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Tosca Music Analysis Essay

Tosca: Synopsis and Musical Structure

Tosca, melodrama in three acts, premiered on January 14, 1900 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, setting to music by Giacomo Puccini an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Victorien Sardou's French play La Tosca (1887)


Floria Tosca, a celebrated singer, soprano
Mario Cavaradossi, her lover, a painter, tenor
Baron Scarpia, Chief of Police in Rome, baritone
Cesare Angelotti, former Consul of the Roman Republic, bass
A Sacristan, bass
Spoletta, a police agent, tenor
Sciarrone, a gendarme, bass
A Gaoler, bass
A Shepherd boy, alto
Roberti, executioner, silent role
Soldiers, police agents, noblemen and women, townsfolk, artisans
Silent: cardinal, judge, scribe, officer, sargeant

Setting: Rome, June 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars; the interior of the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle (act I); Scarpia's apartment in the Palazzo Farnese (act II); A platform in the Castel Sant'Angelo (act III)

Running time, approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes

Act I

Angelotti, a fugitive, hurries into the church, searches for a key concealed in a shrine, and hides in the private chapel of the Attavanti family. A sacristan enters and starts washing some paintbrushes that belong to the painter Cavaradossi, who was commissioned by the church to paint a portrait of the Magdalen. Cavaradossi comes in and contemplates his work. He has given to the Magdalen a blend of the facial features of his girlfriend Tosca, a famous operatic singer, and a beautiful woman he's seen praying in the church. He chats with the sacristan who has some snide remarks for him. The sacristan exits, and Angelotti comes out of hiding to meet his friend Cavaradossi, and explains to him that he has escaped from being imprisoned under Scarpia's orders, in the undergrounds of Castel Sant'Angelo. Tosca's voice is heard approaching the church. Angelotti hides again. Cavaradossi admits his girlfriend into the church. She is jealous because she perceives in the painting the likeness of the Marchesa Attavanti. The painter reassures her, they reaffirm their love for each other and plan on meeting later that night in the painter's villa, after her evening performance. She leaves.

Angelotti and Cavaradossi make plans for the former's escape. He'll go in disguise to the latter's villa and hide in a well. A canon shot is heard, signaling that Angelotti's flight from Sant'Angelo has been discovered. The sacristan re-enters with news of Napoleon's defeat at Marengo. Joyous populace comes in. Scarpia, Spoletta, and other police agents enter the church searching for the fugitive. They find some evidence, including a fan belonging to the Marchesa Attavanti, who is Angelotti's sister. Tosca returns, and Scarpia makes use of the fan to, well, fan the flames of her jealousy. He desires her, and wants to disgrace her lover in order to woo her for himself. She hurries away in tears and heads to Cavaradossi's villa, believing that she will surprise him together with the Marchesa. Scarpia orders her followed.

Act II

Scarpia is dining alone in his apartment. Spoletta comes in to report that they couldn't find any evidence of Angelotti's presence in Cavaradossi's villa, but arrested the later nevertheless. Elsewhere in the Palazzo Farnese Tosca is singing a cantata in Queen Caroline's honor. During the performance, Scarpia interrogates Cavaradossi who denies all knowledge of Angelotti's whereabouts. The performance ends, Tosca comes in, and Scarpia orders Cavaradossi tortured in an adjoining room. He asks Tosca for Angelotti's location. Initially she refuses to cooperate, but overhearing Cavaradossi's groans, she cracks down and reveals Angelotti's hiding place in the well. Scarpia stops the torture section. Cavaradossi, disgusted by Tosca's betrayal, curses her. Sciarrone enters to announce that the battle of Marengo was wrongly reported as a defeat for Napoleon, who actually won it. Cavaradossi then praises liberty, which motivates Scarpia to order his execution, and schedules it for dawn. Cavaradossi is dragged out to prison, leaving Scarpia alone with the distressed Tosca. He tells her that if she yields to him, he'll set the painter free. Tosca laments her fate ("Vissi d'arte"). Spoletta enters and announces that Angelotti has killed himself. Tosca agrees with Cavaradossi's terms. The latter bids Spoletta to set up a mock execution which will then allow the Tosca and Cavaradossi to escape after the painter is shot with blank bullets. However he instructs Spoletta to do it "as in the case of Palmieri" (as we'll see later, he means by that the painter is to be killed with real bullets). He sees himself alone with Tosca again, writes a safe-conduct for her, and grabs her. Disgusted, she stabs him to death.


