The online operaguide and Synopsis to TOSCA
Love, death and terror. Everything is in this opera. Puccini created three great role portraits which, with gripping duets and famous arias, made “Tosca” one of the most frequently performed operas.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Te Deum
Roles and Synopsis
Giuseppe Giacosa und Luigi Illica, basierend auf Victore Sardous La Tosca
The main roles
Floria Tosca, famous actress (Soprano) - Cavaradossi, painter and Tosca's lover (Tenor) - Scarpia, chief of police of Rome (Bariton) - Angelotti, escaped prisoner and Attavanti's brother (Bass)
EMI with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano under Victor de Sabata and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan.
The intricate history of the libretto
When Puccini was working on his second opera “Le vili”, he came across Sardous Drama “Tosca” in 1889. He felt inspired to turn the material into an opera and turned to his publisher Ricordi, who commissioned Illica to make a prose sketch. Illica shortened Sardous’ somewhat lengthy, five-act story to three acts, but was unhappy with the profane story. Puccini, for his part, was unhappy with the story of Illica, so the project was dropped. Ricordi subsequently offered Franchetti the material, whom he wanted to build as Verdi’s successor. They even went together to the master, who was very positive about the story. Puccini attended a theater performance of “Tosca” with the famous actress Sarah Bernhard in 1895 and was again passionate about the project. In the meantime he had written the successful operas “La Bohème” and “Manon Lescaut” and Ricordi decided to take “Tosca” away from Franchetti. Giacosa, who had already written the verses of the latter two operas, developed the text and Puccini set to work. As usual, there were many quarrels between the two, Puccini never made things easy for his librettists. Even Sardou, who had approved the libretto, intervened, but now suggested that the opera should end tragically, with Tosca’s leap into the Tiber. Illica, for his part, proposed a mad scene, which Sardou categorically rejected.
Travel tip for opera lovers: Visit original sites in Rome (Click for link to TRAVEL-blogpost)
An opera for three actor singers
Puccini focused the “Tosca” strongly on the three main roles, each of which are great role portraits in their own right. Beginning with Scarpia, whom Puccini portrays with brutal harmonies and declamations as a man of power, sadist and calculating lecher, who even in death still has the better cards. As a counterpart we find Cavaradossi, who as an artist is drawn with noble traits and has been given a lyrical part with beautiful arias and duets. While the male leading roles are rather “one-dimensional” (as in many operas…) we see different sides of Tosca. In the first act we experience the flirtatious, jealous woman. In the second act the dramatic, hateful, combative woman and in the third act the first loving and then desperate woman.
If one compares “Tosca” with its predecessor “La Bohème”, one is amazed. In Tosca we cannot find the playful sweetness of “Bohème” any more. “Tosca” stands out with its hard chords, dramatic duets and a permanent presence of a tension-filled atmosphere. Even the duet of the lovers of the first act is overshadowed by Tosca’s jealousy. It is probably Puccini’s closest opera to Verismo. Just as Verdi chose a separate “Tinta musicale” for each opera, Puccini always planned the scores of his operas strategically. In addition to the stylistic elements mentioned, leitmotifs play an important role in “Tosca”. Already in the first bars of the opera we hear the garish motif of Scarpia, 3 harsh chords which, along with the love motif, becomes the dominant element that is quoted again and again. At the latest since “La Bohème” Puccini was the composer of the details. He personally went to Rome to study the bell sound of the Castel Sant’Angelo. He also personally took care of the text of the shepherd boy’s song in the third act, which he had a Roman poet write for him to set to music in the correct Roman dialect.
In 1900, the premiere took place in Rome in the presence of the Queen and other celebrities. The success was moderate, the brutality of the music was too unusual (critics said “banality”), and there was even talk of a “torture opera”. Shortly thereafter, the first performance took place at La Scala in Milan under the direction of Arturo Toscanini, which was a great success and paved the work’s glorious way.
