Puccini’s Premieres in Rome

The premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca marked Puccini’s departure from the lyric sentimentality then traditional in opera and announced his adoption of the verismo style of Italian realism. Tosca represented an Italian endorsement of this new style, portraying ordinary people engaged in sordid and violent situations, a style that had first arisen in France.

Summary of Event

On January 14, 1900, Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca made its premiere in Rome, the city in which it was set. A glittering crowd of notables took their seats for the sold-out performance. The attendance of members of the royal family and government leaders gave the evening the gloss of an official occasion. The glamour of the evening masked a harsh social reality, however: Italy was a political tinderbox. Strikes and riots paralyzed the nation, and rumors of disturbances and conspiracies at the opera house had people’s nerves on edge. A delegation from the Roman police told Leopoldo Mugnone, the conductor, that in case of demonstrations or violence he was to play the royal march to calm the audience. Opera;Tosca
Tosca (Puccini)
Puccini, Giacomo
Sardou, Victorien
[kw]Puccini’s Tosca Premieres in Rome (Jan. 14, 1900)
[kw]Tosca Premieres in Rome, Puccini’s (Jan. 14, 1900)
[kw]Premieres in Rome, Puccini’s Tosca (Jan. 14, 1900)
[kw]Rome, Puccini’s Tosca Premieres in (Jan. 14, 1900)
Tosca (Puccini)
Puccini, Giacomo
Sardou, Victorien
[g]Italy;Jan. 14, 1900: Puccini’s Tosca Premieres in Rome[6460]
[c]Music;Jan. 14, 1900: Puccini’s Tosca Premieres in Rome[6460]
[c]Theater;Jan. 14, 1900: Puccini’s Tosca Premieres in Rome[6460]
Giacosa, Giuseppe
Illica, Luigi
Umberto I

There had already been attempts on the life of King Umberto I, Umberto I
[p]Umberto I[Umberto 01];assassination attempts on and there were fears for the safety of Queen Margherita Margherita, Queen , who was in the audience. Some moments after the opera began, there was a disturbance that brought the performance to a stop, but it turned out to be a quarrel over seating. After the false start, the opera proceeded. The arias were received warmly, and Puccini was called to the stage several times, but the audience’s reaction did not approach the unbridled level of enthusiasm that had been anticipated. The reviews the following morning echoed the relatively cool audience reaction. The general theme of the critics was that the opera’s plot had overwhelmed the music. Nevertheless, it had been a great moment: Critics, royals, and ordinary patrons alike had witnessed Puccini embracing verismo, or realism.

By the time of Tosca’s premiere, Puccini was Italy’s leading operatic composer. After an unsteady beginning during the 1880’s with Le villi (1884; the villas) and Edgar (1889), he established himself as a composer of the first rank with Manon Lescaut (1893) and La Bohème (1896; the bohemian woman). When Puccini turned his attention to Tosca, he was already regarded as Giuseppe Verdi’s musical successor. Puccini had seen the great Sarah Bernhardt perform the title role in Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca (pr. 1887, pb. 1909; English translation, 1925) in Florence in 1895, and Giulio Ricordi, Puccini’s publisher, was able to secure the rights to the piece. Any doubts about the play’s suitability as a subject for opera were swept away when Verdi said that if he were not so old, he would write an opera based on La Tosca.

Giacomo Puccini.

(Library of Congress)

Sardou said that the idea for the play was based on an incident in the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) . A Roman Catholic nobleman promised a Protestant woman that he would save her husband from execution in return for sexual favors. She complied, but she awoke the next morning to see her husband dangling from the gallows. Sardou’s play is set against Napoleon I’s wars in Italy and includes a much stronger historical element than does Puccini’s opera. In the streamlined libretto of the opera, written by Giuseppe Giacosa Giacosa, Giuseppe and Luigi Illica Illica, Luigi , Floria Tosca is a famous diva, intensely jealous of her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, who is an artist. When Cavaradossi shields Cesare Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner, he is arrested by Rome’s chief of police, Baron Scarpia.

The corrupt and degenerate Scarpia sees in this arrest an opportunity to recover his prisoner, punish Cavaradossi, and seduce Tosca all at once. In the pivotal second act, Scarpia tortures Cavaradossi in Tosca’s presence, but the artist steadfastly denies any knowledge of Angelotti’s hiding place. When Tosca can take no more, she reveals Angelotti’s whereabouts to save Cavaradossi from further torture. Police are sent to arrest Angelotti, who commits suicide, and Cavaradossi is sentenced to death for harboring a fugitive. Scarpia offers Tosca a bargain. If she satisfies his carnal desire, Scarpia will order that a mock execution take place and will provide a safe-conduct pass for Tosca and Cavaradossi to leave Rome. Tosca very reluctantly agrees. Scarpia gives the order for the mock execution, writes out the pass, and gives it to Tosca. Instead of making love to Scarpia, however, Tosca stabs him to death on stage.

In the third act, Tosca rushes to the prison with the safe-conduct pass. Since Cavaradossi’s execution is to take place at dawn, she is certain that the charade will be over long before Scarpia’s body is discovered and that they will be able to make their escape. In the brief moments that they have together, Tosca describes what has transpired and happily assures Cavaradossi that the firing squad will fire blanks; she even coaches him in how to make a convincing fall. The guards march Cavaradossi away as Tosca watches. Tosca is lighthearted as the volley is fired, still believing that everything is a sham. As she approaches the body, however, she realizes the truth—Scarpia had lied, and the execution was real. At that moment, Scarpia’s lieutenant arrives at the fortress with the news of the baron’s murder, and Tosca throws herself from the fortress tower rather than be arrested.

Even in the outlines of the plot, Tosca’s realism is apparent. Grand opera of the nineteenth century tended to focus on episodes in the lives of high-born characters caught between love and duty. Furthermore, no conventions at the time prevented a character from singing after being suffocated or stabbed. Tosca examined the lives of more ordinary people who were passionate and vengeful. The murders and suicides that Italian verismo plots almost invariably included were final. No verismo character sings after being killed.

Perhaps one anecdote will suffice to demonstrate Puccini’s dedication to realism on the stage. Puccini often traveled around Europe to be present as his works were performed in one opera house after another. In Vienna, Vienna;opera Puccini attended a rehearsal that solved a problem that had been nagging him. The opera’s most famous aria comes at the moment when Tosca has capitulated to Scarpia’s foul demands, and Puccini worried that the aria interrupted the action of the moment. In the Vienna production, Maria Jeritza was singing the title role. During the middle of the second act, an overzealous Baron Scarpia manhandled Jeritza and knocked her to the ground just as the introduction for the aria began. Rather than stop the rehearsal, Jeritza raised herself slightly and sang from the ground. “Exactly right,” shouted Puccini. “Never do it any other way.” The new staging seemed more realistic to Puccini, and the aria is still usually sung in that manner.

The premiere of Tosca signaled an important shift in Italian opera. The most important operatic composer of his generation had produced a full-length work in the new style of verismo. Puccini was to go on to hone his realist skills further in such works as Madama Butterfly (1904), La fanciulla del West (1910; the girl of the West), and Turandot (1926).


Tosca was the first full-length verismo opera to be produced by a composer of the first rank. The roots of verismo originated in the novels of Émile Zola Zola, Émile
[p]Zola, Émile;and opera[Opera] , who argued that drama and musical stage works should concern themselves with human issues and should deal with poor, ordinary people in the midst of their miseries and joys. In Italy, Zola’s ideas were first taken up by writers. Giovanni Verga, for example, wrote stories about Sicilian peasants. In music, as in literature, nineteenth century realism was at first embraced by the French. A depiction of a promiscuous, lawless factory worker culminating in her onstage murder made Georges Bizet’s Bizet, Georges
Carmen (Bizet) (1875) a departure point for the verismo movement. The Italians quickly followed suit, beginning, however, with lesser composers and one-act operas by more accomplished composers. It was Tosca, then, that signaled that this new form of realism had truly arrived in the Italian musical world.

Musical elements closely associated with verismo included minor harmonies, wide melodic intervals, orchestral doubling of vocal lines, and the slow pace of dramatic arias. Such characteristics are exemplified by “Vesti la giubba” from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Leoncavallo, Ruggero
Pagliacci (1892) and “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. Puccini also employed the system of leitmotif (leading motive) in Tosca. A leitmotif is a recurrent melodic element that identifies a character. In Scarpia’s case, Puccini employed a brief, carefully planned musical statement that included an interval regarded in medieval music as sinister and demoniac. One has only to hear Scarpia’s musical motive to be reminded of his ominous presence or influence.

Now that the operas of Richard Strauss Strauss, Richard , Alban Berg Berg, Alban , and Benjamin Britten Britten, Benjamin are standard musical fare, it is difficult to appreciate how new and daring Tosca must have seemed in 1900. Contemporary critical responses reflect how novel Tosca seemed as it premiered around the world. In London, critics attacked the verismo elements of plot.

Those who were present at the performance of Puccini’s opera Tosca, were little prepared for the revolting effects produced by musically illustrating the torture and murder scenes of Sardou’s play. The alliance of a pure art with scenes so essentially brutal and demoralizing . . . produced a feeling of nausea. . . . What has music to do with a lustful man chasing a defenseless woman or the dying kicks of a murdered scoundrel?

In Boston, critics attacked the score.

At the first hearing much, perhaps most, of Puccini’s Tosca sounds exceedingly, even ingeniously, ugly. Every now and then one comes across the most ear-flaying succession of chords; then, the instrumentation, although nearly always characteristic, is often distinctly rawboned and hideous. . . .

The plot and music may have come to seem conventional to modern ears, but Tosca’s importance remains undiminished. Berg’s Lulu (1937, 1979) and Wozzeck (1925), Dmitri Shostakovich’s Shostakovich, Dmitri
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932), and Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945) all owe a debt to the verismo ideas of plot, character, and musical style that Tosca first fully exemplified.

Further Reading

  • Ashbrook, William. The Operas of Puccini. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985. A detailed analysis of Puccini’s operas. Although an excellent book, it is technical and will be useful only to someone who reads music and has some understanding of music theory.
  • Carner, Mosco. Puccini. London: Duckworth, 1974. The best and most scholarly English-language biography of Puccini. An enlarged third edition published in 1992 includes an entirely new chapter on Tosca.
  • DiGaetano, John Louis. Puccini the Thinker. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. DiGaetano’s work assesses the dramatic and intellectual content and development in Puccini’s operas. He is particularly interested in the influence of Richard Wagner’s operas on Puccini’s works. A useful book, although occasionally uncritical in its use of sources.
  • Greenfeld, Howard. Puccini. London: Robert Hale, 1980. A highly readable biography by an ardent fan. The book, though somewhat weak on Puccini’s personal life, contains a good discussion of the works and their sources.
  • Headington, Christopher, Roy Westbrook, and Terry Barfoot. “Verismo.” In Opera: A History. London: Bodley Head, 1987. An excellent general introduction to opera; particularly good on verismo. Although the authors are musical scholars, the language of the book is completely accessible. A fine introduction.
  • Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Puccini: A Critical Guide. London: Victor Gollancz, 1990. Although Osborne is not very fond of Tosca, his highly readable book provides an excellent act-by-act description of the action that would be of great help to someone planning to see Tosca for the first time. His chapter on Tosca also includes a detailed and interesting comparison of Sardou’s play and the libretto.
  • Puccini, Giacomo. Puccini Among Friends. Edited by Vincent Seligman. Rev. ed. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971. A standard English-language edition of Puccini’s letters, first published in 1938. Letters of Giacomo Puccini (1931; reprinted in 1974) is also a useful source.

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