Dawn is breaking in the Sant'Angelo castle. Cavaradossi is writing a farewell letter to Tosca and sings of his love for her ("E lucevan le stelle"). Spoletta brings Tosca in, and leaves. She shows the safe-conduct to a suspicious Cavaradossi who wonders what kind of favors she had to agree with to secure it, but is delighted to know that she actually killed Scarpia before giving in to his desires. She instructs Cavaradossi on the supposed mock execution. He is taken to the firing squad, and is shot to death, to Tosca's astonishment and dismay when she realizes that Scarpia fooled her. She climbs onto the battlements and yelling that she and Scarpia will meet before God, leaps to her death.


Musical Structure

Tosca is not a numbers-opera, being mostly written-through and making rare use of recitatives. Its music flows often without resource to vocal lines, like the incidental music to a film, reinforcing dramatic events, heating up the atmosphere, soothing the audience in some pauses of the dramatic tension, and so forth. It does keep some highly melodic set pieces, many of them in monologue style, the most famous being "Recondita Armonia," "Mia gelosa!" (this one, a love duet rather than a monologue), "Va, Tosca," "Vissi d'arte," "E Lucevan le stelle," and "Parlami ancora." In its structure, the opera also makes use of leitmotifs. These include Scarpia's villanous motif made of a progression of three chords that produce a violent tonal wrench, a recurring love theme played on cellos, a motif for Tosca herself, a "knife" theme played on full strings, a "well" motif that recurs when characters must be thinking of the well but don't want to mention it (a clever device!), some buffo tones that accompany the Sacristan, a theme played around the torture scene, and a motif for Angelotti.

Unlike Wagner's, these motifs that all belong to a single object, person, or idea, are not developed or modified as the opera goes by. They do make interesting apparitions - such as, when Tosca asks Cavaradossi to meet him in his villa "tonight" and the latter is startled (since he intends to hide Angelotti there), we hear Angelotti's leitmotif. Similarly, Scarpia's motif lingers while the two lovers are bickering in act I, as an anticipation of the doom that will soon strike them.

The opera is orchestrated for the usual set of strings and winds, augmented with percussion, timpani, harp, and organ.

Tosca has brutal music. It is full of strong dissonances and twisting harmonies, signaling the wild emotions of the "good" characters and the villany of its antagonist. Another notable characteristic of this opera is Puccini's careful and meticulous musical scene-setting. The composer was so interested in details of local color that he researched the exact variant of the melody of the Gregorian Te Deum that he included in the finale of Act I, and he made a point of traveling to Rome to listen to the bells ringing in the vicinity of the Castel Sant'Angelo, and worried about the key to which the great bell of St. Peter's was tuned (low E). He then incorporated these local sounds into the opening of Act III, when dawn is breaking in Rome. Also, in including the sad folk tune sang by the shepherd boy ("Io de' sospiri"), Puccini did not ask for his librettists to provide a text, but actually solicited the lyrics from a Roman writer, Luigi Zanasso, in the Campanian dialect in order to have genuine folk tradition.

The opera opens with the three loud chords of Scarpia's motif. At the sacristan's entrance we hear the buffo motif in a flighty little tune. Next we get the tuneful rapture of "Recondita armonia," then we are treated to Tosca's "Non la sospiri" which contains a tripping cadential figure that had appeared before when Tosca was praying to the Madonna, and is repeated four times in rapid succession. "Mia Gelosa" introduces the love motif that will recurr most often in the opera. This passage actually starts not as a conventional duet but rather as a dialogue, and only when Tosca accepts Cavaradossi's explanation, the love theme pours in and becomes a conventional duet at the words "Qual'occhio al mondo" with its typical long-arched Puccini melody leading to a brief unison passage in four bars, which then dissolves again into a more conversational dialogue as Tosca leaves, with delicate wind and harp accompaniment.

