Ten Things You Didn't Know about Tosca
by Susan Vandiver Nicassio
author of Tosca's Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective
Puccini's Tosca, one of the most popular operas in the repertoire ever since its January 14, 1900 premiere, is a violent drama based on Victorien Sardou's hit play La Tosca, which was written as a star vehicle for the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt. In the translation from play to opera, the action was tightened, the characters were "Italianized," and most of the political motivation was cut. The action of the play and the opera takes place in Rome between noon of June 17, 1800 and dawn the following day, during which time all of the major characters die violent deaths.
Synopsis of the action: As Act I begins in the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, an escaped political prisoner, Cesare Angelotti, takes refuge in a secret hiding place in the family chapel of his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti. When the painter Mario Cavaradossi arrives to work on his mural, Angelotti recognizes him as a fellow revolutionary sympathizer and asks for his help. Cavaradossi enthusiastically agrees, but conceals his involvement from his lover, the jealous opera star Floria Tosca. As a result, the sinister Baron Scarpia, Chief of Roman Police, finds it easy to arouse Tosca's suspicions of an affair between Cavaradossi and the Marchesa. When Tosca goes to find her supposedly unfaithful lover, the police follow her to Cavaradossi's country villa. Cavaradossi tells her the truth, and hurries her away before the police arrive; they arrest the painter, but are unable to find Angelotti, who is hidden in the well in the garden.
Act II is set in the apartments of the Baron Scarpia at the Farnese Palace. Cavaradossi refuses to talk, and is tortured, while the frantic Tosca tries to save him. She breaks down and betrays Angelotti's hiding place. News arrives that Bonaparte and the revolutionary armies, thought defeated, have in fact won the battle at Marengo. Cavaradossi is overjoyed, but is dragged away for execution, leaving Tosca alone with the Baron. Scarpia offers to arrange a mock execution if Tosca will agree to satisfy his lust; she agrees, but instead stabs him to death.
In Act III, Cavaradossi prepares for death at the Castel Sant'Angelo. Tosca arrives and tells him that they will soon be free, but the firing squad is all too real. Tosca has only a moment of grief before the police arrive: they have found Scarpia's corpse. Evading their grasp, Tosca flings herself from the parapet of the fortressto her death.
1. The first English-language production of the play La Tosca opened in New York in 1889 and starred American actor-manager Fanny Davenport in the title role. Although Bernhardt performed the play (in French) successfully throughout America for decades, the English version created a storm of protest. Respectable women walked out on what were described as "scenes that could not be elaborated without constant fear of police intervention." Tosca's suicide was the last straw for New Yorkers, and after the first performances the end of the play was changed: instead of leaping to her death, she was shot by the soldiers! In fact, Puccini's librettists also disliked the suicide, and an alternate ending for the opera was (briefly) considered: rather than leap, Tosca would go mad, collapse, and die on the body of her lover (presumably of Sudden Operatic Death Syndrome).
2. Although Floria Tosca is supposed to be a beloved Roman opera star, in reality it had been illegal for women to appear on the operatic stage in the papal capital from the seventeenth century until 1798about three years before Tosca is set. Roles written for women singers, and performed by them in other parts of Italy, were taken in Rome by castratos (male sopranos and altos surgically altered before adolescence so that their voices did not break). Star castratos like Marchesi and Velluti were wildly popular with the Roman opera-going public. Moralistic revolutionaries banned the castratos when the Roman Republic took over in 1798. After the fall of the Republic in 1799, the castratos returned, but the women stayed, thus allowing singers like Floria Tosca to make their Rome debuts.
3. Although Tosca is the most famous of all "Roman" operas, none of the three major characters is Roman. For his play La Tosca, Sardou, who was careful about historical details (though often wildly inaccurate about other things), made his heroine a Venetian subject, an orphan from the city of Verona. He had a dreadful time finding a last name for her, and the one he settled on, "Tosca," is in fact a given namethere is a church of Saint Tosca in Verona. Another factor in the French playwright's choice of a name might have been the title of an opera that was popular during the French Revolution: La LodoÅska, set to music by Cherubini and others, and performed in Rome under the Roman Republic of 1798-99. The eponymous heroine's name, Lodoïska, when pronounced in French, sounds very much like "La Tosca."
4. Sardou's hero, Mario Cavaradossi, is not even Italian by birth: he is supposed to have been born in Paris, and is visiting Rome for the first time in 1800. His father was a Roman of noble birth who left Italy as a young man and married a granddaughter of the Swiss-French philosophe, Helvetius. Sardou, who took a great deal of trouble over the names of his characters, seems to have decided on this five-syllable name partly because it sounds rather like that of the famous painter Caravaggio; partly because it recalls Caracciolo, a Neapolitan admiral executed in 1798 for his pro-French activities; and perhaps because it is very like a noble Genoese name, Caravadossi, one of whose members was active in the Italian wars of independence in the mid-nineteenth century.
