Opera Roanoke, Sept.-Oct. 2001
Paul F. Zweifel
Giacomo Puccini's opera Tosca is based on a French play, La Tosca, written by Victorien Sardou for Sarah Bernhardt. Puccini became interested in the Tosca subject when he saw a performance of the play in 1889, but the opera was not finished for another 11 years. (Its first performance was given, in Rome, on Jan. 14, 1900.) During these years the five-act play was adapted into a three-act opera (by librettist Luigi Illica aided by Sardou himself). Another composer, Alberto Franchetti, had been working with Illica on a Tosca opera during that period, but he dropped the project before Puccini undertook it. This is fortunate for posterity; Franchettti was a minor composer whose other operas have since sunk into the obscurity which they well deserve.
Whenever a literary work is adapted for the operatic stage the dramatic content suffers, simply because takes longer to sing a text than to speak it. Thus serious cuts have to be made in the operatic version. It is essential then for the serious listener to brush up on portions of the original plot which have omitted in the opera. As Edward Newman points out in his book Great Operas,"Without the political background of the action…being made clearer than it is in [Tosca], much of what happens, and why, is unintelligible to the spectator." (Let me refer the reader also to the wonderful book Tosca's Rome by our pre-opera illuminator, Susan Nicassio, and her web-site www.toscasrome.com.)
Tosca takes place in the span of 17 hours, from noon on June 16, 1800 until 5:00 a.m. the following day. The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) were then at their height, but the French presence in Italy was on the wane due to Horatio Nelson's destruction of the French fleet in the battle of the Nile (Aug. 1, 1798). Napoleon had successfully invaded Italy in 1796 and established the Cisalpine Republic in Northern Italy. After Napoleon's departure for Egypt, his forces, under other leadership, pressed southward. They occupied the Papal States, setting up the Roman Republic on July 15, 1798. They proceeded on to Naples (a separate kingdom in those days) and after defeating the Neapolitan Army established the so-called Parthenopean Republic in January, 1799. (Parthenope, an ancient name for Naples, derived from the Siren Parthenope who drowned herself after being unsuccessful in her attempts to seduce Ulysses.) The occupation of Naples lasted only until May of 1799, but during that time events occurred in Naples which set the whole plot of Tosca in motion.
Among the revolutionaries in Naples prior to its occupation by French forces was a Neapolitan, Cesare Angelotti (the first character who appears on the stage in the opera). As a young man he had lived in London, and had spent a week in the embraces of a prostitute whom he encountered in the seedy area of Vauxhall. Imagine his amazement when he met this same woman twenty years later at a dinner party in Naples. She was now the wife of the British Ambassador, Lord Hamilton. (This Emma Hamilton is best remembered today for having been the mistress of Lord Nelson.) Lady Hamilton's hostility towards the revolutionists so infuriated Angelotti that he told the whole company of his encounter with her. This was a serious mistake, since Lady Hamilton was a favorite of the Queen of Naples, Marie Caroline (Sister of Marie Antoinette). The Queen sent her police after Angelotti who was lucky to escape Naples with his life. He returned when the French troops conquered Naples and served in the revolutionary government, but he was forced to flee again when Lord Nelson, local leader of the Second Coalition forces, retook the city and slaughtered most of the republicans.
Angelotti escaped to Rome, but when the Roman Republic fell in Sept. 1799 he was incarcerated in the Castel Sant'Angelo for a period of about ten months. The new Roman chief of police, Baron Scarpia (he had been in town for only a week) determined to send Angelotti back to Naples where Lady Hamilton could have the pleasure of seeing him hanged. Scarpia was particularly concerned that Angelotti's sister, the Marchesa Attavanti (who lived in Rome), would somehow arrange her brother's release, in which case Scarpia would be in serious trouble with the Queen. The Marchesa did in fact bribe a jailer who allowed Angelotti to escape. Angelotti made his way to the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle (less than a mile from Castel Sant'Angelo) where he hid overnight in the Angelotti Chapel (not the Attavanti Chapel as in the opera) and was discovered the next morning by Mario Cavaradossi.
Cavaradossi had been raised in France (of an Italian father and a French woman). He was a "liberal," a pejorative applied by the government of Rome (remember the Pope was its leader) to people who read Voltaire and other irreligious writers and, in general, opposed the Church. (And indeed the theme of Tosca is the "liberal" French republicans vs. the reactionary forces of the Church.) Thus Cavaradossi was already on the police black list and Scarpia quickly suspected that he had assisted Angelotti to escape. These background facts set the stage for Act I of Tosca.
The battle of Marengo, mentioned in the opera, took place on June 14, 1800 (this is why we can pinpoint the exact date of the action). In this battle in Northern Italy the Austrian general Melas thought that he had carried the day early in the morning. However when Melas left the field Napoleon rallied his forces to an overwhelming victory. Thus the conflicting battle reports. The Te Deum in Act I and the cantata in Act II are intended to celebrate the putative victory. The news of the defeat arrives during the torture scene later in Act II. (In the play the Neapolitan court composer Giovanni Paisiello writes the cantata but not in the opera.)
Any opera lover visiting Rome should go to Castel Sant'Angelo (site of Act III) and then walk to the church where Act I takes place. About 200 yards from the church is the Argentine Theater where Floria Tosca performed. Two hundred yards in another direction is the Campo dei Fiori where Tosca bought the flowers she placed at the feet of the Madonna. Another 200 yards from that is the Palazzo Farnese, site of Act II, but the French embassy now occupies the palace and one can enter only on official business.