The above mentioned Te Deum in honor of the supposed victory against Napoleon is a great slow processional theme that surges and swells at the end of act I, not before we hear Scarpia's hateful monologue over an obsessive pattern of alternating chords, accompanied by bells, organ, drum-beats like canon fire, and growling bassoons. Scarpia's "credo" that is so thunderously stated in this orchestral explosion, finishes up with a string of thickly accompanied arioso passages, in which the harmony and instrumentation have been said to evoke a sense of evil comparable to the music that is played for Hagen in Wagner's Götterdämmerung (this is not the only occasion when Puccini's music in Tosca gets compared to Wagner's, thanks to the above-mentioned written-through structure and use of leitmotifs).

Act II has a prelude that has echoes of the love and jealousy and recovers Scarpia's theme, in order to convey his suppressed excitement in anticipation of being able to kill his rival and rape his object of desire. The beginning of Act II does not have set pieces or great tunes but is very effective in moving the plot along, with the eerie combination of Scarpia's murderous thoughts with a backing of high-society dance music (a gavotte). Every time Scarpia sings, there is a doom-laden orchestral mood that is much more atmospheric than the usual accompaniment heard in earlier Italian operas. Another similar contrast that illustrates well the abysm between the character of the principals, is when we have the singing of a cantata in the Queen's honor, during the interrogation of Cavaradossi scene, when the choir provides a dissonant and tense background accompanied by low strings and woodwind. Scarpia's growing excitement is reflected in how he switches to 'con forza e sostenuto' in the uttering of his lines. "Vissi d'arte" ensues and recovers the motif that marked Tosca's first appearance. While Puccini himself later lamented that the aria stops too much the action, it does build up wonderfully to its big climax, and is touching. Next, we see another use of motif, when sinister music punctuates Tosca's grabbing of a knife and her murderous inner thoughts, which culminate in the stabbing scene that sees the knife motif played this time out loud on full strings. The scene (and act) ends with a sonorous funereal version of Scarpia's theme, played over the accompaniment of a death rattle of drums, while Tosca engages in repeated middle Cs in a declamatory style, saying "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!" (And before him all Rome trembled!).

Act III opens with the beautiful dawn music that Puccini so carefully researched for local color, starting with a solo horn, followed by the shepherd's boy song and the chorus of bells, which are orchestrated along the love/jealousy theme. The use of motifs continues in the fact that when Cavaradossi sits down to write his farewell note, we again hear the love theme on solo cello, and get again the tripping tailpiece that we had heard in Act I when Tosca was praying. The color is set to 'con molta anima' (with lots of soul). "E lucevan le stelle" after recollecting past bliss, ends in darkness, with a mournful clarinet taking the main line right before the words 'O dolci baci, languide carezze.' Next we hear a freedom duet "Liberi!" that is very excited, over a lurching dance rhythm. The execution rolls on over a dirge-like, mournful melody which is repeated by ghastly trombones as the horror of Cavaradossi's death sinks in. The final moments bring about an orchestral peroration of Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle."

One recurring criticism of Tosca is the fact that act III is musically anti-climatic when compared to I and II. Indeed, the central conflict of this opera is the one between Tosca and Scarpia, and there is some sense of it all being deflated when the latter dies. One can arguably say that morbid and ritualistic duels between heroine and antihero with Scarpia's long and minatory phrases opposed to Tosca's rapid, apprehensive interjections are indeed what makes this opera musically special in its ability to illustrate their conflict in musical terms. This is what seems to have escaped critics such as Benjamin Britten who deemed the opera "sickening" in its alleged "cheapness and emptiness" - others have called it a "shabby little shocker." We couldn't disagree more. There's nothing empty about Tosca. It contains powerful music that perfectly sets the emotional tone of the piece - and its melodious blockbusters have been forever enshrined in the memory of generations of opera lovers. Tosca might be called "cheap" if it were only made of melodious tunes, but it definitely is not, and contains dissonant contrasts, carefully executed local colors, impressive drama that is very well crafted for theatricality, not to forget that said melodious tunes are indeed gorgeous. Tosca is one of Puccini's most vivid scores, containing raw emotions. Its popularity is well justified, in our view.



The Grove Book of Operas, Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy (editors)
The New Kobbé's Opera Book, The Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie (editors)
The Rough Guide to Opera, Matthew Boyden
A Night at the Opera, Denis Forman
Opera - Composers, Works, Performers, András Batta
The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera, Stanley Sadie (editors)

This article was originally published in forum thread: Tosca: Synopsis and Musical Structure started by AlmavivaView original post

Published on August 18th, 2012 03:01 PM


With Tosca, Pierre Audi has chosen to put religion and its complex relationship with political authority at the very heart of the production: it is a choice that resonates in current affairs, at a time when the very definition of the word secularism sparks major political questions. Here, the director talks with the philosopher Henri Peña-Ruiz, a specialist on secularism.

Pierre Audi, when the curtain rises on your Tosca, one is struck by the crucifix looming over the entire stage. How did you come to imagine that monumental cross—a symbol which you use to represent the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Act I, the Palazzo Farnese in Act II and the Castel Saint-Angelo in Act III?

Pierre Audi: Regarding the church, the parallel was clear: all churches are built around a cross – the arms form the chapels and the central shaft, the aisle which leads to the crucifix. It also seemed interesting to me in Act I to go back to the source and stylise the church until it reverted back to the cross that constitutes its very essence. Act II is the one in which Cavaradossi is tortured. Here again, it was natural for the cross to be transformed into an instrument of torture, because originally that’s what it was before it became a Christian symbol. Finally, for the last act, with the execution scene, it is more of a conscious choice: We chose to abandon the Castel Saint-Angelo to set the action in a wretched and abandoned place, above which hung the cross. Note that the castello was still connected to the religious theme because, as its name indicates, there is the statue of an angel above it.

The huge cross is a sign of the importance that religion has in your production – and more specifically, the collusion between religious authority and political power that is personified in the character of Scarpia…

Pierre Audi: Yes, one should first say that when you compare Puccini’s Tosca to Sardou's play which inspired it, one is stuck by the importance that religion plays in it. Puccini himself, whilst composing the work had asked his librettists to accentuate that aspect of the drama. The opera opens in a church, Act I ends with a Te Deum and, after Tosca has stabbed Scarpia, she places a crucifix on his breast … I could cite numerous other examples. I think that Tosca is a work deeply rooted in Italian culture. Furthermore, in Italy, there are ambiguous, deep-rooted ties between the political and religious authorities. Italian artists have always enjoyed talking about that ambiguity, that irresolute paradox. Even today, in 2016, the boundaries are vague and that vagueness suits a good many people. It seemed to me that it was one of the central themes of Puccini’s opera.    

In his opera, Puccini effectively seems to distinguish two aspects of religion: one which falls within the scope of personal faith and hope, and the other which is based on exploiting religion and using it as a tool of domination and oppression. In this way, Scarpia persecutes the republicans with the blessing of the Pope, yet, just before Tosca jumps to her death, she vows to meet him before God, which is a way of dreaming of a religion free from the corruption of political power. Henri Peña-Ruiz, when we were preparing for this interview, you told me that, for you, Puccini’s distinction was fundamental…

