Main Characters Floria Tosca, a celebrated opera singer (soprano—the highest female voice) Mario Cavaradossi, a painter and revolutionary (tenor—the highest male voice) Baron Scarpia, chief of Roman police (baritone—a middle-range male voice) Cesare Angelotti, former consul for the Roman Republic (bass––the lowest male voice) A sacristan, custodian of the church (bass) So, What’s Going On?
Rome. June 17-18, 1800.
(Note: Unlike in most operas, audiences can pinpoint the exact dates of the Tosca story, as the plot unfolds in the wake of the Napoleonic Battle of Marengo, fought in June, 1800. In addition, all still exist to this day.) Act 1
In the “eternal city” of Rome, one of the many Italian revolutionary republics has recently been suppressed by forces loyal to an Italian king. With the future of the Roman territories uncertain and civil unrest on the rise, the streets are now run by the brutal Baron Scarpia (SKAHR-pya), chief of the royal police.
Newly escaped from prison, Cesare Angelotti (CHEH-zah-reh ahn-jehl-OHT-tee)––a member of the former Roman Republic––staggers into the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. His sister, the Marquess Attavanti (ah-tah-VAHN-tee), has promised to leave some clothes beneath the altar of her private family chapel so he can flee in disguise and avoid Baron Scarpia.
But Angelotti has some unexpected company.
Just as he slips behind the Attavanti chapel doors, a sacristan enters, followed by Mario Cavaradossi (kah-vah-rah-DOHSS-ee), a painter who’s been working on a church portrait of Mary Magdalene. Inspired by a mysterious woman, Cavaradossi has given his Magdalene blond hair and blue eyes––but in real life, he only has eyes for his own dark-eyed love, Floria Tosca (TOHS-kah), the most famous opera diva in Rome.
Take a listen...
Cavaradossi remarks that beauty comes in many colors in his aria “Recondita harmonia” (“Secret harmony”). Listen for the way in which the
sacristan’s commentary cuts through Cavaradossi’s tune (which helps ground the moment in reality), and for the way the orchestra reinforces the painter’s melody when he sings of how much he loves Tosca.
Angelotti recognizes Cavaradossi as a fellow democrat and approaches the painter, asking for help. With the sacristan out of sight, Cavaradossi is about to pledge his undying loyalty, but the two men are interrupted by Tosca, who’s arrived to offer flowers to the Virgin Mary
(but, really, to pay her Mario a visit). Knowing Tosca is a naturally suspicious woman, Cavaradossi tells Angelotti to hide.
Turns out Cavaradossi is right to be cautious.
Convinced her painter has been meeting with another woman behind her back, Tosca quickly flies into a jealous fit, but Cavaradossi succeeds in calming her down. They then make plans to meet up later that evening, and everything is sunshine and roses...until Tosca catches sight of
Cavaradossi’s painting. She instantly realizes the Magdalene portrait shares a face with none other than the Marquess Attavanti (yup,
Angelotti’s sister) and accuses Cavaradossi of having an affair with the blond beauty. The painter swears up and down that the resemblance is only a coincidence, that he just happened to see Attavanti praying in church, and that Tosca is the only woman for him. Satisfied (for the moment, anyway), Tosca leaves.
Alone with Angelotti, Cavaradossi tells the escaped convict to take shelter at the artist’s private villa and offers to show him the
As the two rush off, the sacristan re-enters with various members of the clergy and church choir. He proudly announces the evil Napoleon Bonaparte (who’s largely responsible for the revolutionary spirit that’s been stressing out their beloved king) has lost a decisive battle.
Celebrations are cut short, however, when Baron Scarpia comes marching in with his royalist police squad on the hunt for Angelotti. Searching for clues, Scarpia uncovers a lady’s fan with the Attavanti family crest displayed on it, as well as the Magdalene portrait (in which he recognizes the marquess’s face). Scarpia discovers the portrait is the work of Mario Cavaradossi, whom the chief suspects of treasonous activity and who, more importantly for Scarpia, is known throughout Rome as Tosca’s lover.
Certain the two revolutionaries have hatched a rebellious plot of some sort, Scarpia devises a plan to use Tosca’s infamous jealous streak against her. At this precise moment (what are the odds?), Tosca comes sweeping back into the church, hoping to reschedule her meeting with Cavaradossi (as she’s now been asked to sing a special concert to commemorate the king’s victory).