The famous London television recording of Maria Callas
A performance of “Tosca” in London’s Convent Garden in 1964 led to a unique Callas mania. “At the beginning of 1964, the music world experienced something completely unexpected: Maria Callas, the prima donna returned to the opera stage of the Royal Opera House in London and landed a long-lasting sensational success with her interpretation of Tosca. Not even the Beatles had more press coverage. Yet Maria Callas’ glorious career seemed to have long since come to an end, she herself had become a myth. For it was no longer her voice, but her scandals that dominated the headlines at the time. Disappointed by her love for the multi-billionaire and playboy Aristoteles Onassis, Maria Callas wanted to show everyone once again that she was right to bear the title ‘Primadonna Assoluta’. Under the condition that star director Franco Zeffirelli took over the direction, the exceptional singer finally agreed to sing Tosca. Her fans lined up for days in front of the opera house and spent the cold winter nights in sleeping bags and on folding chairs to get one of the coveted tickets and to experience her star once again in his parade role (source: ORF, Wischmann)”. The performance became the triumph and swan song of the Callas. The BBC recorded the second act live.
Toscas 2nd act “London recording” – Callas / Gobbi / di Stefano
TOSCA ACT I
Synopsis: In an Italian police state in 1800, the political prisoner Angelotti escaped. On the run he steps into a church. His sister Attavanti, the well-known actress, had secretly put a key to the chapel and deposited female disguise for escape. The church painter Cavaradossi enters the church.
With three powerful chords, Tosca begins with a clap of thunder: it is the motif of the sadistic Scarpia, whom we only see later, but whose shadow hangs over the piece like a sword of Damocles at the beginning. Now three people step onto the stage one after the other. Puccini has each of these appearances accompanied by a motif of memory. First the fleeing Angelotti (with a syncopated motif in ff):
Then the sacristan (with a dotted motif):
and finally Cavaradossi (with a short pressing motif):
Ah finalmente – Carreras
Synopsis: Cavaradossi paints a picture of the Madonna in the church. He has given it the features of Tosca and a second, unknown beauty, who visits the church often. He is in thoughts of his mistress Floria Tosca.
“Recondita armonia” is a highlight of the opera and is played early in the first act. Like Verdi, Puccini occasionally enjoyed punishing the notorious late comers.
Listen to the aria in the interpretation of 3 tenors.
Jussi Björling’s voice was of outstanding quality. It had a silvery timbre and its heights were of outstanding quality.
Recondita armonia (1) – Björling/Leinsdorf
A delicacy is the version by Luciano Pavarotti accompanied by James Levine on piano.
Recondita armonia (2) – Pavarotti
And a third and final interpretation by Placido Domingo from a magnificent film version of this opera.
Recondita armonia (3) – Domingo
Synopsis: Now he notices the refugee. He knows Angelotti and shares his hatred for Scarpia, the tyrant and police chief of Rome. He gives him his dinner basket. Angelotti hides in the chapel when he hears Tosca visiting Cavaradossi. The fact that the church is locked arouses her suspicion. In front of the picture of the Madonna, Tosca asks who the blonde woman in the picture is. Cavaradossi replies with the false casualness of the guilty man that it is the Maddalena. In the abrupt recognition Tosca screams that it is the Attavanti, her theater competitor.
Tosca also enters with a memory motif, played by solo cello and solo violin:
Soon the threatening undertones of Tosca and the voluptuous sounds of Cavaradossi contrast. A declamation-style conversation develops, repeatedly commented by the orchestra with motifs of memory.
Mario! Mario! – Verrett / Pavarotti
Synopsis: Cavaradossi must appease her.
