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Tosca in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about Puccini’s Tosca in one place – right here!

What is the story?

Tosca is a political thriller, set in Rome in June 1800 (during the Napoleonic wars and a time of great political unrest). The action takes place over less than 24 hours, making it an intense experience!

The plot centres around three main characters – Rome’s diva Floria Tosca, her lover Mario Cavaradossi (a painter and republican) and the corrupt Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia. Scarpia has long lusted after Tosca, and when he suspects Cavaradossi of assisting an escaped political prisoner, seizes the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He will manipulate Tosca into revealing the prisoner’s hiding place and Cavaradossi’s involvement, and have her for himself.

When Cavaradossi is captured, Scarpia offers Tosca a horrific bargain – she must give herself to Scarpia, or her lover is killed… what will she choose, and who will survive?

Full synopsis » 

The Company of Tosca © James Glossop

Who are the characters?

Floria Tosca – Rome’s star opera singer (soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi – a painter, Tosca’s lover (tenor)
Baron Scarpia – Chief of Police (baritone)
Cesare Angelotti – an escaped political prisoner (bass)
Spoletta – police agent (tenor)
Sciarrone – police agent (bass)
A Sacristan – looks after the church (bass)

Our production also features a further three henchmen (in addition to Spoletta and Sciarrone) who are a permanent part of Scarpia’s entourage, as well as altar boys in the ‘Te deum’ and full chorus, who represent Scarpia’s supporters.

Robert Hayward as Scarpia and Giselle Allen as Tosca © James Glossop

What is the music like?

Tosca contains some of opera’s most iconic music:

–  The famous soprano aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ (‘I lived for art’), which is sung by Tosca during Act II of the opera. Finding both herself and her lover at the mercy of Scarpia, she prays, musing over her darkened fate and asking why God has seemingly abandoned her. Amazingly, this spellbinding moment of reverence and intense emotion was almost cut by Puccini, who believed the aria ‘held up the action’!

–  The heart-wrenching ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (‘The stars were shining brightly’), is Cavaradossi’s farewell to life, sung as he awaits execution, and is one of the most popular arias in the Italian tenor repertoire.

–  The hugely impressive ‘Te deum’ which closes Act I contrasts the sacred and the profane – the full chorus sing the ‘Te deum’ hymn while Scarpia gloatingly anticipates his conquest of Tosca, accompanied by vast orchestral forces, organ, church bells, and cannon fire every four bars (which signals that the prisoner Angelotti has escaped). When writing the ‘Te deum’ music, Puccini researched the melodies to which the hymn was set in Roman churches, and adapted the music to the exact pitch of the great bell of St Peter’s Basilica.

Tosca’s score is also full of musical motifs, which represent different characters and ideas in the story. Most recognisable is the sequence of three, strident chords that represent the evil Scarpia (the interval is an unsettling tritone, known as the ‘devil’s interval’). This motif closes Act I, is heard very softly following Scarpia’s murder in Act II, and even features throughout Act III, depicting his lingering influence – Scarpia is still present, pulling the strings from beyond the grave…

What is this production like?

Edward Dick’s critically-acclaimed production of Tosca blends Renaissance Roman grandeur with contemporary references in a collusion of old and new. In Tom Scutt’s highly theatrical design, a vast golden dome hangs above the stage, in which a fresco of Mary Magdalene is painted. The dome moves in each act to create a different space, tipping vertically to become a sky full of stars as Cavaradossi lives out his final hour in Act III.

Costumes (by BAFTA-winning Fotini Dimou) are elegant and contemporary, ranging from the sharp suits of Scarpia and his henchmen to Tosca’s glamorous Act II evening gown. Lighting (by Lee Curran) is key – look out for something truly spectacular in Tosca’s ‘leap from the battlements’ as the sun rises at the opera’s finale…

See production photos »

Who was the composer?

Tosca was written by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who both also worked on La bohème and Madama Butterfly. The composition process was quite convoluted, spanning 11 years in total…

In 1889, Puccini saw the play La Tosca by French playwright Victorien Sardou and wrote to publisher Ricordi asking him for Sardou’s permission for the play to be made into an opera – ‘I see in this Tosca the opera I need’. However, after a falling out with Sardou in 1891, Puccini abandoned the project and Ricordi assigned it to a totally different composer. In 1895, he wanted – and was granted – it back again!

Adapting the wordy play into a taut operatic drama took a further four years, with many clashes (as became the norm with Puccini’s operas) between composer, librettists and publisher. All threatened to quit at one point or another. Tosca finally premiered on 14 January 1900 in Rome, as was deemed appropriate given its setting. It had a mixed critical reception, but was loved by audiences and went on to a run of 20 sell-out performances. It has been a hit ever since, and is now the fifth most frequently performed opera worldwide.

Giacomo Puccini at the piano © 1914

Did you know?

–  Master of detail and perfectionist Puccini wanted to incorporate as much authentic local colour into Tosca’s score as he could. To research for Act III, in which church bells are heard at dawn, he visited Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo (the prison in which, in the story, Cavaradossi is held to await his execution), to measure the exact sound of the matins bells there, as they would be heard from the ramparts.

He then had bells cast to order, and included detail in the score about where these bells should be played backstage (some near, some further away), to create the desired effect. When Tosca is performed in the theatre, this can involve 11 different bells played by five different percussionists and two offstage conductors!

After Tosca’s premiere in 1900, librettist Illica wasn’t sure it had been worth it. He wrote to publisher Ricordi: “the great fuss and the large amount of money for the bells have constituted an additional folly, because it passes completely unnoticed”… but we know that YOU will notice – now!

–  Each act of Tosca is set in a very real place in Rome – Act I in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act II in Scarpia’s apartment within the Palazzo Farnese and Act III on the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Together, they represent three facets of Rome’s power – church, palace and prison.

– There are several popular ‘myths’ around Tosca. One involves stage hands putting down a pile of mattresses so large (in the name of safety) for Tosca to land on, that the leading lady, having leaped to her death, reappeared several times behind the battlements! Did it ever happen? We’ll never know…

Tosca is sung in Italian with English titles, and lasts approximately 2 hours 40 minutes (including two intervals). Join in on social media with #ONTosca.

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