Puccini’s Tosca: A guide to when and why this dramatic opera was composed

Everything you need to know about the story behind Puccini's Tosca; a thrilling opera about lust, jealousy and corruption

Puccini's Tosca guide

When and why did Puccini compose Tosca?

Puccini’s Tosca had to be a hit, for reasons both personal and political. By 1900 the Italian composer Puccini had a reputation to uphold after the success of Manon Lescaut and then La bohème, but also bore the weight of a whole nation’s hopes on his shoulders. Now aged 86, the great Giuseppe Verdi was approaching the end of his life and critics were hailing Puccini as a musical ‘Messiah’ who would step into the older composer’s shoes and ‘reaffirm the supremacy of Italian genius’. As was so often the case with Puccini, however, there would turn out to be no shortage of  bumps along the road to glory.

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Puccini first alighted on Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca as early as 1889, but the playwright played hardball over the rights. By the time a deal was finally secured, Puccini was busy working on La bohème and his publisher Giulio Ricordi transferred Tosca to another composer, Alberto Franchetti. After much wrangling, Franchetti stepped aside and Puccini came back into the picture. But the trouble didn’t stop there.

Puccini was attracted to La Tosca’s atmosphere of mounting suspense and believed it contained all the ingredients of great drama: sex, violence, politics and lies. Unfortunately, his collaborators did not share his enthusiasm. The librettist Giuseppe Giacosa declared it ‘not a good subject for operatic treatment’ and threatened to pull out of the project.

Puccini, meanwhile, was often away travelling and slow to meet his compositional deadlines. Come October 1899, with the score at last almost complete, Ricordi had by now lost confidence in the opera, writing gloomily to the composer that it would herald financial disaster for both of them.

What is the story of Puccini’s Tosca?

The opera that Puccini and his librettists produced was a leaner version of Sardou’s play, concentrating more on the themes of lust, jealousy and corruption than the politics of the Napoleonic Wars. The singer Floria Tosca is in love with the painter (and republican) Mario Cavaradossi. She is lusted after by the authoritarian chief of police, Baron Scarpia. When Cavaradossi is arrested for assisting the escape of a political prisoner, Tosca faces a terrible choice – she must give herself to Scarpia or her lover will be killed. Having secured a safe passage out of Rome for herself and Cavaradossi, Tosca turns on Scarpia and stabs him. But Cavaradossi must submit to a fake execution before the lovers can flee, and Scarpia has one final trick up his sleeve from beyond the grave.

This most red-blooded of operas is action-packed, cramming torture, an attempted rape, a murder, an execution and a suicide into under two hours. Puccini had to develop a swift musical pacing and find ways to crank up the tension, which he does through devices such as the foreboding whole-tone chord progression we hear at the opera’s outset, which recurs as Scarpia’s theme. Though the opera contains much rich lyricism, this contrasts sharply with the more restless through-composed music that surrounds it. There is also a good deal of ‘diegetic’ music in the score (songs or instrumental passages the characters themselves hear as music), notably the Act One Te Deum, an electrifying set-piece that juxtaposes the sacred and the profane. Verismo-esque shouts and cries add to the opera’s brutal soundworld.

How was Puccini’s Tosca received?

Unfortunately, the first-night critics were less than impressed when Tosca received its premiere in Rome on 14 January 1900. The opera’s musical language was new and unfamiliar, one reviewer grumbling about sitting through half an hour of ‘monosyllables, exclamations and swear words’. Another called Tosca and Scarpia ‘people created by a sick imagination in a moment of aesthetic aberration’ and many advised Puccini to stick to soft, sentimental topics in future. A certain squeamishness developed around the work, from the Italian critic Ferrucio Bonavia in the 1920s likening it to watching a traffic accident to the American musicologist Joseph Kerman’s barb in the 1950s that it was a ‘shabby little shocker’.

For all the snobbery surrounding Tosca, it went on to find notable, if surprising, musical admirers in the composers
Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Audiences, of course, loved this fast-paced musical thriller right from the start. And today, the opera seems as fresh and relevant as it ever did. Indeed, with its themes of political corruption and exploitative sexual relationships, it is an opera that speaks ever more directly to our present-day concerns.

Words by Alexandra Wilson

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