of this piece right.” The director notes that set and costume designer John Macfarlane’s talent as a painter shows through, as well. “There’s a romanticism in this production. There’s a painterly quality to all of these sets, which is luscious, has grandeur, has depth, has a powerful emotion in what the audience sees.”

The grandest of the three settings is, undoubtedly, the first: the opulent Baroque Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. Constructed between 1591 and 1665, the church stands on the site of the ancient Roman Theater of Pompey and boasts, in addition to one of the largest domes in the city, an interior adorned with vivid frescoes and dripping with gilded ornaments. It also contains eight private chapels associated with many of the then-prominent Roman families; however, none of them perfectly matches the description given in the libretto for Angelotti’s clandestine refuge. “There is actually no angle that you can stand in Sant’Andrea which gives you every location you need to tell the story of Act I,” McVicar explains, “You have to bend the facts. You have to do an artistic treatment of it. We haven’t quoted that church literally, but we’ve quoted it figuratively.”

Likewise, fact gives way to fiction with Puccini’s setting for the opera’s tense second act. In the summer of 1800, the actual chief of police had his headquarters in Rome’s Palazzo Madama. While a perfectly lovely edifice, that building did not seem to supply the political weight that Puccini required. Instead, the composer gives Scarpia offices in the nearby Palazzo Farnese—at the time, the seat of power for the Bourbon kings of Naples and the grandest of all the Renaissance palaces in Rome. In his chambers in the Palazzo Farnese, observing a royal celebration in the courtyard below, Scarpia sits, both literally and symbolically, above all of Rome.

The libretto, however, never specifies which of the Palazzo Farnese’s many opulent rooms Scarpia uses as his office. “We liked the scale of the Sala d’Ercole,” says McVicar, “but we just felt there was a fresco missing, so we’ve added a very powerful painting inspired by Tiepolo’s Rape of the Sabine Women across one wall. It isn’t there in actual fact, but so much of Tosca isn’t there in actual fact.”


Even in Act III, set on the Angel Terrace of the towering Castel Sant’Angelo—the set which McVicar describes as the most realistically accurate of the production’s three—Puccini elevates the drama beyond what would have been physically possible. Considering the castle’s many levels and outcroppings, McVicar notes, “It’s actually quite hard to find a spot on that platform to kill yourself from. Jumping from the ramparts doesn’t drop you into the Tiber. You don’t drop into the street. If you’re lucky, you can drop into a courtyard.” Depending on where she took her infamous leap, Tosca may have only ended up with a sprained ankle before being hauled off for Scarpia’s murder.

Nonetheless, the imagery of this great, martial fortress, with St. Peter’s Basilica and the might of the Papacy to the West and the monuments of ancient Roman glory across the Tiber, outweighs any historical inconsistencies. Rather, it gives Tosca—and the audience—a final, spectacular view of the Eternal City. A city that stands at the crossroads of old and new, and whose competing powers ultimately dwarf the private dramas of its residents—even those of a grand diva, a revolutionary artist, and a sinister chief of police.


Christopher Browner is the Met’s Associate Editor.