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Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > La Tosca (Puccini) - Synopsis

La Tosca -
An Opera by Giacomo Puccini

Opera in three acts by Puccini; words by L. Illica and G. Giacosa after the drama, "La Tosca," by Sardou. Produced, Constanzi Theatre, Rome, January 14, 1900; London, Covent Garden, July 12, 1900. Buenos Aires, June 16, 1900. Metropolitan Opera House, New York, February 4, 1901, with Ternina, Cremonini, Scotti, Gilibert (Sacristan), and Dufriche (Angelotti).


FLORIA TOSCA, a celebrated singer………………………… Soprano
MARIO CAVARADOSSI, a painter…………………………. Tenor
BARON SCARPIA, Chief of Police………………………… Baritone
CESARE ANGELOTTI……………………………………… Bass
A SACRISTAN……………………………………………… Baritone
SPOLETTA, police agent…………………………………… Tenor
SCIARRONE, a gendarme………………………………….. Bass
A GAOLER…………………………………………………. Bass
A SHEPHERD BOY………………………………………… Contralto
Roberti, executioner; a cardinal, judge, scribe, officer, and sergeant, soldiers, police agents, ladies, nobles, citizens, artisan, etc.

Time: June 1800.
Place: Rome.

Hariclea Darclee in Puccini's La Tosca, 1914 performance (image)

Hariclea Darclée in the title role of the opera, La Tosca (1914). This actress had played the title role in La Tosca's world premiere in Rome on 14 Jan 1900.

Three sharp, vigorous chords, denoting the imperious yet sinister and vindictive character of Scarpia -- such is the introduction to "Tosca."

Act I. The church of Sant’ Andrea alla Valle. To the right the Attavanti chapel; left a scaffolding, dais, and easel. On the easel a large picture covered by a cloth. Painting accessories. A basket.

Enter Angelotti. He has escaped from prison and is seeking a hiding place. Looking about, he recognizes a pillar shrine containing an image of the Virgin, and surmounting a receptacle for holy water. Beneath the feet of the image he searches for and discovers a key, unlocks the Attavanti chapel and disappears within it. The Sacristan comes in. He has a bunch of brushes that he has been cleaning, and evidently is surprised not to find Cavaradossi at his easel. He looks into the basket, finds the luncheon in it untouched, and now is sure he was mistaken in thinking he had seen the painter enter.

The Angelus is rung. The Sacristan kneels. Cavaradossi enters. He uncovers the painting -- a Mary Magdalen with large blue eyes and masses of golden hair. The sacristan recognizes in it the portrait of a lady who lately has come frequently to the church to worship. The good man is scandalized at what he considers a sacrilege. Cavaradossi, however, has other things to think of. He compares the face in the portrait with the features of the woman he loves, the dark-eyes Floria Tosca, famous as a singer. "Recondita armonia di bellezza diverse" (Strange harmony of constrasts deliciously blending), he sings.

Meanwhile the Sacristan, engaged in cleaning the brushes in a jug of water, continues to growl over the sacrilege of putting frivolous women into religious paintings. Finally, his task with the brushes over, he points to the basket and asks, "Are you fasting?" "Nothing for me," says the painter. The Sacristan casts a greedy look at the basket, as he thinks of the benefit he will derive from the artist’s abstemiousness. The painter goes on with his work. The Sacristan leaves.

Angelotti, believing no one to be in the church, comes out of his hiding place. He and Cavaradossi recognize each other. Angelotti has just escaped from the prison in the castle of Sant’ Angelo. The painter at once offers to help him. Just then, however, Tosca’s voice is heard outside. The painter presses the basket with wine and viands upon the exhausted fugitive, and urges him back into the chapel, while from without Tosca calls more insistently, "Mario!"