Seizing his opportunity, Scarpia shows Tosca the Attavanti fan and strongly insinuates the accessory was left behind by the painter’s secret mistress. Tosca lets her jealous fears get the better of her, and, heartbroken, runs off to confront Cavaradossi.
His trap set, Scarpia gives the order to have Tosca followed.
Take a listen…
Scarpia watches his villainous plot unfold and dreams of having Tosca all to himself. Check out the way Scarpia’s melody blends with the events happening around him in real time (the chorus singing the Latin “Te Deum” hymn to God, the church organ that accompanies them, the cannon fire in the distance, etc.), a trick designed to make you feel like you’re in the center of the action.
Caption: Scarpia hypocritically joins in the religious celebration while secretly thinking of Tosca.
Later that evening at the royal Farnese Palace, Scarpia––who’s asked that Tosca be brought to him––awaits news of Cavaradossi and Angelotti’s capture. But when news finally does arrive, it isn’t great: Following Tosca’s trail, Scarpia’s minions have arrested Cavaradossi, but Angelotti remains on the run.
Furious, Scarpia questions Cavaradossi. The painter vehemently denies having anything to do with Angelotti’s escape, but Scarpia isn’t convinced.
Her performance now over, Tosca arrives. Cavaradossi whispers for her to keep quiet just as Scarpia has his officers take the painter into a back room for further “interrogations” (if you’re thinking this means “torture,” you’re absolutely correct). The chief then turns his attention to Tosca, who claims she knows nothing about Cavaradossi or Angelotti’s revolutionary dealings.
But Tosca can only hold out so long.
Hearing Cavaradossi screaming in pain, she finally reveals that Angelotti is hiding in Cavaradossi’s garden. Cavaradossi is temporarily released, and a messenger arrives to deliver a startling twist: News of Bonaparte’s defeat was premature—the revolutionary has actually won the battle.
Ecstatic, Cavaradossi taunts Scarpia. Scarpia, not about to take this lying down, instantly sentences Cavaradossi to death by hanging.
Horrified, Tosca pleads with Scarpia to save Cavaradossi––which is just the scenario Scarpia was hoping for. He’s willing to be merciful, he says, but only if Tosca will spend the night with him...alone.
Take a listen...
Tosca’s famous aria “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”) is one of the few moments in the opera where time seems to stand still. Pay special attention to the orchestra, which plays its own melodies underneath Tosca’s heartfelt prayer (some of these tunes appear earlier in the opera when Tosca and Cavaradossi first sing together). Listen also for the way Tosca’s voice rises to its greatest height on the word “Signore” (or “God”).
Backed into a hopeless corner, Tosca agrees.
Scarpia, insisting he keep up appearances so as not to look weak, makes arrangements for Cavaradossi’s mock execution. The painter will be put before a firing squad, but the bullets will be blanks. And, at Tosca’s insistence, the chief also signs papers that will grant the lovers safe passage across the Roman border.
But while Scarpia’s back is turned, a panicked Tosca resolves to defend herself rather than succumb to the baron’s violent advances. She finds a knife on Scarpia’s dinner table and––just as Scarpia lunges at her to claim his “prize”––stabs him in the heart, shouting, “This is a kiss from Tosca!” (...ouch).
With Scarpia dead and his body as yet undiscovered, Tosca hurries to the prison at Castel Sant’Angelo to inform Cavaradossi of the fake execution plan. She’s certain the papers she’s secured will allow her and Cavaradossi to begin a new life together...but is she right? Can Scarpia’s false execution orders be trusted? And will Tosca ever have to answer for Scarpia’s murder...or will she get her own version of an operatic happy ending?
Good to Know
Curious as to what Napoleon is doing in the middle of an Italian opera? Never fear; there’s a mini history lesson coming your way. (We promise it’ll be painless.)
Though celebrated composer Giacomo Puccini wrote Tosca in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century, the story of the opera is set almost exactly a century earlier...at a time when the country of “Italy” didn’t really exist.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Tosca’s hometown of Rome stood within one of many separate territories, each with its own unique leader and/or political structure. Yet despite these many different forms of government, some citizens of what would one day become Italy witnessed the recent democratic uprising in France and the impressive military campaigns of France’s General Napoleon Bonaparte and were inspired to build their own democracies (this was before Napoleon made the move to full-on dictator/emperor).