Henri Peña-Ruiz: As a philosopher specialising in secularism, my approach is indeed based on a fundamental difference. What I call “secularism” does not challenge religion so long as it remains a free and chosen spirituality, and that that spirituality does not purport to dictate political or common law. The secular ideal which emerged in Europe—before it was spread to the United States by Thomas Jefferson and Benito Juárez—is not to be interpreted as an anti-religious consciousness. It was more a desire for a strict separation between religion and the political power that organises and governs the relationship between men—regardless of whether they are believers, atheists or agnostics. From that stance, religion is but one form of spirituality among others. Take the example in France of Victor Hugo, who was a contemporary of Puccini: he was a believer but that certainly didn’t prevent him from being anticlerical. So how can you reconcile the two? Through his religious beliefs, he showed a certain spirituality. By his rejection of clericalism, he repudiated the Church’s desire to regulate and hold power in the political arena, notably rising up in protest when the Church tried to claim control over the schools. In 1850, he coined the famous phrase: “The Church in its home, and the State in its home”. It seems to me that in Tosca, Puccini was agreeing with that secular position.

Pierre Audi: On a dramatic level, I would like to add that the rapprochement between politics and religion proved to be terribly effective: it enabled Puccini to contrast the cold and implacable side of Scarpia’s political world with the sentimental romanticism of the love affair between Cavaradossi and Tosca. The political police who act with the blessing of the Pope, the Sacristan who turns out to be Scarpia’s informer, the Mass which interrupts the manhunt for Angelotti, then the knife, the crime, the blood, the crucifix… All that constitutes a highly appealing formula for a dramatist. Furthermore, it seems to me that in the end, Puccini takes a position that is less clear cut than Verdi, for example. He likes to leave things in abeyance. It’s what I sensed as I prepared my interpretation of the work. I wasn’t seeking to over-emphasize that the opera was biased against the Church or against the political powers that be. In the rapprochement of those two worlds, I saw an opportunity to construct my production, because it seemed to me that this was how Puccini had constructed his opera.    

Tosca is one of the great heroines of the repertoire. And yet, as a woman, we get the impression that she is the first victim of the collusion between religion and politics...

Henri Peña-Ruiz: Yes, and, to some extent, it’s scarcely surprising that the oppression that Scarpia subjects Tosca to, the threat of rape that he keeps hanging over her, is carried out with the tacit approval of the clerical authorities. When the Church involves itself in society’s mores, it is often to the detriment of women. Think of Molière’s Tartuffe and his famous phrase:

Cover that breast which I may not behold.
Such a sight is harmful to the soul;
for it will beget impure thoughts.

Men endeavour to exert control over the bodies of women—be it in France, Italy or in Spain—in societies long marked by patriarchy and sexist domination. From that perspective, most religions codify such domination by sacralising it and presenting it as ordained by God. From Molière to Puccini, one of the tasks artists attributed to themselves was to denounce the hypocrisy of such a position.

Pierre Audi: It’s an interesting question which requires multiple levels of analysis. Yes, of course, Tosca is a victim of male domination, especially from Scarpia, because he tries to rape her. However, Puccini is also a man and is himself part of that society: if we look closely, he is not particularly tender with his heroine. He describes her as a jealous manipulator. She has a definite Shakespearian side, and he plays on that to prime his dramatic machinery: it’s her jealousy that provokes the arrest of her lover and which, in a certain way ends up driving her to suicide.

In your production, Tosca doesn’t leap to her death. In a scene which is more fantastical than realistic, she seems to dissolve into the landscape. Is this a way of saving a heroine who has been given a rough ride by Puccini by sparing her from punishment?

Pierre Audi: Let’s say that I didn’t want an end that was overly moralistic. In the libretto, Tosca jumps to her death and the music casts no doubts as to that death. However, there is also a coda which suggests something else. Some directors use that coda to allow the soldiers to peer over the edge. Personally, I’ve always found that image a little too literal, a little ridiculous: those three henchmen who rush to the parapet to verify that Tosca is indeed dead… Puccini’s music is sublime, it invites us to seek something else, and I think that at that moment, one has to rely on that music to set the drama free… And so I looked for a propitious image, a more open ending that would leave audiences with more scope to imagine…    

Aside from religion, art plays a central role in your production. In the first act, you have chosen to replace the portrait of Mary Magdalene which Cavaradossi paints in the church, with an erotic painting by Bouguereau: Les Oréades, which depicts a group of nymphs fleeing the concupiscent glances of the satyrs…