Feigning calm, for the meeting with Angelotti, who had been concerned in the abortive uprising to make Rome a republic, has excited him, Cavaradossi admits Tosca. Jealously she insists that he was whispering with some one, and that she heard footsteps and the swish of skirts. Her lover reassures her, tries to embrace her. Gently she reproves him. She cannot let him kiss her before the Madonna until she has prayed to her image and made an offering. She adorns the Virgin’s figure with flowers she has brought with her, kneels in prayer, crosses herself and rises. She tells Cavaradossi to await her at the stage door that night, and they will steal away together to his villa. He is still distrait. When he replies, absent-mindedly, he surely will be there, her comment is, "Thou say’st it badly." Then, beginning the love duet, "Non, la sospiri la nostra casetta" (Dost thou not long for our dovecote secluded), she conjures up for him a vision of that "sweet, sweet nest in which we love-birds hide."

For the moment Cavaradossi forgets Angelotti; then, however, urges Tosca to leave him, so that he may continue with his work. She is vexed and, when she recognizes in the picture of Mary Magdalen the fair features of the Marchioness Attavanti, she becomes jealous to the point of rage. But her lover soon soothes her. The episode is charming. In fact the libretto, following the Sardou play, unfolds, scene by scene, an always effective drama.

Tosca having departed, Cavaradossi lets Angelotti out of the chapel. He is a brother of the Attavanti, of whom Tosca is so needlessly jealous, and who has concealed a suit of woman’s clothing for him under the altar. They mention Scarpia -- "A bigoted satyr and hypocrite, secretly steeped in vice, yet most demonstratively pious" -- the first hint we have in the opera of the relentless character, whose desire to possess Tosca is the mainspring of the drama.

A cannon shot startles them. It is from the direction of the castle and announces the escape of a prisoner -- Angelotti. Cavaradossi suggests the grounds of his villa as a place of concealment from Scarpia and his police agents, especially the old dried-up well, from which a secret passage leads to a dark vault. It can be reached by a rough path just outside the Attavanti chapel. The painter even offers to guide the fugitive. They leave hastily.

The Sacristan enters excitedly. He has great news. Word has been received that Bonaparte has been defeated. The old man now notices, however, greatly to his surprise, that the painter has gone. Acolytes, penitents, choristers, and pupils of the chapel crowd in from all directions. There is to be a "Te deum" in honour of the victory, and at evening, in the Farnese palace, a cantata with Floria Tosca as soloist. It means extra pay for the choristers. They are jubilant.

Scarpia enters unexpectedly. He stands in a doorway. A sudden hush falls upon all. For a while they are motionless, as if spellbound. While preparations are making for the "Te Deum," Scarpia orders search made in the Attavanti chapel. He finds a fan which, from the coat-of-arms on it, he recognizes as having been left there by Angelotti’s sister. A police agent also finds a basket. As he comes out with it, the Sacristan unwittingly exclaims that it is Cavaradossi’s, and empty, although the painter had said that he would eat nothing. It is plain to Scarpia, who has also discovered in the Mary Magdalen of the picture the likeness to the Marchioness Attavanti, that Cavaradossi had given the basket of provisions to Angelotti, and has been an accomplice in his escape.

Tosca comes in and quickly approaches the dais. She is greatly surprised not to find Cavaradossi at work on the picture. Scarpia dips his fingers in holy water and deferentially extends them to Tosca. Reluctantly she touches them, then crosses herself. Scarpia insinuatingly compliments her on her religious zeal. She comes to church to pray, not, like certain frivolous wantons -- he points to the picture -- to meet their lovers. He now produces the fan. "Is this a painter’s brush or a mahlstick?" he asks, and adds that he found it on the easel. Quickly, jealously, Tosca examines it, sees the arms of the attavanti. She had come to tell her lover that, because she is obliged to sing in the cantata she will be unable to meet him that night. Her reward is this evidence, offered by Scarpia that he has been carrying on a love affair with another woman, with whom he probably has gone to the villa. She gives way to an outburst of jealous rage; then, weeping leaves the chapel, to the gates of which Scarpia gallantly escorts her. He beckons to his agent Spoletta, and orders him to trail her and report to him at evening at the Farnese palace.

