• Tosca: Synopsis and Musical Structure

    Tosca, melodrama in three acts, premiered on January 14, 1900 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, setting to music by Giacomo Puccini an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Victorien Sardou's French play La Tosca (1887)


    Floria Tosca, a celebrated singer, soprano
    Mario Cavaradossi, her lover, a painter, tenor
    Baron Scarpia, Chief of Police in Rome, baritone
    Cesare Angelotti, former Consul of the Roman Republic, bass
    A Sacristan, bass
    Spoletta, a police agent, tenor
    Sciarrone, a gendarme, bass
    A Gaoler, bass
    A Shepherd boy, alto
    Roberti, executioner, silent role
    Soldiers, police agents, noblemen and women, townsfolk, artisans
    Silent: cardinal, judge, scribe, officer, sargeant

    Setting: Rome, June 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars; the interior of the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle (act I); Scarpia's apartment in the Palazzo Farnese (act II); A platform in the Castel Sant'Angelo (act III)

    Running time, approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes

    Act I

    Angelotti, a fugitive, hurries into the church, searches for a key concealed in a shrine, and hides in the private chapel of the Attavanti family. A sacristan enters and starts washing some paintbrushes that belong to the painter Cavaradossi, who was commissioned by the church to paint a portrait of the Magdalen. Cavaradossi comes in and contemplates his work. He has given to the Magdalen a blend of the facial features of his girlfriend Tosca, a famous operatic singer, and a beautiful woman he's seen praying in the church. He chats with the sacristan who has some snide remarks for him. The sacristan exits, and Angelotti comes out of hiding to meet his friend Cavaradossi, and explains to him that he has escaped from being imprisoned under Scarpia's orders, in the undergrounds of Castel Sant'Angelo. Tosca's voice is heard approaching the church. Angelotti hides again. Cavaradossi admits his girlfriend into the church. She is jealous because she perceives in the painting the likeness of the Marchesa Attavanti. The painter reassures her, they reaffirm their love for each other and plan on meeting later that night in the painter's villa, after her evening performance. She leaves.

    Angelotti and Cavaradossi make plans for the former's escape. He'll go in disguise to the latter's villa and hide in a well. A canon shot is heard, signaling that Angelotti's flight from Sant'Angelo has been discovered. The sacristan re-enters with news of Napoleon's defeat at Marengo. Joyous populace comes in. Scarpia, Spoletta, and other police agents enter the church searching for the fugitive. They find some evidence, including a fan belonging to the Marchesa Attavanti, who is Angelotti's sister. Tosca returns, and Scarpia makes use of the fan to, well, fan the flames of her jealousy. He desires her, and wants to disgrace her lover in order to woo her for himself. She hurries away in tears and heads to Cavaradossi's villa, believing that she will surprise him together with the Marchesa. Scarpia orders her followed.

    Act II

    Scarpia is dining alone in his apartment. Spoletta comes in to report that they couldn't find any evidence of Angelotti's presence in Cavaradossi's villa, but arrested the later nevertheless. Elsewhere in the Palazzo Farnese Tosca is singing a cantata in Queen Caroline's honor. During the performance, Scarpia interrogates Cavaradossi who denies all knowledge of Angelotti's whereabouts. The performance ends, Tosca comes in, and Scarpia orders Cavaradossi tortured in an adjoining room. He asks Tosca for Angelotti's location. Initially she refuses to cooperate, but overhearing Cavaradossi's groans, she cracks down and reveals Angelotti's hiding place in the well. Scarpia stops the torture section. Cavaradossi, disgusted by Tosca's betrayal, curses her. Sciarrone enters to announce that the battle of Marengo was wrongly reported as a defeat for Napoleon, who actually won it. Cavaradossi then praises liberty, which motivates Scarpia to order his execution, and schedules it for dawn. Cavaradossi is dragged out to prison, leaving Scarpia alone with the distressed Tosca. He tells her that if she yields to him, he'll set the painter free. Tosca laments her fate ("Vissi d'arte"). Spoletta enters and announces that Angelotti has killed himself. Tosca agrees with Cavaradossi's terms. The latter bids Spoletta to set up a mock execution which will then allow the Tosca and Cavaradossi to escape after the painter is shot with blank bullets. However he instructs Spoletta to do it "as in the case of Palmieri" (as we'll see later, he means by that the painter is to be killed with real bullets). He sees himself alone with Tosca again, writes a safe-conduct for her, and grabs her. Disgusted, she stabs him to death.

