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Opera plots - Puccini's Tosca

Updated on April 24, 2015

Giacomo Puccini was born on 22nd December 1958 in Lucca, Italy, and died in Brussels, Belgium, on 29 November 1923. He had gone there to receive radiation treatment for throat cancer, which was much further advanced than he knew. He is best known for his operas, although he did write some orchestral and sacred pieces, etc. However, it is as the composer of such operatic standards as Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot that he is justly famed. His skill at writing melody, and show-stoppers such as "Nessun Dorma" and Butterfly's lament, have made him universally popular, and not just with regular opera-goers.

There are not too many laughs in Tosca, which is based on a drama by the French playwright Victorien Sardou, set in Rome in 1800. The play was first performed in 1887, and it first attracted the attention of Verdi as a possible subject for an opera. However, it was Puccini who was to produce one of the operatic "standards", which had its first performance in Rome in January 1900 and has never been out of the operatic repertoire since then.

Tosca's popularity is not only due to the quality of its music but the fact that only three relatively straightforward sets are required and the cast has just three main parts. The profit margin per performance is therefore going to be reasonable!

Act 1 - Inside the church of Sant' Andrea in Rome

Cavaradossi, a painter, is working on a mural when Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner, asks for his help. Cavaradossi agrees to help him to escape and meanwhile hides him in the church.

Tosca, a singer, and Cavaradossi's lover, enters and has a go at the painter for using another woman as his model for the "Magalen" in his mural. He replies that Tosca has nothing to worry about.

The sacristan and choir enter, followed by Scarpia, the chief of police, who is looking for Angelotti. He finds a fan that has been dropped by the artist's model and taunts Tosca with it to try to rouse her jealousy, Scarpia has a double motive. He wants her to betray her lover, whom Scarpia suspects of knowing more than he is telling, and he also wants Tosca for himself. Dodgy policemen have been around for a long time!

Act 2 - Scarpia's office

Scarpia's men have not been able to find Angelotti, but Cavaradossi will do just as well for an interrogation, so he is brought before Scarpia for questioning. He says nothing, and is sent off to the torture chamber to see if that will change his mind.

Tosca has been sent for, and she is also silent until Scarpia opens the door to the torture chamber and she can hear what is being done to Cavaradossi. This loosens her tongue and she tells Scarpia where to find Angelotti. (Why Cavaradossi told her this in the first place is a mystery in itself. There you are - you have just done something that could cost you your life, namely hiding a political fugitive, and you reveal the secret to your girlfriend who in any case suspects you of being unfaithful. Not the cleverest thing to do, surely?)

As Cavaradossi is brought out to be taken off to prison, he has angry words with Tosca for betraying him. However, Scarpia must be convinced that Tosca and Cavaradossi are still very much an "item", because he now tries another ploy - the painter will be executed unless Tosca agrees to succumb to Scarpia's wicked ways. She doesn't think much of this idea, but news is now brought that Angelotti has poisoned himself to avoid recapture, which makes Tosca think that Cavaradossi might do the same. It's a strange train of thought, maybe, but that's what she thinks. So Tosca gives in.

Scarpia draws up a passport for the prisoner and at the same time gives orders for the exection, by firing squad, of Cavaradossi. He explains to Tosca that it will be a mock execution, using blanks, for the sake of appearances. Scarpia must think that he has covered all the bases, because he now advances to claim his prize. However, Tosca promptly grabs Scarpia's knife and stabs him to death. Then, instead of fleeing the scene and rushing to find her lover, she spends a considerable time arranging Scarpia's body and placing candles at his head and feet and a crucifix on his chest. Odd.

Act 3 - the battlements of the prison

The soldiers have received the order for the execution, but apparently the news of Scarpia's murder has not reached them yet. Tosca rushes to Cavaradossi and explains that all is well, she has his passport and the execution will be faked. Why on earth she believed a word that Scarpia said is another matter, given what she knows about his duplicity, but this lady's thought processes are not of the clearest, as we have already discovered.

Needless to say, the bullets are real, and Cavaradossi is killed. At first Tosca just thinks that he is a better actor than she had given him credit for, but when she realises the truth she gives way to despair. The news of Scarpia's death has reached the guards and they now rush in to arrest her. However, she escapes their clutches and throws herself over the battlements to her death.

With all the principals dead, the curtain falls.

There is a story, whether true or not is not within my knoweldge, that at one performance there was an unexpected alternative ending. It is usual for the leap from the battlements to be cushioned by a pile of mattresses out of sight of the audience. This is doubtless because top operatic sopranos are expensive and theatres do not like being sued for broken ankles. However, on this occasion the diva had been particularly unpleasant to the stage crew, who got their revenge by removing the mattresses and introducing a trampoline instead. Tosca then made several unexpected reappearances as she bounced back into view. It would be a lovely story if true ...


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    • cflynn profile image

      cflynn 10 years ago from Ireland

      Great i am a fan so i get the notifications when you publish. People take opera sooo seriously when the plots are quite absurd at times. I remember way back my parents criticising Dallas on tv as immoral and I answered...'Oh yeah 'aul fellas' selling their soul to the devil because they have it soooo bad for some young girl, now that's moral!! LOL

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 10 years ago from UK

      cflynn, thanks for the encouragement. I'd be happy to oblige. I've got eight hubs so far in my "opera plots" group, including the whole Ring Cycle. I think there are some more I can add, so watch this space!

    • cflynn profile image

      cflynn 10 years ago from Ireland

      Hillarious, well done

      please do more of the same. My dad is an opera fanatic extraordinaire but it would take him half an hour to explain a story. despite being brought to the opera from a young age I have never taken to it...... the long drawn out deaths were a big part of it!!

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 10 years ago from UK

      "A lot of fun, in a tragic sort of way" - like Hamlet, you mean? Yes, I think I take your point!

    • kerryg profile image

      kerryg 10 years ago from USA

      Tosca is one of my absolute favorites. The plot is a lot of fun, in a tragic sort of way, and the music is absolutely magnificent!