Church bells are tolling. Intermittently, from the castle of Sant’ Angelo comes the boom of the cannon. A cardinal has entered and is advancing to the high altar. The "Te deum" has begun. Scarpia soliloquizes vindictively: "Va, Tosca! Nel tuo cuor s’annida Scarpia" (Go, Tosca! There is room in your heart for Scarpia).

He pauses to bow reverently as the Cardinal passes by. Still soliloquizing, he exults in his power to send Cavaradossi to execution, while Tosca he will bring to his own arms. For her, he exclaims, he would renounce his hopes of heaven; then kneels and fervently joins in the "Te Deum."

This finale, with its elaborate apparatus, its complex emotions and the sinister and dominating figure of Scarpia, set against a brilliant and constantly shifting background, is a stirring and effective climax to the act.

Act II. The Farnese Palace. Scarpia’s apartments on an upper floor. A large window overlooks the palace courtyard. Scarpia is seated at table supping. At intervals he breaks off to reflect. His manner is anxious. An orchestra is heard from a lower story of the palace, where Queen Caroline is giving an entertainment in honour of the reported victory over Bonaparte. They are dancing, while waiting for Tosca, who is to sing in the cantata. Scarpia summons Sciarrone and gives him a letter, which is to be handed to the singer upon her arrival.

Spoletta returns from his mission. Tosca was followed to a villa almost hidden by foliage. She remained but a short time. When she left it, Spoletta and his men searched the house, but could not find Angelotti. Scarpia is furious, but is appeased when Spoletta tells him that they discovered Cavaradossi, put him in irons, and have brought him with them.

Through the open window there is now heard the beginning of the cantata, showing that Tosca has arrived and is on the floor below, where are the Queen’s reception rooms. Upon Scarpia’s order there are brought in Cavaradossi, Roberti, the executioner, and a judge with his clerk. Cavaradossi’s manner is indignant, defiant. Scarpia’s at first suave. Now and then Tosca’s voice is heard singing below. Finally Scarpia closes the window, thus shutting out the music. His questions addressed to Cavaradossi are now put in a voice more severe. He has just asked, "Once more and for the last time," where is Angelotti, when Tosca, evidently alarmed by the contents of the note received from Scarpia, hurries in and, seeing Cavaradossi, fervently embraces him. Under his breath he manages to warn her against disclosing anything she saw at the villa.

Scarpia orders that Cavaradossi be removed to an adjoining room and his deposition there taken. Tosca is not aware that it is the torture chamber the door to which has closed upon her lover. With Tosca Scarpia begins his interview quietly, deferentially. He has deduced from Spoletta’s report of her having remained but a short time at the villa that, instead of discovering the Attavanti with her lover, as she jealously had suspected, she had found him making plans to conceal Angelotti. In this he has just been confirmed by her frankly affectionate manner toward Cavaradossi.

At first she answers Scarpia’s questions as to the presence of someone else at the villa lightly; then, when he becomes more insistent, her replies show irritation, until, turning on her with "ferocious sterness," he tells her that his agents are attempting to wring a confession from Cavaradossi by torture. Even at that moment a groan is heard. Tosca implores mercy for her lover. Yes, if she will disclose the hiding place of Angelotti. Groan after groan escapes from the torture chamber. Tosca, overcome, bursts into convulsive sobs and sinks back upon a sofa. Spoletta kneels and mutters a Latin prayer. Scarpia remains cruelly impassive, silent, until, seeing his opportunity in Tosca’s collapse, he steps to the door and signals to the executioner. Roberti, to apply still greater torture. The air is rent with a prolonged cry of pain. Unable longer to bear her lover’s anguish and, in spite of warnings to say nothing, which he has called out to her between his spasms, she says hurriedly and in a stifled voice to Scarpia, "The well. . . in the garden."

