By the late 1880s, French actress Sarah Bernhardt had established herself not only as the reigning stage personality of the age, but as the personification of an era of opulence and emotion. Onstage, she hypnotized audiences with her beauty, her intensity, and the loveliness of her speaking voice; offstage, she scandalized with her eccentricities (she slept in a coffin) and her love affairs with prominent men of the era (including, according to rumor, both Emperor Napoleon III and the Prince of Wales, to name just two). Before the end of her career, she would branch into directing (including plays that were banned in New York and Boston), appear in early silent movies, and continue to perform after the amputation of a gangrenous leg.
Comfortable in both classic and contemporary roles, Bernhardt toured Europe in 1889 in La Tosca, a weighty, five-act drama written especially for her by French playwright Victorien Sardou. Designed to play to her strengths, the play La Tosca narrated the harrowing adventure of a fictional diva living in Rome during the early Napoleonic wars. When Bernhardt brought the play to Milan in 1889, the audience included 31-year-old, not-yet-famous Giacomo Puccini, who immediately recognized the sort of material suitable for his vision of opera.
Soon after seeing La Tosca, Puccini wrote his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and urged him to acquire permission to produce an opera based on the play. The author Sardou at first balked at the idea of an Italian setting his French play; by the time Ricordi obtained permission, Puccini was deep into Manon Lescaut, with which he scored his first major success in 1893, followed by La bohme, which pushed him to the forefront of the Italian opera scene after its premiere in 1896. Ricordi, meanwhile, had offered the chance to set La Tosca as an opera to another composer, the now nearly-forgotten Alberto Franchetti, who, after a false start, abandoned the project.
With Franchetti out of the picture, Ricordi offered the right to create the operatic version of La Tosca to Puccini, by then increasingly regarded as the heir of Verdi and the savior of Italian opera. Puccini and Ricordi turned to the writing team of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who had created the fluidly poetic libretto of La bohme, with the idea that they would be able to condense Sardou's five-act drama into an equally genial, poetic text for Puccini. Producing a libretto for Puccini was always an arduous task, fraught with argument and agony; and it was not until 1898, almost ten years after he first fell for the fictitious diva, that Puccini was able to begin composing in earnest with a complete script.
In those days, an Italian opera succeeded or failed in much the same way that a Broadway play dies a quick death or survives today, on the basis of box office response. Because the opera, like the play, had been set in Rome, that city was chosen for the premiere; advance publicity generated enormous interest, and a crowd of trendsetters showed up for opening night in January of 1900: and reacted in a manner that set the tone for much of the opera's history. While critics and commentators were cool to the new work, largely because of what they perceived as a lurid, deliberately shocking plot, the audience was wildly enthusiastic, resulting immediately in repeated performances in the Italian capital and, shortly thereafter, in other major operatic centers across Europe and in the Americas.
Tosca has, of course, continued to hold a significant place in the operatic repertoire (where it is generally ranked as the fifth-most frequently performed of all operas), while, over the decades, drawing less-than-unanimous approval from scholars and critics. The music itself is nigh well unassailable: Puccini created a constant flow of beautiful melody and striking orchestral colors, at the same time demonstrating his mastery of late romantic harmony and his understanding of the possibilities of the human voice. His command of the leitmotif technique, in which a specific melody or musical motif is associated with a particular character or concept, is likewise complete, taking the strategy refined by Wagner in Germany and giving it a radiant, Mediterranean glow.
But it's the plot and characterizations that, while fascinating audiences, came under attack from some, as when the otherwise insightful twentieth-century American academic Joseph Kerman famously characterized Tosca as a "shabby little shocker."
As usual, the audience, with its instinctive understanding, got it right, in this case discovering a degree of realism and insight in Tosca that Kerman and others have overlooked.
Even the totally evil character of Scarpia is carefully motivated and downright human. We see him in the most ordinary of circumstances (eating) and we hear him confess that his actions are the result of a compulsive, psychotic sexuality, equating the pain and submission of others with his own pleasure. For a brief instant, he seems almost regretful that ordinary romance and tenderness are meaningless to him.
Nor is Cavaradossi: the closest thing to a hero in Tosca's world: spared glaring human failings. He confesses to a roving eye, leaving the viewer to conclude that Floria Tosca's jealousy may not be entirely unfounded. And, although his motives are understandable, he can't manage to get through an entire act without lying. Even in the end, he never quite comprehends Tosca's inner strength.
Tosca herself enters the drama as petulant, vain, insecure, and apolitical; but, in the less-than-twenty-four hours covered in the plot, she becomes capable of self-sacrificing love, extraordinary bravery, assassination, and self-annihilation: as well as a monumental degree of self-delusion. Bernhardt obviously relished the chance to make that transformation, and generations of great sopranos have likewise cherished this role, with the element of great music giving an added dimension to the character development. Indeed, one of the greatest moments in all opera arrives with stunning musical understatement and subtlety, when, as her eyes open to the tragedy of which she has unwittingly become the vortex, she sings "Vissi da'rte, visa d'amore": "I lived for art, I lived for love."
Indeed, that famous and beloved aria holds the key to the opera. Like Mozart and Verdi before him, Puccini understood and gave musical expression to the intertwining of the individual with history. He had already explored the alienation of artists in capitalist society in La bohme, and would eventually express the tragic consequences of cultural imperialism in Madama Butterfly. Equally profoundly, in Tosca, he gave voice to his pessimism concerning the role and ultimate fate of the artist and the individual in modern society. Tosca is, ultimately, the story of a woman who wants to create beauty and to love, but who is swept up in the storm of history.
Even before Puccini had fallen under the spell of Bernhardt and the character created for her, Anglo-Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw, no fan of Sardou, had responded to the play La Tosca with the quip, "Oh, if it had but been an opera!" Whether or not he was aware of Shaw's remark, Puccini not only turned Sardou's La Tosca into an opera, but transformed it into a great drama and a musical masterpiece that would continue to fascinate performers and resonate with audiences well into the 21st Century. Sardou had engulfed his Bernhardt-inspired character in a scenario filled with suicide, attempted rape, torture, betrayal, deception, and murder; Puccini, through the magic of his music, elevated that lurid setting and tale of catastrophe into an unforgettable vision of an artist destroyed in a world dominated by violence and greed.
Wayne Lee Gay, who has commented on classical music and opera in the Dallas-Fort Worth region for several decades, currently focuses on writing fiction and teaching in the English department at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is a past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and is a past winner of the Frank O'Connor Prize for short fiction. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, including Best Gay Stories 2011.