Photo: Brett Coomer
Tosca (soprano Maria Guleghina) knows she has nothing left to lose in Act 2 of Puccini's opera.
Photo: Brett Coomer
As Baron Scarpia, baritone Franz Grundheber plays one of opera's greatest villains.
Maria Guleghina and Alfredo Portilla, as Tosca and Cavaradossi (left), face down Franz Grundheber's Scarpia in Act 2.
BACKGROUND: Puccini based his opera on the 1887 play La Tosca, by the French writer Victorien Sardou. The composer secured operatic rights to the drama immediately after he first saw it, and began composing his own Tosca in 1896.
Puccini called it, "an opera that I need." It's easy to see why. He always took a "no holds barred" approach to his operas, so the story was a natural for him. He turned the play into a sensational, some would say distasteful, roller-coaster of an opera.
ACT 1: The opera's three acts are all set in Rome, and the action begins in the Church of San Andrea. An escaped political prisoner named Angelotti sneaks in and hides in a side room. The Sacristan appears, and then the artist Mario Cavaradossi. He's working on a painting of the Madonna. When the Sacristan leaves, Angelotti greets Cavaradossi. The two are friends — and they are both political revolutionaries. Cavaradossi promises to help Angelotti evade the authorities.
Angelotti hides again when Floria Tosca arrives. She's Cavaradossi's lover — a famous opera singer who is also famously jealous. She stakes out her romantic territory in a love duet — after seeing the face of a purported rival in Cavaradossi's painting. When she leaves, Angelotti and Cavaradossi make plans, and a crowd gathers at the church for a grand Te Deum.
Along with that crowd comes one of opera's truly great villains, Baron Scarpia, Rome's notorious Chief of Police. He sustains his power, and satisfies his desires, by whatever means necessary. When Tosca returns, he interrogates her, hoping she'll betray information about Cavaradossi's subversive activities. When she leaves, he has her followed, and his interest in her is plainly more than professional. While the grand religious ceremony proceeds, Scarpia vows to have Cavaradossi shot — and to have Tosca for himself.
ACT 2: The middle act of Tosca takes place in Scarpia's palatial offices, and it's one of the most intense acts in any opera.
Spoletta, one of Scarpia's henchmen tells his boss that he's been unable to find Angelotti. But he has captured Cavaradossi, one of Angelotti's cohorts. He's sure that Cavaradossi knows Angelotti's whereabouts, and they suspect Tosca may know, as well. Cavaradossi is dragged in and grilled, but he refuses to say anything about Angelotti.
Scarpia begins the next part of his scheme. He has sent for Tosca, and when she arrives, he sends Cavaradossi off to a nearby room to be tortured. Tosca can hear her lover crying out in pain as she's being questioned by Scarpia. Cavaradossi's blood-curdling screams are too much for her. She reveals Angelotti's hiding place.
As Cavaradossi is brought back, Napolean's victory at Marengo is announced. Cavaradossi rejoices, with defiant cries of "Vittoria!" Scarpia has heard enough, and has him hauled off to a cell. But Scarpia still has plans for Tosca and, as usual, he'll do whatever it takes to get what he wants. He tells Tosca that Cavaradossi is being sent to the firing squad, and she's the only one who can save him.
Defiantly, she asks Scarpia, "How much do you want?" After all, she is a famous and wealthy woman. Scarpia laughs: "How much!?" Tosca is a beautiful woman, he says, and a beautiful woman can give him something far better than money. Tosca is left with little choice. Resigning herself, she sings one of the most famous of all operatic arias, Vissi d'arte. She has devoted her life to art and love, she says — and this is where it's gotten her.
Scarpia calls for Spoletta and, supposedly, arranges for Cavaradossi to get a fake execution — a firing squad with blank bullets. He then writes a letter of passage. He says it will get Tosca and Cavaradossi safely out of Rome. As he's writing, Tosca takes a knife from his dinner table. Leering at her, Scarpia holds out his arms, saying the beautiful Tosca is finally his. As he reaches for her, she slashes his throat. Scarpia falls, crying for help. Tosca mocks him as he bleeds to death, screaming at him, "Choke on your own blood!"
After he dies, Tosca places candles at Scarpia's head and feet, and a lays a crucifix on his chest, then quietly leaves the room.
ACT 3: Cavaradossi has been sentenced to death by firing squad. He's being held in chains atop the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the starlight, Cavaradossi sings the wrenching aria, E lucevan le stelle, knowing his fate is to "die in desparation."
Suddenly, Tosca appears, seemingly triumphant. She tells him what she's done, and shows him the letter of safe conduct that Scarpia wrote for them before she murdered him. She explains that the firing squad will be a sham — the gunners are using blank bullets. Always the actress, she gives him careful, professional advice on how to fall in a realistic manner, so his fake death will be believable.
The music in this sequence seems hesitant and uncertain — as though telling us that Cavaradossi is skeptical, and resigned to his fate. Still, he reassures Tosca, and takes his place before the firing squad as she waits in the shadows, watching.
The gunners fire, and Cavaradossi falls. Pleased by his convincing performance, she calls his name excitedly. But when she runs to him, she's horrified to find that the execution was real, after all. Cavaradossi is dead, his chest riddled with bullets.
Soldiers rush in, accusing Tosca of Scarpia's murder, but she defies them. Tosca climbs high up on the castle wall, and leaps to her death.