Cavaradossi is borne in from the torture chamber and deposited on the sofa. Kneeling beside him Tosca lavishes tears and kisses upon him. Sciarrone, the judge, Roberti and the Clerk go. In obedience to a sign from Scarpia, Spoletta and the agents remain behind. Still loyal to his friend, Cavaradossi, although racked with pain, asks Tosca if unwittingly in his anguish he has disclosed aught. She reassures him.

In a loud and commanding voice Scarpia says to Spoletta: "In the well in the garden -- Go Spoletta!"

From Scarpia’s words Cavaradossi knows that Tosca has betrayed Angelotti’s hiding place. He tries to repulse her.

Sciarrone rushes in much perturbed. He brings bad news. The victory they have been celebrating has turned into defeat. Bonaparte has triumphed at Marengo. Cavaradossi is roused to enthusiasm by the tidings. "Tremble, Scarpia, thou butcherly hypocrite," he cries.

It is his death warrant. At Scarpia’s command Sciarrone and the agents seize him and drag with away to be hanged.

Quietly seating himself at table, Scarpia invites Tosca to a chair. Perhaps they can discover a plan by which Cavaradossi may be saved. He carefully polishes a wineglass with a napkin, fills it with wine, and pushes it toward her.

"Your price?" she asks, contemptuously.

Imperturbably he fills his glass. She is the price that must be paid for Cavaradossi’s life. The horror with which she shrinks from the proposal, her unfeigned detestation of the man putting it forward, make her seem the more fascinating to him. There is a sound of distant drums. It is the escort that will conduct Cavaradossi to the scaffold. Scarpia has almost finished supper. Imperturbably he peels an apple and cuts it in quarters, occasionally looking up and scanning his chosen victim’s features.

Distracted, not knowing whither or to whom to turn, Tosca now utters the famous:

Vissi d’arte e d’amor,
Non feci ma male ad anima viva":

(Music and love -- these have I lived for,
Nor ever have I harmed a living being. . .

In this, my hour of grief and bitter tribulation,
O, Heavenly Father, why hast thou forsaken me),

The "Vissi d’arte" justly is considered the most beautiful air in the repertoire of modern Italian opera. It is to passages of surpassing eloquence like this that Puccini owes his fame, and his operas are indebted for their lasting power of appeal.

Beginning quietly, "Vissi d’arte e d’amor," it works

up to the impassioned, heart-rending outburst of grief with which it comes to an end.

A knock at the door. Spoletta comes to announce that Angelotti, on finding himself discovered, swallowed poison. "The other," he adds, meaning Cavaradossi, "awaits your decision." The life of Tosca’s lover is in the hands of the man who has told her how she may save him. Softly Scarpia asks her, "What say you?" She nods consent; then, weeping for the shame of it, buries her head in the sofa cushions.

Scarpia says it is necessary for a mock execution to be gone through with, before Tosca and Cavaradossi can flee Rome. He directs Spoletta that the execution is to be simulated -- "as we did in the case of Palmieri. -- You understand."

"Just like Palmieri," Spoletta repeats with emphasis, and goes.

Scarpia turns to Tosca. "I have kept my promise" She, however, demands safe conduct for Cavaradossi and herself. Scarpia goes to his desk to write the paper. With trembling hand Tosca, standing at the table, raises to her lips the wineglass filled for her by Scarpia. As she does so she sees the sharp, pointed knife with which he peeled and quartered the apple. A rapid glance at the desk assures her that he still is writing. With infinite caution she reaches out, secures possession of the knife, conceals it on her person. Scarpia has finished writing. He folds up the paper, advances toward Tosca with open arms to embrace her.

"Tosca, at last thou art mine!"

With a swift stroke of the knife, she stabs him full in the breast.

"It is thus that Tosca kisses!"

He staggers, falls. Ineffectually he strives to rise; makes a final effort; falls backward; dies.

Glancing back from time to time at Scarpia’s corpse, Tosca goes to the table, where she dips a napkin in water and washes her fingers. She arranges her hair before a looking-glass, then looks on the desk for the safe-conduct. Not finding it there, she searches elsewhere for it, finally discovers it clutched in Scarpia’s dead fingers, lifts his arm, draws out the paper from between the fingers, and lets the arm fall back stiff and stark, as she hides the paper in her bosom. For a brief moment she surveys the body, then extinguishes the lights on the supper table.