5. A 1999 production of Puccini's Tosca at the Opéra Bastille in Paris changed the character of Scarpiain Sardou's play a Sicilian police officialinto a Cardinal. The dramatic staging showed him putting on his vestments for the Te Deum while singing his first-act aria. It is a shocking idea, and historically absurdRome was not ruled by the Church in June of 1800but the characterization is in fact consonant with the bitter anti-clericalism that was typical of much of the popular theater at the time when Sardou, and later Puccini, were writing.
6. There actually is a "hiding place" in one of the chapels at Sant'Andrea della Valle. The first chapel on the left from the main entrance, the Barberini chapel, conceals in the street wall a shallow little chamber separated from the chapel proper by an ironwork grill. This is a shrine to Saint Sebastian, marking the spot where a pious Christian woman named Lucina found the entrance to the city's sewers that led her to the body of the martyr Sebastian, later buried outside the city walls in the catacomb that bears his name. It is no doubt a coincidence that the only image of the Magdalene in the church is in this Barberini chapel. It is a statue rather than a painting (like Cavaradossi's) but she is a typical Magdalene, beautiful, penitent, and half-naked with her breasts covered only by her hair and by a strategically placed cross.
7. During the time at which Tosca is set, the real city of Rome was occupied by an Allied force of Neapolitans, Austrians, Russians, Turks, and English, all at war with Republican France. Although stage directors today often insert cowled clerics into scenes in the opera that feature police oppression, at the time when the opera is set, there was actually no ecclesiastical government in Rome. The elderly Pope (Pius VI) had been exiled from Rome in February 1798, dragged across Europe for a year and a half, and died in Valance, France on 29 August 1799. Although a treaty had been arranged whereby the newly elected Pope, Pius VII, would arrive to take over his city in early July 1800, in June the Neapolitans were still trying their best to keep control of Rome.
8. The character of Cesare Angelotti was based in part upon a sleazy Roman politician named Liborio Angelucci who, like Angelotti, was a "Consul of the late Roman Republic." Angelucci, a physician and sometime obstetrician, was typical of the Republicans in late eighteenth-century Rome, most of whom were middle-class professionals, or the sons of nobles, or intellectual and idealistic churchmen. He had an excellent reputation as a medical man and as a scholar (he was editor of the first Roman edition of Dante's Divine Comedy), but he was in political hot water almost constantly after 1792. In 1794 he was arrested for taking part in a conspiracy against the papal government and was held for a while in the Castel Sant'Angelo; in 1797 he was in trouble again, this time accused of plotting to murder the Pope. When the French took Rome, Angelucci became one of the consuls (executives) of the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, he seems to have been primarily interested in enriching himself and his family. He was attacked in the Republican press as a thief and a false patriot and forced to resign. He fled Rome with the French armies in 1799 and did not return to Rome until 1809despite his offer to act as a spy for the new pope after 1800!
9. Puccini's sense of humor was often of the schoolboy variety, and he found risqué musical puns irresistible. In Act II of the opera, after Spoletta has assured Scarpia that "everything is ready" for the execution of Cavaradossi, the Chief of Police turns to Tosca and softly asks, "Ebbene?""Well?" She says nothing, and the score tells us that she indicates her submission by nodding her head. But at her silent reply the orchestra, anticipating the two-note theme of the "execution" motif, plays the two-note phrase, A and C, or in Italian solfeggio, La and Do. The syllables, in addition to being musical symbols, also happen to be words in Italian: the words "La do" mean "I'm giving it," and it is the usual way for women to say, I'm ready to give "it" (to you).
10. The news of Bonaparte's surprise victory over the Allies really did reach Rome in much the way that we see it in the opera. By mid-day on Tuesday, June 17, the Roman diarist Galimberti noted with satisfaction that "the French are beaten by General Melas, who has re-taken Milan." Galimberti reports that the Jacobins (that is, Roman Republicans like Cavaradossi) "laughed and behaved insolently on hearing this news." However, late that night he added a coda to his diary entry: "The official notices about Austrian victories over the French in Italy. . .have been amended." A second courier had arrived in the city late on the night of June 17-18 with news of Bonaparte's surprising victory. Men like Cavaradossi went wild: "[They] gathered in the fields around the Castel Sant'Angiolo [sic], dancing the Carmagnole [a revolutionary ditty], playing and singing. They got nearer and nearer the fortress; a sentry on the walls challenged them but they just kept singing, so he fired on them and they moved away."