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Tosca - Background

The composition

Puccini had seen a performance of Sardou's drama as early as 1889 when he was working on Manon Lescaut, and wrote about it to his publisher Giulio Ricordi. It is known that Verdi himself was interested in the subject ("vi sarebbe un dramma di Sardou, che, se io fossi ancora in carriera, musicherei con tutta l'anima, e sarebbe Tosca").

Puccini went no further until 1896, when he knew that Illica was already writing a libretto based on Tosca for Alberto Franchetti. He applied to Ricordi, the publisher for both composers, and obtained the subject for himself. Franchetti's docile attitude was probably based on the results of an earlier competition between Puccini and Leoncavallo, when they each composed simultaneously a Bohème. Leoncavallo's work was outclassed and had no chance of entering the repertoire.

Puccini visited Sardou twice in Paris (in April 1898 and January 1899) to discuss the adaptation. They had two major differences regarding Act 3. Sardou gave in on the first point and allowed Puccini to replace a patriotic hymn of the imprisoned Cavaradossi with a love song. He did not acquiesce on the second matter: he wanted an abrupt, thundering finale, while Puccini had in mind a more elaborated setting of Tosca's death.

A psychological drama

Let Puccini describe the difference between Tosca and his previous work (Bohème): "Il colore non è più romantico e lirico, ma sensuale, appassionato e torbido. Non persone buone e amabili, ma individui loschi come Scarpia e Spoletta. E gli eroi non sono docili come Rodolfo e Mimì, ma attivi e coraggiosi". The plot plays with passions rather than feelings. In Bohème the villain was fate, represented by illness, and the characters had to accept it while moving toward an unavoidable ending (there is minimal action on stage). In Tosca both heros and villains are humans who struggle on stage, and you can expect a coup de théâtre at any moment.

The clashes are always between single individuals. History, politics, ideals are in the background and sometimes serve as pretexts, but the real motivations are strictly personal. The action has the structure of a series of duos: in the first act Tosca, Cavaradossi, the sacristan, Scarpia and Angelotti appear always in pairs. In the 2nd act Tosca and Scarpia struggle on stage while Roberti tortures Cavaradossi in another room. The authors steadily focus on the psychology of the individuals to delineate the characters. Tosca arouses and then observes Mario to confirm her suspicions, Scarpia plays with her feelings and reactions in order to gradually subdue her, etc.

Tosca is a story of cheating and doubt. Nothing seems honest and direct: even love is troubled by jealousy. Cavaradossi's torture forces Tosca, not himself, to confess. Scarpia is killed with a table knife by "sweet and innocent" hands. And even the marginal characters like the sacristan and the prison guard lie or act dishonestly. At least Angelotti seems a direct, idealistic figure, but he takes a woman's disguise when he goes to his hiding place in a fake well... The inappropriate use of objects and situations is used systematically to create a suffocating atmosphere of doubt and suspicion. Even something as definitive as Mario's death is just a "faked simulation" and causes joy and relief to Tosca.

Historical background

The maniacal realism coupled with systematic counterfeit make Tosca seem close to Pirandello's theatre: daily reality can be more bizarre than the wildest fantasy, so extreme theatrical inventions become convincing in an everyday context. Puccini's aesthetics at the time were those of Verismo and bourgeois turn-of-the-century culture: an aesthetic of daily matters (the drift to D'Annunzio and art-nouveau themes would come later with Turandot ). By these means Puccini made an effort to accommodate an hyperbolic plot to ordinary events, such as would appear realistic on that day, 100 years before...

Sardou specifies the time of the events exactly: between Wednesday, June 17, 1800 and the dawn of the following day. In February 1798 French troops had occupied the Vatican State and proclaimed the Roman Republic. Angelucci was one of the republican leaders and consul of Rome. The Pope had to flee to Tuscany: Ferdinando IV of Bourbon, King of Naples, tried to rescue him but was himself defeated. In January 1799 the Parthenopean (Neapolitan) Republic was proclaimed. In April 1799, while Napoleon was in Egypt, an Austrian-Russian army under General Suvorov crossed into northern Italy and defeated the French republics. In June Cardinal Ruffo occupied Naples in the name of King Ferdinand, and in September the Bourbon troops entered Rome. The reactionary party was inspired by Maria Carolina of Austria, the wife of Ferdinando IV and sister of Marie Antoinette. Pope Pius IV being dead, she assumed the regency and started a "cleansing" action against republicans, liberals or simply people who had compromised themselves under French rule. There were thousands of victims, including many artists, scientists and intellectuals.