About to leave, she sees one of the candles on the desk still burning. With a grace of solemnity, she lights with it the other candle, places one candle to the right, the other to the left of Scarpia’s head, takes down a crucifix from the wall, and, kneeling, places it on the dead man’s breast. There is a roll of distant drums. She rises; steals out of the room.

In the opera, as in the play, which was one of Sarah Bernhardt’s triumphs, it is a wonderful scene -- one of the greatest in all drama. Anyone who has seen it adequately acted, knows what it has signified in the success of the opera, even after giving Puccini credit for "Vissi d’arte" and an expressive accompaniment to all that transpires on the stage.

Adolfo Hohenstein poster for Puccini's opera La Tosca (1899) (image)

This 1899 poster for the opera La Tosca by Giacomo Puccini was designed by Adolfo Hohenstein (1854–1928).

Act III. A platform of the Castle Sant’ Angelo. Left, a casement with a table, a bench, and a stool. On the table are a lantern, a huge register book, and writing materials. Suspended on one of the walls are a crucifix and a votive lamp. Right, a trap door opening on a flight of steps that lead to the platform from below. The Vatican and St. Paul’s are seen in the distance. The clear sky is studded with stars. It is just before dawn. The jangle of sheep bells is heard, at first distant, then nearer. Without, a shepherd sings his lay. A dim, grey light heralds the approach of dawn.

The firing party conducting Cavaradossi ascends the steps through the trap door and is received by a jailer. From a paper handed him by the sergeant in charge of the picket, the jailer makes entries in the register, to which the sergeant signs his name, then descend the steps followed by the picket. A bell strikes. "You have an hour," the jailer tells Cavaradossi. The latter craves the favour of being permitted to write a letter. It being granted, he begins to write, but soon loses himself in memories of Tosca. "E lucevan le stelle ed olezzava la terra" (When the stars were brightly shining, and faint perfumes the air pervaded) -- a tenor air of great beauty.

He buries his face in his hands. Spoletta and the sergeant conduct Tosca up the steps to the platform, and point out to her where she will find Cavaradossi. A dim light still envelopes the scene as with mystery. Tosca, seeing her lover, rushes up to him and, unable to speak for sheer emotion, lifts his hands and shows him -- herself and the safe-conduct.

"At what price?" he asks.

Swiftly she tells him what Scarpia demanded of her, and how, having consented, she thwarted him by slaying him with her own hand. Lovingly he takes her hands in his. "O dolci mani mansuede e pure" (Oh! gentle hands, so pitiful and tender). Her voice mingles with his in love and gratitude for deliverance.

Amaro sol per te m’era il morire" (The sting of death, I only felt for thee, love).

She informs him of the necessity of going through a mock execution. He must fall naturally and lie perfectly still, as if dead, until she calls to him. They laugh over the ruse. It will be amusing. The firing party arrives. The sergeant offers to bandage Cavaradossi’s eyes. The latter declines. He stands with his back to the wall. The soldiers take aim. Tosca stops her ears with her hands so that she may not hear the explosion. The officer lowers his sword. The soldiers fire. Cavaradossi falls.

"How well he acts it!" exclaims Tosca.

A cloth is thrown over Cavaradossi. The firing party marches off. Tosca cautions her lover not to move yet. The footsteps of the firing party die away -- "Now get up." He does not move. Can he not hear? She goes nearer to him. "Mario! Up quickly! Away! -- Up! up! Mario!"

She raises the cloth. To the last Scarpia has tricked her. He had ordered a real, not a mock execution. Her lover lies at her feet -- a corpse.

There are cries from below the platform. Scarpia’s murder has been discovered. His myrmidons are hastening to apprehend her. She springs upon the parapet and throws herself into space.

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