As a result, amateur republics spread throughout the Italian countryside. One of the most influential of these republics was in Rome, which had been occupied by French troops who helped stave off greedy Italian monarchs.
But by 1800 (when Tosca would have been at the height of her fame), the Roman Republic had been squashed by forces that supported the powerful King Ferdinand (no, not the guy from Spain) of Naples, which launched a few French counterattacks and left the region completely unstable. Former consuls of the Roman Republic like Angelotti would have been considered enemies of the royal state, freedom-loving artists like Tosca and Cavaradossi would have felt threatened by royalist powers, and royalist policemen like Scarpia would have ruled the streets with an iron fist.
Remember we said “
all locations mentioned are real places in the city of Rome that still exist to this day.” We weren’t kidding.
Jump on your Vespa and visit these sites of Tosca:
Caption: Farnese Palace
Caption: Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle
Caption: Castel Sant'Angelo on the Tiber River
Learning to Listen
Going to the opera means you’ll have to start listening in a new way if you want to take in everything the music and the voices have to offer. And guess what? This is less difficult than it sounds.
Try thinking of opera singing as its own type of language or speech. When we’re speaking, our emotions can change the way our voices sound from moment to moment—and one word can have a thousand different meanings depending on
how we say it (loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, with a high- or low-pitched voice, etc.). The same is true for the characters in an opera. Each voice you’ll hear will have its own special
flavor depending on who the character is and what he or she is saying.
Floria Tosca, for example, is an immensely passionate young singer with a fiery personality. Her voice, therefore, will be on the higher side (to provide a clue that she’s youthful and vibrant), but will frequently jump from light to dark as her mood swings back and forth. As the character herself is, in fact, a singer, there will also be moments when Tosca’s sound feels incredibly forceful, indicating she’s a woman who uses her voice as her primary form of expression.
Scarpia, on the other hand, is a sinister chief of police with lustful motivations. His darker baritone voice (unlike the brighter sound of the hero, Cavaradossi) suggests the baron spends a lot of time making shady backdoor deals. Still, Scarpia’s music will often rise to impressive heights, indicating he wields a lot of power over the many characters on stage.
When in doubt about how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking, always pay close attention to exactly how they
sound. (The instruments in the orchestra will give you hints as well.)
Check This Out…
Composer Giacomo Puccini was a stickler for detail and wanted his operas to have a real sense of time and place. What kinds of musical clues help set each scene for you? Are there specific musical moments that remind you of sounds you might hear in real life? (Hint: Pay attention to the music and sound effects heard off stage as well as on.)
Rome was a divided city in 1800, and citizens were largely split between loyal royalists and democratic sympathizers. How do the costumes, sets, and props in this production help alert you to which characters belong on which side? Do Angelotti’s clothes give you clues about his recent stint in prison? Does the design of Scarpia’s office in the Farnese Palace help convey his wealth and royal status? Do Tosca’s costumes suggest a rebellious spirit or a royal servant...or both?
In Tosca, Puccini uses certain melodies to represent different characters or situations. These themes will recur again and again to help keep various people or events fresh in the audience’s mind. Can you guess which tunes are meant to symbolize Cavaradossi? Tosca? Scarpia? What about melodies that represent Angelotti’s escape or Scarpia’s evil plotting? (Bonus: Consider how these themes make you feel about the characters or situations they symbolize. For example, can you tell Scarpia is a villain just by listening to the music that accompanies his entrance? If so, how?)
Think About This…
Tosca and Cavaradossi find themselves in the middle of a political hurricane despite the fact their lives revolve mostly around art and each other. Do you think it’s possible for artists to remain neutral during a revolution? Can art exist all by itself or is it always affected by the world around it?
Given Tosca’s impossible predicament in Act 2, do you think her actions toward Scarpia are at all justified? Did she have any other choice? What punishment, if any, do you feel she deserves? Were you satisfied with the end of the opera or would you have preferred a different outcome?
Scarpia calls Cavaradossi a “Volterriano” (or “follower of Voltaire”). Why would a French Enlightenment author like Voltaire appeal to a painter who favored a democracy over a monarchy?
By the turn of the twentieth century, opera was making a serious effort to reel in audience members with limited attention spans––that is, composers were creating operas that were meant to feel like a seamless sequence of events rather than a series of scenes broken up by songs. And Tosca was no exception. But do you think Puccini succeeded in his goal to make Tosca a non-stop theatrical roller coaster? What moments, if any, would you cut from the show?