The following spring, Napoleon crossed the Alps with an army and met the Austrians (commanded by general Mélas) at Marengo. The Austrians outnumbered the enemy and, after fierce fighting, took control of the locality in the morning of June 14 1800. The battle seemed over when Marshal Desaix, at the cost of his life, managed to reverse the situation. By evening the victory had been won by the French army.

The events of Tosca take place in the brief time when the news of the battle was reaching Rome. During the 1st act the Sacristan announces the Austrian victory and Tosca is abruptly engaged to sing at the celebration (beginning of act 2). During the torture of Cavaradossi (2nd act) comes the news of Napoleon's victory. After the tragic ending of Act 3 it seems that Angelotti and Cavaradossi will have their posthumous revenge. But Napoleon preferred to make an agreement with the Spanish monarchy that ensured the survival of both the Bourbons in Naples and of the Pope in Rome. In July 1800, the new Pope (Pius VII) entered Rome as head of the Vatican State.

The realism of Tosca

Puccini looked at even the smallest details in order to achieve a near perfect correspondence between stage action and historic reality. For Bohème he needed to set his subject in the past because he wanted realism. Tosca, with its escapes, tortures and executions, needed an exact definition of the historical time in order to concentrate attention on the personal dramas of the characters. The surrounding events have no degree of freedom.

We have seen that every reference to historic figures, places and events such as General Mélas and the Battle of Marengo is exact. That was not enough. Puccini researched the liturgical practices at Rome for the Te Deum of the first finale. The morning bells of Act 3 required a list of all the churches surrounding Castel Sant'Angelo and their bells, including the respective pitches.

The search for accuracy continued during the preparation of the premiere. Puccini insisted that the costume designs (particularly the sacred vestments) be based on research of historical documentation. The designs for the scenes were made by Adolfo Hohenstein, the leading artist at the publishing house of Ricordi (he designed the scenery for all important premieres of Ricordi's scores in the period from Falstaff to Madama Butterfly). The drawings (see pictures page) were made from photos of the actual settings provided by Puccini. The authors' attention to realistic detail requires a similar attitude in the staging of Tosca. Even minor license (like having the Cardinal conduct the service from the painter's scaffolding) is simply unacceptable. As the ultimate in realistic representation one should recall the live broadcast by Italian television: Tosca "from the real places at the real times".

There is one apparent anachronism, however. Tosca is a professional singer ("celebre cantante"), while it is well known that in the early 1800s in the Papal states it was forbidden for women to sing in churches or in the theatre. At the time of Tosca's premiere there was still a castrato (Domenico Mustafà) serving as director of the Vatican chapel, which still employed "natural soprani": the best known was Alessandro Moreschi, who made some recordings. But in fact the ban was strictly respected only in the church. During Carnival, "exceptional permissions" were possible for the theatre, and the "Roman Carnival" was known for its duration. In Rossini's times the problem seemed to have disappeared, even though there was still a strict censorship (for example Cenerentola was not allowed to remove her shoe, which was considered too intimate an item of clothing). Returning to Tosca: we know that she sings at the theatre and on private stages. It is said several times that she "prays" in the church - never that she sings there!

Scarpia: an historical figure?

Barone Scarpia, capo della polizia. Did he really exist? Was Scarpia born a baron, or was he a policeman granted the title because he had to meet daily with cardinals who, being aristocrats, did not like to deal with plebeians? The Roman chief of police in June 1800 was Trojano Marulli, Duke of Ascoli. An aristocrat - but hardly the historical model for Scarpia.

The figure who may have inspired Sardou's character was very likely a recently-appointed Bourbon officer: Baron Sciarpa. The shift of a vowel may have been intended to give more bite to the name.

