Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

Loving Tosca

by Suzanne Martinucci

One of the many things we opera fans love about the art form is its infinite variety. Some operas, for example, offer soul-cleansing catharsis. Others evoke in us feelings of pity, outrage, or empathy. Some seek to ennoble; others to amuse, often invoking outright laughter.

Then there is Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. A melodramatic roller-coaster ride, Tosca is about as sure-fire as they come, a fast-paced thriller that simultaneously ravishes our ears with beautiful, expansive melodies. It’s a great “starter” opera, as the plot is easily discernible regardless of the viewer’s language skills, the music is memorable, and no single act lasts longer than some 45 minutes. It has proven nearly irresistible to performers, too: Scores of sopranos, tenors, and baritones with the requisite vocal and acting chops eagerly seek out Floria Tosca, Mario Cavaradossi, and Baron Scarpia.

By the time Puccini got around to composing Tosca, his fifth opera, his standing among Italy’s “up and comers” was considerably on the rise. He’d just composed two successful operas in a row (Manon Lescaut and La Bohème), and the cognoscenti on the Italian musical scene were watching. Always on the lookout for new subjects, Puccini attended a performance of La Tosca (1887), by the French playwright Victorien Sardou. The play starred the mesmerizing Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, and Puccini was especially struck by the extended wordless scene Bernhardt performed when, after the murder of the villainous Scarpia, Tosca places a crucifix on the dead man’s chest and candlesticks on either side of his body. Puccini wrote to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, “I see in this Tosca the opera I need, with no overblown proportions, no elaborate spectacle; nor will it call for the usual excessive amount of music.”

Excessive verbiage, however, was a problem with Sardou’s drama, which contained 23 characters and sprawled across five acts. In crafting their libretto, Puccini and his collaborators, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, cut two whole acts and much of Sardou’s carefully thought-out background material. In the opinion of the opera’s most severe critics, a great deal of logic was lost as well, but what remains outlines a clear, swift-moving plot, dramatic action ranging from the lurid to the lyrical, and three vividly delineated principal characters.

As extravagant as Sardou’s drama was, Puccini’s score is a masterpiece of musical economy, atmospheric orchestration, and deft theatrical pacing. Maurice Ravel was a particularly passionate admirer. Manuel Rosenthal, Ravel’s last student, once made the mistake of disparaging Puccini during a session. Ravel “flew into a towering rage,” Rosenthal related. “He then sat down at the piano and played me almost the whole of Tosca by memory,” stopping time and again to point out particularly original harmonic passages. Ravel went on to extol Puccini’s orchestration, declaring that it bore “the mark of a great artist.”

In his quest for dramatic truth, Puccini went through great pains to incorporate authentic ambient sounds in his opera. He traveled to Rome in order to notate the exact pitches and timings of the bells at St. Peter’s Basilica and other nearby churches so that he could work them into his atmospheric opening to Act III. He consulted a priest friend in crafting the Latin prayers and procession order for the Te Deum in Act I, and made sure the shepherd’s song in Act III was in the correct Roman dialect.

On one hand, Tosca is opera on a grand scale—famously set in the Eternal City at three actual locations. However, its impressive “big” moments (Scarpia’s Act I entrance, the Te Deum finale of Act I, the interrogation/torture scenes of Act II) are cannily and effectively balanced against intimate, romantic moments between the lovers. Take the duet in Act I, perhaps Tosca and Cavaradossi’s happiest moment together. Listen to how Cavaradossi calms his beloved’s jealousy, wooing her in the long, caressing phrases of “Qual occhio al mondo può star di paro” (“What eyes in the world can compare”).

How can Tosca resist? Listening to passages like this, it’s understandable how writer Burton Fisher came up with the term pornophony to describe Puccini’s love music.

Another aria, Mario’s last-act “E lucevan le stelle,” is now a staple of the tenor repertoire, but Puccini had to fight to keep it in his opera. Illica had scripted a high-minded farewell to life and art for the doomed man to sing while awaiting execution—much as he had done in a similar situation for Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896). Puccini, however, knew that his man’s thoughts, in his final hours, would turn instead to the woman he loved. In this instance, as in so many others, Puccini was right.

The high-tension events of Tosca are perhaps unlikely to arouse the same sympathy as the sorrows of Mimì or Madame Butterfly do, but there’s no denying the rush that a good performance of Tosca can provide. As Puccini enthusiast Spike Hughes put it, “Tosca, with all of its faults and its lack of genuine human qualities to touch the heart, is first-rate theater; and as such, Puccini was perhaps the ideal composer to have set it to music.”

Suzanne Martinucci is a New York-based writer and lecturer on opera. She is a regular panelist on the Metropolitan Opera Quiz during the Toll Brothers Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts.