Major Operas | Tosca by Giacomo Puccini | Turn of the Century

In Tosca, Puccini created his most complex and challenging of female roles and it is partly for this reason that the work has gained such a central place in the public consciousness. The role has been a magnet to sopranos wishing to demonstrate not only their vocal abilities, but also their acting skills.

Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca first caught Puccini’s attention as early as 1889 and gave him a fast-paced drama that cried out for the kind of musical description at which he excelled. It is a brutal work, full of strong dissonances and twisting harmonies. Scarpia, the barbaric, scheming chief of police, pervades the work both musically and dramatically. Puccini’s use of the Wagnerian technique of leitmotif allowed him to introduce Scarpia’s threatening presence before he is seen on stage. Amongst the darkness, though, are moments of levity and great beauty, such as Tosca’s aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ (‘I Live for Art’).

Composed: 1898–99
Premiered: 1900, Teatro Costanzi, Rome
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca


In 1800 Rome has been taken by an Austro-Neapolitan army. Power lies with Baron Scarpia, the police chief. Angelotti, a former consul of the republic, has escaped from his custody.

Act I

Angelotti runs into Sant’Andrea della Valle, finds a hidden key and slips into the Attavanti family chapel. Cavaradossi enters to finish his painting of St Mary Magdalen, which, the sacristan points out, resembles a strange blonde lady often seen here. Cavaradossi reflects that his only inspiration is his beloved Floria Tosca, the singer. Angelotti greets Cavaradossi. Tosca is heard outside. Cavaradossi thrusts a basket of food at Angelotti and tells him to hide. Tosca enters with flowers for the statue of the Madonna, suspicious that she has heard voices. He agrees to take her to his villa that evening. She recognizes the Magdalen’s blue eyes as those of the Marchesa Attavanti, Angelotti’s sister, but he calms her by declaring that none could compare with hers. She accepts his eternal love, but, as she leaves, asks him to paint them black. Angelotti describes how his sister left the key and some women’s clothes as a disguise. Cavaradossi tells him to go to his villa after dark. They leave when they hear a cannon announcing the escape. The sacristan returns, surrounded by altar boys celebrating the rumour of Napoleon’s defeat. Scarpia enters with his henchmen, who find the key, the empty basket and a fan with the Attavanti crest. After praising Tosca’s piety, Scarpia uses the fan to arouse her jealousy and orders Spoletta to follow when she rushes off to the villa. As the choir and congregation sing the Te Deum, Scarpia looks forward to a double prize, Angelotti and Tosca.

Act II

Scarpia is dining at the Palazzo Farnese, anticipating that Tosca will submit out of love for Cavaradossi. Spoletta reports that Angelotti was not at the villa, but he has brought back Cavaradossi for interrogation. Tosca is...

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