Puccini's 'Tosca' If ever there were an R-rated opera, it's Puccini's lurid potboiler, Tosca. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also one of the most popular operas of all time — featured here in a production from Houston Grand Opera starring soprano Maria Guleghina.
NPR logo Giacomo Puccini's 'Tosca'

Giacomo Puccini's 'Tosca'

From Houston Grand Opera

Cavaradossi (tenor Alfredo Portilla) is executed by firing squad in the final act of Puccini's Tosca, from Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Brett Coomer hide caption

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Photo: Brett Coomer


Maria Guleghina ................. Tosca

Alfredo Portilla ......... Cavaradossi

Franz Grundheber ........... Scarpia

Nikolay Didenko ............ Angelotti

Richard Sutliff ............... Sacristan

Jonathan Green ............. Spoletta

Houston Grand Opera Orchestra

Antonello Allemandi, conductor

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Maria Callas as Tosca

Surely, here in the 21st century, we're all a part of the most sophisticated and informed society in history. Sometimes, though, it seems like our social standards are getting more and more squeamish all the time. As a result, all kinds of regulators are in place to protect us from cultural experiences some might find objectionable, and they're cracking down on everything from spontaneous expletives during TV interviews, to costume mishaps at sporting events, to foul-mouthed radio hosts.

One symptom of this is a proliferation of official ratings. Everything these days seems to have one. There are movies, with their old familiar PG, R and NC-17 ratings. TV shows have ratings, too: TV-Y, TV-G, TV-MA and so on. Music lovers are often confronted with the "Parental Advisory/Explicit Content" label. There are even video game ratings, ranging from EC for "Early Childhood," to AO for "Adults Only."

One genre that seems to have escaped the ratings police is opera. But stop and think: Aren't there plenty of operas you'd have to steer your kids away from, if they were rated?

Puccini's Tosca is surely a good example. If it showed up at the cineplex, Tosca would get at least a PG-13 — maybe an R, depending on how the producers treated the racier scenes. On television, Tosca would probably wind up with a TV-MA, due to "graphic violence" and "sexual content." And what about Tosca: The Video Game? That one gets an "Adults Only" for sure — you wouldn't want your kids stepping into an interactive version of Act Two!

Tosca, of course, has come by its lurid reputation honestly. Its various dramatic elements include overt passion, graphic violence, gruesome torture, sexual extortion, attempted rape, suicide and bloody murder — and the murder of a law enforcement official, no less.

Early on, one critic denounced Tosca as a "shabby little shocker." Benjamin Britten, one of the great opera composers of the 20th century, described it as, "sickening." Audiences, naturally, love the opera — can't get enough of it.

Listening to Tosca, you might catch yourself wondering about the opera's "redeeming values," but surely it has plenty. There's the music, for one thing — as passionate and openly beautiful as anything Puccini ever composed. The drama is blatantly exploitative, but it's also masterful. It pokes at the darker side of our desires, and even satisfies them, at least vicariously. There's nothing like Puccini for highbrow entertainment that brings along a ton of soul, and leaves you with a guilty grin.

On NPR's World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Tosca in a vivid production from Houston Grand Opera, starring the exciting soprano Maria Guleghina in the title role, tenor Alfredo Portilla as her lover Cavaradossi, and baritone Franz Grundheber as Baron Scarpia, one of the great operatic villains of all time.

The Story of 'Tosca'

Tosca (soprano Maria Guleghina) knows she has nothing left to lose in Act 2 of Puccini's opera. Photo: Brett Coomer hide caption

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Photo: Brett Coomer

As Baron Scarpia, baritone Franz Grundheber plays one of opera's greatest villains. Photo: Brett Coomer hide caption

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Photo: Brett Coomer

Maria Guleghina and Alfredo Portilla, as Tosca and Cavaradossi (left), face down Franz Grundheber's Scarpia in Act 2. Photo Credit hide caption

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Photo Credit

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.