    Act III

    Dawn is breaking in the Sant'Angelo castle. Cavaradossi is writing a farewell letter to Tosca and sings of his love for her ("E lucevan le stelle"). Spoletta brings Tosca in, and leaves. She shows the safe-conduct to a suspicious Cavaradossi who wonders what kind of favors she had to agree with to secure it, but is delighted to know that she actually killed Scarpia before giving in to his desires. She instructs Cavaradossi on the supposed mock execution. He is taken to the firing squad, and is shot to death, to Tosca's astonishment and dismay when she realizes that Scarpia fooled her. She climbs onto the battlements and yelling that she and Scarpia will meet before God, leaps to her death.


    Musical Structure

    Tosca is not a numbers-opera, being mostly written-through and making rare use of recitatives. Its music flows often without resource to vocal lines, like the incidental music to a film, reinforcing dramatic events, heating up the atmosphere, soothing the audience in some pauses of the dramatic tension, and so forth. It does keep some highly melodic set pieces, many of them in monologue style, the most famous being "Recondita Armonia," "Mia gelosa!" (this one, a love duet rather than a monologue), "Va, Tosca," "Vissi d'arte," "E Lucevan le stelle," and "Parlami ancora." In its structure, the opera also makes use of leitmotifs. These include Scarpia's villanous motif made of a progression of three chords that produce a violent tonal wrench, a recurring love theme played on cellos, a motif for Tosca herself, a "knife" theme played on full strings, a "well" motif that recurs when characters must be thinking of the well but don't want to mention it (a clever device!), some buffo tones that accompany the Sacristan, a theme played around the torture scene, and a motif for Angelotti.

    Unlike Wagner's, these motifs that all belong to a single object, person, or idea, are not developed or modified as the opera goes by. They do make interesting apparitions - such as, when Tosca asks Cavaradossi to meet him in his villa "tonight" and the latter is startled (since he intends to hide Angelotti there), we hear Angelotti's leitmotif. Similarly, Scarpia's motif lingers while the two lovers are bickering in act I, as an anticipation of the doom that will soon strike them.

    The opera is orchestrated for the usual set of strings and winds, augmented with percussion, timpani, harp, and organ.

    Tosca has brutal music. It is full of strong dissonances and twisting harmonies, signaling the wild emotions of the "good" characters and the villany of its antagonist. Another notable characteristic of this opera is Puccini's careful and meticulous musical scene-setting. The composer was so interested in details of local color that he researched the exact variant of the melody of the Gregorian Te Deum that he included in the finale of Act I, and he made a point of traveling to Rome to listen to the bells ringing in the vicinity of the Castel Sant'Angelo, and worried about the key to which the great bell of St. Peter's was tuned (low E). He then incorporated these local sounds into the opening of Act III, when dawn is breaking in Rome. Also, in including the sad folk tune sang by the shepherd boy ("Io de' sospiri"), Puccini did not ask for his librettists to provide a text, but actually solicited the lyrics from a Roman writer, Luigi Zanasso, in the Campanian dialect in order to have genuine folk tradition.

    The opera opens with the three loud chords of Scarpia's motif. At the sacristan's entrance we hear the buffo motif in a flighty little tune. Next we get the tuneful rapture of "Recondita armonia," then we are treated to Tosca's "Non la sospiri" which contains a tripping cadential figure that had appeared before when Tosca was praying to the Madonna, and is repeated four times in rapid succession. "Mia Gelosa" introduces the love motif that will recurr most often in the opera. This passage actually starts not as a conventional duet but rather as a dialogue, and only when Tosca accepts Cavaradossi's explanation, the love theme pours in and becomes a conventional duet at the words "Qual'occhio al mondo" with its typical long-arched Puccini melody leading to a brief unison passage in four bars, which then dissolves again into a more conversational dialogue as Tosca leaves, with delicate wind and harp accompaniment.

