Tosca: Historical Notes
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AS EARLY AS THE SPRING OF 1889, Giacomo Puccini expressed to his publisher Ricordi his fervent desire to tackle the then-popular French play La Tosca by the then-popular (now largely forgotten) Victorien Sardou for his next opera. The play had been written as a vehicle for the great Sarah Bernhardt, who premiered the role in Paris in November 1887, and whom Puccini saw perform the role in Milan in 1890 and again in Florence in 1895.
From the start, La Tosca was attacked on account not only of its brutality (both the play and the opera depict torture, attempted rape and murder) but also its originality (or lack thereof). The playwright Ernest Daudet charged that Sardou had stolen key facets of the plot from his La Sainte Aubin, which takes place, as does the action of Sardou's play, on the occasion of Napoleon's fateful battle at Marengo, and in which the female lead is, like Tosca, a renowned singer. Perhaps adding insult to injury, Daudet had also written his play for Ms. Bernhardt. Furthermore, the American playwright Maurice Barrymore successfully litigated an injunction barring any English-language performances of the play in America based on his contention that Sardou had plagiarized the substance of Scarpia's betrayal of Tosca from his own play entitled Nadjezda. Of course, Sardou denied all of these claims and insisted that the play's inspiration was an actual event from 16th-century French history. These criticisms and charges notwithstanding, La Tosca proved to be a considerable success for the playwright, referred to by contemporaries as "the Caligula of the stage."
It seems that for many years after his initial, enthusiastic note to Ricordi, Puccini shelved the idea of La Tosca as a suitable operatic subject. Indeed, it was not until one year after he saw the play for the second time in Florence that he again became intrigued by the idea. There was by this time one problem (albeit a minor one for the beloved Puccini and his powerful publisher): Sardou had granted the rights to the play to a relatively minor composer, Alberto Franchetti; a nearly complete libretto had been penned by Luigi Illica; and the great master himself, the aging Verdi, had given the work his stamp of approval.
Surprisingly, Franchetti put up little resistance when Ricordi and Illica set out to dissuade him from the project, and LaTosca was soon Puccini's to transform. It is not surprising that Sardou had no objection to this rather under-handed treatment of Franchetti. Indeed, Sardou seemed quite anxious to provide Puccini with a subject, even pleading with the composer when he expressed second thoughts about his ability to do the work justice. The playwright was undoubtedly well aware of his potential royalties and could plainly see that Puccini was the obvious choice for a successful operatic endeavor. By early 1898, Puccini was in possession of a complete libretto, and that spring he traveled to Paris to consult with Sardou, who gave it his blessing.
The opera's premiere was set for January 14, 1900, at Teatro Costanzi in Rome (a fitting choice for this very Roman opera). The Italian political climate at the time was tense, to say the least. The king had dissolved Parliament the year before, and the government recently had reacted harshly to riots around the country, which stemmed from the worsening economic conditions. Rumors of a political assassination attempt that night were rampant. (Queen Margherita and other luminaries were to be in attendance at the premiere.) A police officer warned the conductor, Leopoldo Mugnone, that a bomb might be tossed into the theatre and, inexplicably, instructed him, in that event, to play the National Anthem. An understandably edgy Mugnone fled the pit shortly after the performance began when a noisy clamor broke out in the audience. It turned out to be nothing more than an argument between latecomers trying to reach their seats and those patrons already seated. (A most persuasive case against late seating!) The performance resumed and, happily, continued without incident.
Since that first night, critical reaction to Tosca has been strong and varied. Many have attacked the opera for its violence and sadism. A Parisian critic, writing in the Mercure de France, stated that Tosca "is coarsely puerile, pretentious and vapid." The New York Times announced hopefully that "Puccini will do better with a better story." One of the most famous and lasting criticisms of Tosca came from Joseph Kerman in his 1956 book, Opera as Drama, in which he pithily refers to the opera as "a shabby little shocker." Not all criticism of the work has been negative, certainly. Of that first performance, Alfredo Colombani wrote in the Corriere della sera that Puccini had been "wholly successful" in his endeavor. Audiences seem to have agreed with this somewhat prescient, initial assessment. Tosca ran for 20 performances in Rome that winter and premiered at La Scala two months later under Toscanini. Since that time, the opera has remained firmly enshrined among the most loved and often performed works of the entire repertory. None too shabby.
Erik M. Friedly is currently director of community relations for the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta.
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