Kesting describes this recording of the Callas as follows: “While Tosca sings ‘Quegli occhi’, still pondering and again with suppressed tears, Cavaradossi sings the wonderfully flowing cantilena ‘Qual occhio al mondo’. Tosca takes this up with the phrase ‘O come la sai bene l’arte di farti amare’ and suddenly the Callas sounds so intoxicated – and intoxicatingly beautiful like no other singer. She turns an inconspicuous moment into a great moment of opera. In the transition to the duet we hear the love theme, which is then repeatedly quoted in the opera:
Quegli occhi – Callas/di Stefano
«Te Deum» – Puccini’s great mass scene
Synopsis: Tosca left the church reassured. A cannon shot from the castle announces the escape of Angelotti. Cavaradossi quickly gets Angelotti out of hiding and takes him to his country house to safety. The police chief Scarpia enters the church and searches for the fugitive. However, he only finds suspicious traces, including the clothes of a woman. At this moment Tosca enters, who is looking for Cavaradossi and meets Scarpia. He learns that she is the lover of Cavaradossi. He skillfully stirs up her jealousy by referring to the women’s clothes. Tosca, eaten up by jealousy, makes her way to Cavaradossi’s country house. Scarpia triumphs, and he has her followed by henchmen in order to get on the trail of Cavaradossi and Angelotti. Scarpia triumphs, because Cavaradossi is the key to conquering Tosca. Slowly the church begins to fill up for the celebration of the anniversary of the victorious battle against Napoleon.
With the famous “Te Deum” Puccini offers us one of the most gripping mass scenes in the history of opera. Puccini interweaves various musical ideas: we hear two church bells, the Latin chant of a procession, cannon strokes and the solo of Scarpia. Scarpia sings himself into a frenzy of the lust for conquest, which ends with the blasphemous words: “Tosca, mi fai dimenticar Iddio! (“Tosca, you make me forget God!”). He then joins in the Latin processional chant, which is accompanied by unmasking tritone chords.
See and hear this scene in an impressive film adaptation. Ruggero Raimondi shines with a great vocal and acting performance.
Tre sbirri (Te deum) – Raimondi
TOSCA ACT II
Synopsis: Angelotti could hide in the draw well and was not caught. Scarpia had Cavaradossi arrested and interrogated him to find out Angelotti’s whereabouts. Cavaradossi refused to answer. Scarpia had expected it and ordered Tosca to come to him. When she enters, she is shocked discovering Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi whispers to her not to mention Angelotti’s hiding place under any circumstances.
The interrogation of Cavaradossi is accompanied by dramatic tremolos of the strings.
Dov’è Angelotti? Domingo / Milnes
Synopsis: Scarpia has Cavaradossi brought to the torture chamber and tortured within earshot. Now he brings Tosca to his adjacent office and offers the beautiful actress a deal: the end of Cavaradossi’s torture, against the information where Angelotti is. But Cavaradossi and Tosca refuse to answer.
Orsu parlate – Callas / Gobbi
Vissi d’arte – Puccini changes the face of Tosca
Synopsis: When the torture is intensified, Tosca reveals Angelotti’s hiding place. The unconscious Cavaradossi is brought in and when he wakes up he hears with horror that Tosca has revealed the secret. A policeman storms in and reports about the defeat of the troops against Napoleon’s army. Cavaradossi triumphs and exposes himself as an enemy of the state. This is his death sentence.
Nel pozzo del girardino – Callas / Gobbi / di Stefano
Synopsis: Scarpia condemns him to death by firing squad the following morning at Castel Sant’Angelo. Scarpia offers Tosca a new deal: the life of her lover for a night with her. Tosca offers money, but Scarpia insists on his demand.
With the aria “Vissi d’arte” Puccini changes Tosca’s personality for the spectator. The superficial, jealous actress becomes a woman whose suffering moves the listener. She reacts with disbelief. Why does God punish her who leads a pious life? Puccini writes at the beginning of the aria “Pianissimo, dolcissimo, con grande sentimento”. With the verse “Sempre con fé” the mood changes and the singer must change to a beautiful melodious and intimate singing. In religious mood the piece ends with the climax of the “Perché, perché, Signor” which ends with a high B flat.
1953 Maria Callas was at the vocal peak of her career . Her vissi d’arte had the brilliance of the voice and the empathy of the actress. Victor de Sabata’s recording was created with enormous effort and is one of the best opera recordings ever.