    The above mentioned Te Deum in honor of the supposed victory against Napoleon is a great slow processional theme that surges and swells at the end of act I, not before we hear Scarpia's hateful monologue over an obsessive pattern of alternating chords, accompanied by bells, organ, drum-beats like canon fire, and growling bassoons. Scarpia's "credo" that is so thunderously stated in this orchestral explosion, finishes up with a string of thickly accompanied arioso passages, in which the harmony and instrumentation have been said to evoke a sense of evil comparable to the music that is played for Hagen in Wagner's Götterdämmerung (this is not the only occasion when Puccini's music in Tosca gets compared to Wagner's, thanks to the above-mentioned written-through structure and use of leitmotifs).

    Act II has a prelude that has echoes of the love and jealousy and recovers Scarpia's theme, in order to convey his suppressed excitement in anticipation of being able to kill his rival and rape his object of desire. The beginning of Act II does not have set pieces or great tunes but is very effective in moving the plot along, with the eerie combination of Scarpia's murderous thoughts with a backing of high-society dance music (a gavotte). Every time Scarpia sings, there is a doom-laden orchestral mood that is much more atmospheric than the usual accompaniment heard in earlier Italian operas. Another similar contrast that illustrates well the abysm between the character of the principals, is when we have the singing of a cantata in the Queen's honor, during the interrogation of Cavaradossi scene, when the choir provides a dissonant and tense background accompanied by low strings and woodwind. Scarpia's growing excitement is reflected in how he switches to 'con forza e sostenuto' in the uttering of his lines. "Vissi d'arte" ensues and recovers the motif that marked Tosca's first appearance. While Puccini himself later lamented that the aria stops too much the action, it does build up wonderfully to its big climax, and is touching. Next, we see another use of motif, when sinister music punctuates Tosca's grabbing of a knife and her murderous inner thoughts, which culminate in the stabbing scene that sees the knife motif played this time out loud on full strings. The scene (and act) ends with a sonorous funereal version of Scarpia's theme, played over the accompaniment of a death rattle of drums, while Tosca engages in repeated middle Cs in a declamatory style, saying "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!" (And before him all Rome trembled!).

    Act III opens with the beautiful dawn music that Puccini so carefully researched for local color, starting with a solo horn, followed by the shepherd's boy song and the chorus of bells, which are orchestrated along the love/jealousy theme. The use of motifs continues in the fact that when Cavaradossi sits down to write his farewell note, we again hear the love theme on solo cello, and get again the tripping tailpiece that we had heard in Act I when Tosca was praying. The color is set to 'con molta anima' (with lots of soul). "E lucevan le stelle" after recollecting past bliss, ends in darkness, with a mournful clarinet taking the main line right before the words 'O dolci baci, languide carezze.' Next we hear a freedom duet "Liberi!" that is very excited, over a lurching dance rhythm. The execution rolls on over a dirge-like, mournful melody which is repeated by ghastly trombones as the horror of Cavaradossi's death sinks in. The final moments bring about an orchestral peroration of Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle."

    One recurring criticism of Tosca is the fact that act III is musically anti-climatic when compared to I and II. Indeed, the central conflict of this opera is the one between Tosca and Scarpia, and there is some sense of it all being deflated when the latter dies. One can arguably say that morbid and ritualistic duels between heroine and antihero with Scarpia's long and minatory phrases opposed to Tosca's rapid, apprehensive interjections are indeed what makes this opera musically special in its ability to illustrate their conflict in musical terms. This is what seems to have escaped critics such as Benjamin Britten who deemed the opera "sickening" in its alleged "cheapness and emptiness" - others have called it a "shabby little shocker." We couldn't disagree more. There's nothing empty about Tosca. It contains powerful music that perfectly sets the emotional tone of the piece - and its melodious blockbusters have been forever enshrined in the memory of generations of opera lovers. Tosca might be called "cheap" if it were only made of melodious tunes, but it definitely is not, and contains dissonant contrasts, carefully executed local colors, impressive drama that is very well crafted for theatricality, not to forget that said melodious tunes are indeed gorgeous. Tosca is one of Puccini's most vivid scores, containing raw emotions. Its popularity is well justified, in our view.



    The Grove Book of Operas, Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy (editors)
    The New Kobbé's Opera Book, The Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie (editors)
    The Rough Guide to Opera, Matthew Boyden
    A Night at the Opera, Denis Forman
    Opera - Composers, Works, Performers, András Batta
    The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera, Stanley Sadie (editors)
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Tosca: Synopsis and Musical Structure started by Almaviva View original post

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