Puccini’s melodrama about a volatile diva, a sadistic police chief, and an idealistic artist has offended and thrilled audiences for more than a century. Critics, for their part, have often had problems with Tosca’s rather grungy subject matter, the directness and intensity of its score, and the crowd-pleasing dramatic opportunities it provides for its lead roles. But these same aspects have also made Tosca one of a handful of iconic works that seem to represent opera in the public imagination.
Setting: No opera is more tied to its setting than Tosca: Rome, the morning of June 17, 1800, through dawn the following day. The settings for each of the three acts—the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo—are familiar monuments in the city and can still be visited today. While the libretto takes some liberties with the facts, historical issues form a basis for the opera: the people of Rome are awaiting news of the Battle of Marengo in northern Italy, which will decide the fate of their symbolically powerful city.
Music: The score of Tosca is considered a prime example of the style of verismo, an elusive term usually translated as “realism.” The typical musical features of the verismo tradition are prominent in this opera: short arias with an uninhibited flood of raw melody, ambient sounds that blur the distinctions between life and art (including the extraordinary tolling of morning church bells as dawn breaks to open Act III); and the use of parlato—words spoken instead of sung—at moments of tension. The title character’s Act II aria, “Vissi d’arte,” is among the most popular solos in all of opera.
Runtime: 2 hours 18 minutes
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