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Tosca

Portrait of a turbulent age.

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore… Doubtless all good opera aficionados know these words, the first line of the aria from act 2 of the opera Tosca, performed by the character of the same name.

Excerpt from the opera performed by "Amics de l'Òpera de Sabadell". La Faràndula Theatre, 2012.

The heroine takes a few moments of privacy in the middle of a shocking scene of mental torture to talk to God. A devout, pious woman who, whenever she could, has always helped the unfortunate, offered flowers and jewels to the Madonna, sung to the stars; now, at such a painful time, she asks why God has abandoned her… Why do you reward me thus?

A story of love, jealousy, sex and politics.

This aria, one of the most loved of the repertoire and which embodies a feeling of extreme pain, is a faithful reflection of the plot of Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. A story of love, jealousy, sex and politics. Who could ask for more? The storyline of this opera takes us to Rome, in 1800, an extremely turbulent time in European history. The French Revolution had come and gone, transforming consciences and political regimes. The climax over, the torch of new ideas had been taken up by a young, brilliant French general, originally from Corsica, called Napoleon Bonaparte. He had yet to proclaim himself emperor, but already had all of Europe against him, having invaded Rome and made a prisoner of the Pope, who later died in France.

At the time Tosca unfolds in June 1800, the new pontiff Pope Pius VII had already been elected in Venice but had still not entered the capital, which remained occupied by the armies of the reactionary Kingdom of Naples. The persecution of “subversives”, personified in the opera by the chief of police, the wicked Baron Scarpia, is at its peak and nobody can feel at ease. The painter Mario Cavaradossi is detained and subjected to torture but his lover, the opera singer Floria Tosca, begs for his life. Scarpia, a false devotee, lusts after the singer terribly and forces her to submit to him: to surrender herself in return for Mario’s life and freedom. However, Tosca kills the treacherous Scarpia before he can lay a finger on her. The opera ends, but badly. The late chief of police had tricked her, and Mario ends up dying in front of the firing squad. Desperate and pursued by the henchmen who had discovered the body of their leader, Tosca prefers to die and throws herself off the battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo.

This opera is based on Victorien Sardou’s French-language dramatic play, La Tosca, premiered in 1887. It was one of his greatest successes, and the fetish role of the actress who played the part of Tosca in the premiere and took it around the world: the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. Puccini had seen the play a few times and recognised the potential for turning it into an opera. He told his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to negotiate with Sardou for the rights to adapt his work for the opera. Though difficult at first, Ricordi finally persuaded him to agree terms, but Sardou was uneasy about the chosen composer, Puccini, who he said was relatively unknown and whose music he didn’t like. Offended, Puccini withdrew from the project and the rights were assigned to another, now forgotten composer, Alberto Franchetti. Luigi Illica wrote a libretto, but Franchetti was never happy with the assignment and the work was finally recommissioned to Puccini in 1895.

The opera premiered in turbulent times throughout Italy, when the country was rife with anarchist terrorism which, some months later, assassinated the king.

The premiere of Tosca took place at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 14 January 1900, with the air of a national event and the presence of Queen Margherita. These were turbulent times in Italy, rife with anarchist terrorism which, some months later, succeeded in assassinating Umberto I, the king of Italy. So the opera’s premiere took place amid tight security measures, which even led to the occasion being postponed a few days.

Despite all the difficulties, Tosca prevailed and is today one of the essential operas in the repertoire, with outstanding, expressive music and piercing drama which enthrals and enraptures the audience. The second act is exemplary, and for all opera aficionados the memorable and literally breath-taking performances of Maria Calla as Tosca and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia will live on for ever.