Vissi d’arte (1) – Callas
Next you will hear the version by Leontyne Price. Besides Aida, Carmen and Leonora, Tosca was the role with which she made the most impact.
Vissi d’arte (2) – Price
Anna Netrebko made her role debut as Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 2018. Listen to her in a lyrical version of “Vissi d’arte”.
Vissi d’arte (3) – Netrebko
The murder scene
Synopsis: Apparently Tosca agrees. Scarpia signs an order that Cavaradossi is to be shot the next day for appearances’ sake. After Tosca is alone with Scarpia, she asks for a pass to bring her and Cavaradossi safely out of Rome. When Scarpia issues the pass, Tosca sees a knife. She puts it under her robe and when Scarpia approaches her, she kills him with the knife. Solemnly Tosca puts candles around the body of the dying Scarpia. She flees from the palace and makes her way to Castel Sant’Angelo.
After the death scene an expressive string passage sounds and then Tosca pronounces the sentence: “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!” (“and before that all Rome once trembled”) and the act ends with dying orchestra sounds and drum rolls.
E qual via scegliete – Callas / Gobbi / di Stefano
TOSCA ACT III
Synopsis: At dawn on the Castel Sant’Angelo.
In a pastoral idyll one hears the voice of a shepherd boy passing by and the bells of a church. Puccini composed this innocent scene with great devotion. Occasionally motifs from the opera are audible, including Scarpia’s warning motif.
Io de sospiri – Mehta
«E lucevan le stelle»
Synopsis: Cavaradossi is trapped in a cell. It is just before dawn and his execution is imminent. He holds the amulet of Tosca in his hands and bids farewell.
Cavaradossi’s execution is imminent and he thinks back to Tosca with melancholy. It is a great aria written in typical Puccini style; while Cavaradossi sings a monotone passage in the first part of the piece, he is accompanied by an expressive melody on the clarinet. At the beginning of the aria, Cavaradossi describes how memories of visions, smells and feelings now sparkle like distant stars. Puccini gives the singer the opportunity to immerse these feelings in different timbres. The following passage, “O dolci baci, o languide carezze”, which alludes to past nights of love, must be sung with warmth and tenderness until with “Svani sempre” the dark, hopeless thoughts dominate and finally in “Muoio disparato” despair bursts out of him. After the aria, the tenor has to burst into tears as Puccini instructed.
Listen to two interpretations.
First by Jussi Björling.
E lucevan le stelle (1) – Björling / Leinsdorf
Listen and see Placido Domingo in a “live film” shot at the original locations as described by the composer. At noon in Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the same evening at Palazzo Farnese and the next morning at Castel Sant’Angelo. The singers were connected via monitors to the conductor and the orchestra, who were playing in a concert hall.
E lucevan le stelle (2) – Domingo
O dolci mani – the love duet
Synopsis: The jailer takes him out of the cell and brings him to the casemate. There Tosca finds him and tells him about her fight with Scarpia, and that she came to save Cavaradossi with a faked execution. Cavaradossi is touched by the heroism of his Tosca.
With a tender theme Cavaradossi opens the scene and praises the courage of Tosca. She soberly instructs him to mime death at the execution. But soon the emotions break through and Tosca dreams of their future together.
Listen to this beautiful duet first with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano.
O dolci mani (1) – Callas / di Stefano
A wonderful interpretation again from the filmed Zeffirelli production with Placido Domingo and Raina Kabaivanska:
O dolci mani (2) – Domingo / Kabaivanska
Synopsis: Cavaradossi is taken to the place of execution and Tosca attends the supposedly faked execution. Shots sound and Cavaradossi falls over. The soldiers leave the place. But the bullets of the rifles were real and Cavaradossi was actually shot to the horror of Tosca. Meanwhile, the murder of Scarpia has been noticed and the soldiers return. Tosca kills herself by jumping from the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Finale – Domingo / Kabaivanska
EMI 1953 with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano under Victor de Sabata and the choir and orchestra of Milan’s Scala.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to TOSCA by Giacomo Puccini.