Eye of the Beholder
When we first meet Cavaradossi, he literally sings an entire song about how it’s possible to be captivated by two very different types of artistic beauty.
He’s not wrong.
While it’s actually possible to find various things to appreciate in an infinite number of aesthetics, it’s rare we take the time to compare and contrast in detail or ask ourselves why we like the things we like––especially when it comes to artwork.
Why not try and prove Cavaradossi’s point for yourself and get to know your own personal tastes a bit better? Head to a museum or art gallery (if you can’t visit this type of venue, no worries: a book on paintings, sculpture, or even makeup or fashion will do) and choose two contrasting pieces you enjoy. (This could be a contrast in media, subject, era, style…whatever.)
Once you’ve selected your works of art, see if you can describe your feelings about each one in writing, in a small video, or in an amateur-podcast-style audio. Consider: What attracts you to each piece? How are they different/similar? Why do you think they’re equally powerful/effective despite their differences? (Note: You can try this experiment with two pieces of music, two films, two novels, two poems...any two works that excite you, so long as there are obvious contrasts between them.)
If you’re comfortable, help spread the word that beauty comes in many shapes and sizes. Share your thoughts on your two artistic pieces with your friends or family, and, when you’re done, ask them about what draws them in when it comes to works of art.
Teacher & Parent Guide
Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We’re sure you’re already familiar with the concept of opera but, just in case you’re looking for a refresher or you want to go deeper, here are some thoughts that may be of interest:
Opera A 400-year-old genre born in Italy that was cultivated throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and eventually made its way to the United States (that’s right, Americans write operas, too). As you’ve probably guessed, there will be singing. Lots of it. Just think of it as heightened speech. A soprano may hit a really high note when she’s angry or scared. A bass might lay down a low note when he wants to be extra menacing.
Italian maestro Giacomo Puccini’s
Tosca, which debuted in Rome (the city in which it takes place) in 1900, was a masterpiece several years in the making. As early as 1889, Puccini was clamoring to turn the story of a singer and her artist lover caught in a web of political intrigue into an opera. Having seen Victorien Sardou’s French play La Tosca––a melodrama written for the eminent stage star Sarah Bernhardt––Puccini knew the piece had “opera” written all over it, and he soon began shopping for the rights to transform La Tosca into a musical work. In Tosca’s story, Puccini wrote, he saw an opera that he more or less “needed” to write.
But Puccini’s dreams of setting
La Tosca to music were almost derailed when, years later, the rights to La Tosca were handed over to a different composer, who’d already lined up a libretto with erstwhile Puccini collaborator, Luigi Illica. Fortune favored Puccini, however, and the rights soon fell into his hands anyway, with Illica still on board as co-librettist with Giuseppe Giacosa (you may have heard of yet another Puccini-Illica-Giacosa partnership: a little opera called La bohème). After three years of work, the result was Tosca, an instant hit that remains among opera’s most popular picks to this very day.
Over the course of his career, Puccini would become known for his international flare and his penchant for setting operas in places that were unfamiliar to European audiences such as Japan, China, and even the United States. In these works, Puccini would take pains to be as authentic as possible by researching indigenous folk tunes, immersing himself in his settings, etc. But with
Tosca, Puccini kept things a whole lot closer to home (and, legend has it, well within the family). Set in his native land, Tosca was an unmistakably Italian story (fiercely passionate heroine, effortlessly romantic hero, wine-swilling villain and all) with no need for “exotic” melodies that evoked faraway places.
Tosca’s Roman backdrop didn’t stop Puccini from doing his homework before bringing the final product to the opera house. An expert was consulted to help Puccini recreate the sound of the Vatican church bell, and there’s evidence the composer was influenced by an original “Te Deum” hymn written by his grandfather, Domenico, for the so-called defeat of Napoleon in 1800. And, if all that wasn’t enough, Puccini reportedly slept on the roof of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo prison to get a clear sense of the tolling bells that could be heard by his hero Cavaradossi in Act 3. Upon Tosca’s premiere, some detractors felt these atmospheric sounds were unnecessary and didn’t really count as music, but, to Puccini, these little touches were no doubt essential for making audiences feel they were active participants in the drama.
You’re ready for Puccini’s