Giacomo Puccini


SC69, S. 69

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) had composed four operas before officially taking up his pen with Tosca in 1895. After the poor reception of Puccini's first two operas, Le villi and Edgar, Manon Lescaut brought him considerable fame and financial success, and La Bohème was popularly (although not always critically) well received. In Tosca, Puccini explored the dark side of human emotion, a marked change from the late Romantic sentimentality of La Bohème. Tosca was premiered in 1900 at Rome's Teatro Costanzi to a temperate critical reception.

Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa based their libretto for Tosca on Victorien Sardou's play La Tosca (1887), which actress Sarah Bernhardt made famous in performances throughout Europe. Puccini first came into contact with Sardou's play in 1889. His delay in commencing the music for Tosca was largely the result of his flagging interest in the play, perhaps brought on by Sardou's admission of his dislike for Puccini's music. Puccini's publisher Giulio Ricordi eventually convinced the composer to complete Tosca.

Puccini creates coherence between story and music with themes that recur in association with characters and concepts. The opera begins as the orchestra states the low brass-laden three-chord motive outlining the sinister interval of a tritone (B flat major, A flat major, E major) that we come later in Act One to associate with the villainous confessor and executioner Scarpia. An expansive, major-mode theme, orchestrated for strings, is introduced in Act One as Tosca's and Cavaradossi's love music, and returns in Act Two, when Tosca enters Scarpia's chamber and as Cavaradossi is led from the torture chamber to Tosca, and in Act Three, as pantomime music as Cavaradossi writes his farewell to Tosca. Although the continuous swaths of sound in Puccini's score avoid the sharp delineations between recitative and aria of earlier nineteenth century Italian operas, arias still function to uncover the emotions of the central characters in Tosca. Tosca utters her Act Two supplication "Vissi d'arte" in a soaring melodic idiom, reinforced by a rich harmonic language and orchestral palette. The cello melody that accompanied Tosca's first entrance and meeting with Cavaradossi in Act One, here accompanies Tosca's prayer, illustrating the extent to which love is Tosca's true religion. In Cavaradossi's Act Three aria, "E lucevan le stelle", the orchestra sings with him at key utterances in desperately empty octaves.

Puccini also upheld here the tradition of monumental end-of-act finales. The Act One finale ("Tre sbirri...una carrozza") is a cleverly crafted juxtaposition of diagetic and non-diagetic music in which the Latin chorus of working-class believers singing the Te Deum and the intermittent utterances of the godless Scarpia mesh musically on different planes of realistic perception. The Act Two finale, which grows out of Tosca's and Cavaradossi's duet, is a tragic rush as Sciaronne, Spoletta, and a chorus of soldiers chase Tosca to her death. The E minor tonality that accompanied Scarpia's death at Tosca's hands in Act Two, here accompanies her own demise, and binds Tosca and Scarpia beyond their earthly entanglement.