Tosca Program Notes
by Jeff O'Kelly
Puccini’s first acquaintance with Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca came in 1889 when he attended two French performances, with the great Sarah Bernhardt in one of her signature roles. He immediately saw that the play could be made into an effective opera but nine years were to pass before he finally started work on it. The path from play to libretto and finally to Puccini’s work was a tortured one including two false starts and some financial wrangling. But fate sometimes knows best: in the intervening nine years Puccini produced his first two masterpieces (Manon Lescaut and La bohème), developed his mature harmonic language, and honed his sense of dramatic pacing. The last was to prove particularly important in Tosca.
The first version of the libretto was by Luigi Illica, but the version Puccini set was a reworking by Illica in collaboration with Giuseppe Giacosa (the two had previously collaborated on the libretto for La bohème and contributed to that for Manon Lescaut), with one significant contribution, Cavaradossi’s third act aria “E lucevan le stelle”, by Puccini himself. Scenes of rapid, often violent action alternate with slower set-pieces that afford opportunities for character development. The scene for the Sacristan and Cavaradossi provides some humour (which Puccini could never quite banish from his operas), while the dawn scene and Shepherd Boy’s song at the beginning of the third act gave Puccini the chance for the kind of the gorgeous tone-painting at which he excelled. The libretto also contains some of opera’s most memorable lines: “Tosca - you make me forget God”; “And before him, all of Rome trembled”; “Scarpia, we will meet again before God”; and Tosca’s first exit line in Act I, “But paint her eyes black” (which has occasionally and regrettably been translated as “But give her black eyes”).
The three main characters are as clearly defined as any in the operatic repertoire. Cavaradossi and Tosca wholly engage our sympathies, even to the point of condoning murder. Lovable as they are, Scarpia is equally detestable and fearsome. With the exception of Iago, few other characters in opera are such nasty pieces of work, and it is precisely Iago to whom Scarpia compares himself in Act I (“To make a jealous lover into a raving madman, Iago had a handkerchief. I have a fan.”).
Puccini’s musical genius shows at the very beginning of the opera with Scarpia’s sinister motif: where one might expect the use of minor or diminished chords, Puccini uses three major chords, but the bassline (B-flat, A-flat, E) spells out the interval of a descending tritone, also known as the “devil in music”. This motif recurs in many guises throughout the opera, an ever-present reminder of Scarpia’s sadistic authority. The opera progresses from one piece of perfect musical characterization to the next without faltering. Particularly powerful are the Te Deum in Act I, during which Scarpia reveals his unpleasant plans for Cavaradossi and Tosca, and the torture scene in Act II. After the claustrophobic second act, the opening of the third act gives us a welcome change to catch our breath before proceeding speedily to the tragic denouement. All of Puccini’s operas contain scenes of orchestral tone-painting evocative of a specific locale. Before writing the dawn music of Act III, the composer spent a morning on the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo, carefully notating the pitches, rhythms and relative distances of the dawn church bells.
Perhaps the greatest master stroke of Tosca develops so logically out of the plot that we may never consciously realize what makes it so effective. The story contravenes one of the most basic tenets of the western European tradition of story-telling: once the bad guy is dead, everything is supposed to get better. This dramatic blow has a power which is almost Shakespearean (and is indeed reminiscent of the end of King Lear where Cordelia’s death cannot be prevented even though Edmund is in captivity and his villainy fully revealed). Even knowing the story in advance, this plot development can still evoke pathos. For the first audiences of Sardou’s play it must have been shocking and seemed unjust.
Since the opera’s 1900 premiere it has been much criticized, including most famously Joseph Kerman’s dismissive phrase “a shabby little shocker” (Opera as Drama, 1956). But all such criticisms either ignore or cannot account for the profound sympathies it arouses in audiences, and however cogent individual critical arguments may be, isn't this precisely what operas should do - engage our emotions in an immediate, visceral way? If so, then Tosca delivers an emotional wallop that leaves us breathless.
Jeff O’Kelly was a member of the VO Chorus for seventeen seasons and now lives in Lillooet, BC, where he is a regular broadcaster on Radio Lillooet, writes about music and is an enthusiastic birder.