Pierre Audi: Yes, we sometimes reduce Tosca to little more than a sordid story… However, for me, the artistic aspect and Mario Cavaradossi’s status as an artist seems crucial. Don’t forget that Tosca’s principal aria is “Vissi d’arte…” which extols the life of an artist. And so, I wished to accentuate that creative freedom somewhat by proposing this rather enlightened painting. Those nude women are like a garland coiled around the altar. It’s a little risqué. I think that the life of the artist is one of the key undercurrents of the drama. The freedom in which Cavaradossi and Tosca live is intolerable for Scarpia. He envies them: he who possesses the political power, he who is head of the secret police, why can he not fall in love and charm a woman? It’s the third theme which Puccini develops: in the face of religion and politics where is the place of an artist?

And yet lip service is paid to the pious: in the reproduction of Bouguereau’s portrait which Cavaradossi is painting, black veils cover the bodies of the nude Oriads…

Henri Peña-Ruiz: For me, the veils evoke the era of religious censorship. Throughout history, the Church has constantly sought to involve itself in politics: it has also tried to exert control over artistic activity. In the 16th century, there was a famous episode during which the Pope asked Daniele da Volterra, also known as “Il Braghettone”—literally “the breeches maker”—to paint loincloths and vestments on Michelangelo’s nudes, and, in particular, on The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Of course, this censorship was also brought to bear on literature, with the creation of the Index librorum prohibitorum—more commonly referred to as the Index—which banned numerous authors, including François Villon, Molière, and Victor Hugo…    

In recent years, a number of productions have made the headlines by provoking violent reactions from more conservative sections of the public: On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God by Romeo Castellucci or Golgotha Picnic by Rodrigo Garcia… The issue of censorship, blasphemy, or the confrontation between artists and religious morality is still relevant today. Do you think that the theatre is a favoured venue of emancipation?

Henri Pena Ruiz: That’s a complex question which touches on the very purpose of art! Does art serve another purpose other than itself? Philosophy has often answered no to that question. Art is its own end because it is that wonderful activity by which man expresses a creativity that produces beautiful works that we enjoy for and in themselves. Kant asserts that “art is an endless finality”. Even so, it is clear that this has never stopped artists from taking an emancipating, demystifying, critical position relative to a given historical situation. History has shown us that when human beings are suffering, or demanding and fighting for their liberty, artists cannot remain unmoved. Earlier, I cited Victor Hugo. I could also evoke the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, Ettore Scola and even Arturo Toscanini in the domain of opera... Those are artists I admire.

Pierre Audi: It is a fact that the theatre is a place of emancipation. But I would also like to highlight another aspect of performance that fascinates me: its “ritualistic” dimension. In antiquity, theatre was born from religious ritual. And on this point, I’d like to refer back to Tosca. It seems to me that Puccini’s genius is rooted in the fact that he remembers this and works with it. If one looks at Tosca, one realises that the whole work is organised around three rituals: in the first act, it’s the mass, in the second it’s the torture and in the third it’s the execution of a prisoner. In that sense, there’s a strong connection that unites Tosca with Greek theatre and I’m sensitive to the work’s association with ancient tragedy. In it, the power—of the gods and the Church—is represented as a dark force. Taking this ritual as a point of departure, Puccini manages to compose a completely open and profoundly human work. Moreover, it is highly significant that at the end of the first act, he brings the faithful into the church: at that moment, he takes over a sacred space and turns it into a place in which the drama will develop. That's just how theatre functions…      

Would you go so far as to use the word “sacred”?

Pierre Audi: Personally, I find that the notion of sacred is very useful: the form, the setting. That doesn’t mean that I stage masses for the public [laughter], of course, that's not what I mean. For me, the sacred is a form. It is like a circle or a square, a shape inside which I can set up my production. It’s a prism through which I can have a dialogue with the public.

Interviewed by Simon Hatab

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