When Puccini’s opera Tosca was first performed the critics savaged it. They called it a “tawdry, little shocker.”
Puccini had tremendous success with La Boheme the year before. What kind of success? Imagine Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and American Idol all wrapped into one…and you still wouldn’t come close. So everyone was looking forward to his next opera. Could he top La Boheme? The critics were certain he could not so they were predisposed to hate Tosca before it was staged.
The public, on the other hand, had very different ideas after they say it.
Tosca is an opera about a flawed woman. Tosca is a deeply jealous woman in love with a painter. But there’s a chief of police, Scarpia, who is also in love with Tosca. He’s a real snake, this Scarpia, and one of the most evil characters in opera. Intrigue, deception and violence are the foundations to this opera. It’s the quintessential opera: people are either singing about their undying love for one another or they are screaming pure hate at each other. There is no middle ground. Nor should there be for Tosca examines violence and brutality on a fundamental level. Puccini is saying, “This is violence, and, no, it’s not pretty.”
Because of the kinds of stories I write, and the themes I examine, I really like that approach.
But, back to the opera. Scarpia arrests Tosca’s lover and through his machinations lures her to his lair. In a memorable scene he says he will relent if Tosca will yield her sexual favors. Tosca sings a heart breaking aria which questions her religious faith. Finally, she’s had enough, and as Scarpia tries to feel her up she grabs a knife and plunges it into his heart
“This is Tosca’s kiss,” she cries.
Scarpia, as one may imagine, is surprised by this unfortunate turn of events. But Puccini isn’t done with his “tawdry, little shocker.” He has Tosca stand over the dying Scarpia and sing triumphantly while holding a dripping knife, “Are you choking on your own blood?”
Lesson learned. Don’t mess around with Tosca.
So she grabs a note Scarpia wrote which will free her lover, she runs to the castle where he is incarcerated, a mock execution is held but it’s not mock after all because Scarpia is finding his revenge from the grave. Soldiers run onto the parapet to arrest Tosca for murdering Scarpia but she’s had enough and flings herself off the parapet and screams all the way down and splatters her brains out in the street below.
End of sublime love. End of Tosca. End of opera. Boom, curtain closes.
The public loved it. And why not? It has intrigue, deception, torture, extortion, blood, rape, murder, suicide, all wrapped around a pretty good love story. What’s not to like?
Tosca has a bit of a funny past with its productions as well. In one of them the director told the soldiers on the parapet, “Just react and take your cue from Tosca.” So when Tosca leaps to her death they all fall in line and jump after her! The audience liked that, too, though it was unexpected. In another production a trampoline was hidden behind the wall so the actress wouldn’t hurt herself when she jumped. So the soldiers rush onto the stage, Tosca bids farewell and jumps…she hits the trampoline and bounces back into sight! Pretty funny, and one of the little behind the scenes stories that make this opera so delightful.
I really like this opera a lot. If you like blood and violence and torture and sexual perversion, you’ll love Tosca, too. Give it a peek.