When Cardinal Ruffo fled to Calabria to organize an army against the Republicans, he allied himself with outlaw bands active in the country. The most famous of the brigands was Michele Pezza, known as Fra Diavolo. But the most powerful among them was a mercenary soldier: Gherardo Curci, known as Sciarpa. He had been a Bourbon officer, the chief of the palace guard. After having been dismissed he raised his own mercenary army. He offered his services to the French: when they refused he began to pillage the country in the region of Salerno "in the name of the King". He was a natural ally for Ruffo, and was instrumental in the crushing of the Parthenopean Republic.

When Ferdinand IV was restored to the throne he purged the army officers who had been defeated in 1798. At the same time he granted a general pardon to those who had contributed to his victory. The chiefs of the bands were breveted "colonels" and any of their followers who had fought heroically were made "officers". Sciarpa was rewarded with the title of "Baron", estates and a rich annuity.

Immediately thereafter Baron Sciarpa led his troops in an attack on the Roman Republic, backed by Fra Diavolo and other irregular troops, in advance of the Bourbon army. We do not know what happened to him after the French evacuated Rome in September 1800. Very likely he was banished, like his mentor Cardinal Ruffo. King Ferdinand did not like men who were too efficient ...

Cavaradossi has been shot!

Tosca's popularity, its realism, and its high-voltage finale provide the perfect background for a tradition of (in)famous accidents. There are plenty of anecdotes about the theatre: but where Tosca is concerned they become mythical.

From the front-page headlines in Italian newspapers: "Cavaradossi has been shot!"... At the Macerata summer festival on 30 July 1995, the tenor (Fabio Armiliato) was shot in the 3rd act - as usual. But this time when Tosca (Raina Kabaivanska) rushed to him she heard a whisper: "Call an ambulance!...", and then she fainted at the sight of his blood. Because of a blank charged with too much powder, the tow had pierced Cavaradossi's boot and hurt his leg. It is possible that the gun was overcharged because of another accident at the same festival, some years before, when the headlines read: "Cavaradossi dies from heart attack" (the guns did not go off!). Armiliato, after an hour of surgery, said he "had been lucky that the soldier did not aim at the right height". But he should have been grateful to the stage director for not sticking to the realism Puccini wanted: he staged the shooting on a staircase, with the soldier's head at the level of Cavaradossi's feet. (5 days later, going on stage at the beginning of act 2, Armiliato's crutch slipped, causing a double fracture of the other leg...) An even more realistic execution supposedly took place in the first years of Tosca's stage history: in the title role was Lina Cavalieri, known as the "world's most beautiful woman" and known also for her courage and boldness: actually she did not faint when Cavaradossi was really shot to death!

Tosca's finale seems to be prone also to less lethal accidents. The tales are apocryphal, and you can hear them told of many theatres and productions. The most popular is the the bouncing Tosca: Tosca as usual jumps from the walls of Castel Sant'Angelo. But the stage workers had improved her security by replacing the mattress with a trampoline, so that Tosca appeared 2 or 3 times from behind the wall... And the collective suicide: the stage director was giving last-minute instruction to the supers hired as soldiers. There had been no stage rehearsal, and he gave them the usual instruction "exit with the principals". When Tosca leapt from the parapet, seeing no other principals left on stage, they all dutifully jumped after her, giving a Shakespearean greatness to the final tragedy.

Of course it is necessary to report an anecdote from Tito Gobbi's memoires: Maria Callas was Tosca, and during the 2nd act she came too near the candles burning on Scarpia's desk and ignited her hair (or wig). Gobbi immediately improvised a raptor-like motion: he jumped on Tosca, embraced her and extinguished the flames. Tosca rejected him with disgust, but then whispered him a "thank you, Tito"... just before killing him.

Also memorable is Placido Domingo's headlong fall while rushing down from the scaffolding during Act 1 of "Tosca live at the real times & places": he smashed into the bottom of the fence of the real Cappella Attavanti, giving a definite hint of realism to the broadcast.

copyright Giovanni Christen, 1997

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:36:44 PST