Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: Tosca

Setting: Rome, 1800, with Buonaparte about to invade and depose the monarchy.

Plot in three sentences: Artist Cavaradossi, a republican, loves Tosca, a singer; so does Scarpia, depraved, venal royalist Chief of Police. He tortures Cavaradossi until Tosca gives away his political secrets and agrees to let him have his wicked way. Tosca thinks by giving in she has negotiated freedom for herself and her lover and stabs him, but Scarpia has double-crossed her; Cavaradossi still gets executed, leaving Tosca no option but to jump from the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Reputation: ‘A shabby little shocker’ – the opera they all love to hate, but which never fails with audiences. The secret lies in terrific music, a terrifying villain, and an utterly lovable heroine, whose psychological drama is brilliantly depicted through music – above all in her final confrontation with Scarpia.

Critical reaction: With a bomb scare in the theatre and various cynical stunts from Puccini’s rivals, the first night was hostile. The critics attacked the music and the sordid story – but the public quickly grew to love it.

Classic performers: Although she claimed no special affinity for the role, Maria Callas made Tosca her own in her 1953 recording.

Highlights: ‘Recondita armonia’ (Act 1); Te Deum (Act 1 finale); ‘Vissi d’arte’ (Act 2); ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (Act 3).

Death toll: 1. Angelotti hangs himself (Act 2); 2. Scarpia, stabbed by Tosca (Act 2); 3. Cavaradossi, shot by firing squad in double-bluff execution Tosca thinks is faked (Act 3); 4. Tosca, jumps from battlements (Act 3).

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘Sordid tosh – but its appeal is so visceral.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘Well, I like it.’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995

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