Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Tosca

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

On January 14, 1900 – 119 years ago today – Giacomo Puccini’s three-act opera Tosca received its first performance at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. 

Based on a play by the French playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) and adapted for opera by the librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Gioacosa, Tosca has been an audience favorite since the day of its premiere. According to Operabase, an online database of opera performances, Tosca is the fifth most popular opera in the repertoire today. 

Of course, we will want to know which operas are numbers one through four! They are, starting with number one: La Traviata (1853), by Giuseppe Verdi; The Magic Flute (1791), by Wolfgang Mozart; Carmen (1875), by Georges Bizet; and La bohème (1895), by Giacomo Puccini. 

We would observe that Puccini is the only composer with two operas in Operabase’s top five. Based on number of performances worldwide, the five most popular opera composers today are, in order one through five: Verdi; Puccini; Mozart; Wagner; and Rossini. 

Unfortunately, unlike Verdi, Mozart, Wagner and Rossini, Puccini’s popularity with audiences has not been matched with equal acclaim from the critics. No doubt, some critics have said nice things about Puccini’s operas, but they remain in the minority. And unlike so many composers whose music was critically rejected in their lifetimes only to become critically celebrated at a later date, it can be honestly said that the critical disfavor of Puccini’s operas has actually grown since his death in 1924! 

Harold Schonberg (1915-2003)
Harold Schonberg (1915-2003)

For example, Harold Schonberg (1915-2003), for over 20 years the chief music critic for the New York Times (and the first music critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, in 1971), wrote:

“The Puccini operas may be naïve; and musicians have accused them of pandering to a listener’s baser instincts. There is no denying that many Puccini operas are frank tearjerkers, and those who regard [opera] as an art of spiritual betterment reject them out of hand.”

Many of Puccini’s fellow professionals have been equally unkind. According to the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976):

“[I am] sickened by the cheapness and emptiness of Puccini’s music.”

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) (what’s he smokin’?)

According to composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951):

“There are high and lower means [of artistic expression]. Realistic, violent incidents – as for example the torture scene in [the second act of] Tosca – which are unfailingly effective should not be used by an artist, because they are too cheap, too accessible to everybody.”

(One wonders if having the name Schonberg/Schoenberg actually requires one to disapprove of Puccini?)

Arnold Schoenberg’s comment addresses Tosca specifically, and indeed, no one of Puccini’s twelve operas has been more consistently lambasted by critics than Tosca. My mentor Joseph Kerman (1924-2014), who just last week I correctly identified in a Music History Monday post as being “the greatest musicologist of his generation”, wrote in his tremendously influential book Opera as Drama (1956; revised 1988):

“The more fully one knows the true achievement of the art of opera, the more clearly one sees the extent of Puccini’s failure [as an opera composer], or more correctly, the triviality of his attempt. Tosca [for example] is, consistently, throughout, of café-music banality. It is scarcely believable that such an [opera] would have become a favorite.”

On page 205 of his book, Kerman delivers the line that made him famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view!):

Tosca, that shabby little shocker, is no doubt admired nowadays mostly in the gallery” [meaning the cheap seats, occupied by the low and ignorant hoi-polloi].

Again, for emphasis: “Tosca, that shabby little shocker.”

Why would Kerman write such a thing?

We’ll speak to “shabby” in a moment, but Kerman is right about one thing, because Tosca is indeed a shocker. Now please, audiences today – conditioned by such fare as American Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Game of Thrones and Debbie Does Dallas – might not perceive how dramatically, physically, and sexually shocking Tosca really is. But for the audience at the premiere on January 14, 1900 – 119 years ago today – Tosca was indeed a shocking melodrama, with its explicit scenes of torture, sexual sadism, attempted rape, murder and suicide.

Gnarly though Tosca’s plot may be, we must understand it in context, and that context is an operatic movement called “verismo” of which Puccini was the great master. 

Through the second half of the 19th century, Italian and French writers and opera composers sought to depict ever-greater dramatic “truth” in their works. This meant portraying people, events and emotions with the greatest possible realism. Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Otello, and the literary works of Emil Zola, for example, all portray real people in profoundly weakened and often degraded emotional states, struggling for their very survival. This move towards stark, dramatic and expressive realism in opera was called, in Italy, verismo, meaning “truth” or better, “truthism”. 

According to most opera histories, the first Italian verismo operas were Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana of 1890 and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci of 1892, though one could argue that Italian operatic verismo had existed since Verdi’s La Traviata of 1853. Having said that, the greatest operatic exponent of Italian verismo opera was Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (1858-1924). And Puccini’s greatest versimo opera is Tosca

So in this we’d be foolish to argue with Joe Kerman: Tosca is indeed a “shocker” because, one, that’s the “style” of opera it is and two, because in 1900 (as is true today), that’s the sort of entertainment that put rear-ends in seats. 

The key word in that last sentence is entertainment. Puccini knew his audience as well as Verdi did before him and Steven Spielberg after him, and he knew how to entertain them. His operas are chock-full of gorgeous melodies, effective orchestration, superbly drawn characters, and, no doubt about it, pure shock value. Are his musical transitions, on occasion, pedestrian? Yes they are. Does that make him a “shabby” composer? No, it does not.

(Writing a good transition – that is, creating what are clearly perceived as being secondary musical passages that nevertheless effectively and artfully transit from one thematic idea to another – is one of the hardest things for a composer to learn to do. Some of our favorite composers – here I’m referring to Tchaikovsky and Gershwin – bemoaned their inadequacy in composing effective transitions.)

To properly appreciate Puccini – and his work is well worth appreciating – we must take it at face value. He didn’t consider himself a “composer” so much as a “man of the theater”: as a dramatist.

He famously wrote a friend:

“Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said ‘Write for the theater – mind, only for the theater.’ And I have obeyed the supreme command.”

So should we call Puccini’s work shabby; should we reject all that is wonderful in his work because he was not as complete a compositional technician as Mozart or Wagner?

Do we reject the movies of Steven Spielberg because he is not Ingmar Bergman? 

Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) on the cover of Time, November 3, 1958
The divine Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) on the cover of Time, November 3, 1958

Of course not. Life is way too nasty and brutish for us not to take our pleasures where and when we find them, and Puccini’s operas in general, and Tosca in particular, must be numbered among life’s great pleasures, guilty or not.

So let us celebrate this anniversary by listening to or watching Tosca. (In this I have taken my own advice; as I write this post I am listening to my favorite recording of Tosca. That recording – on the London label – features the miraculous Renata Tebaldi as the famous singer Floria Tosca; Mario del Monaco as her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi; and George London as the supremely wicked chief of police, Scarpia.) While we watch or listen, let us glory in the opera’s three masterwork arias, Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” (“Hidden harmony”), “E lucevan le stele” (“And the stars shone”), and Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art, I lived for love”). Let us celebrate the love between Tosca and Cavaradossi; feel Tosca’s (and Cavaradossi’s!) agony while he is tortured to reveal the location of an escaped political prisoner; share Tosca’s anguish while the police chief and torturer Scarpia sadistically torments her while attempting to get into her pantalone; let us experience Tosca’s exhilaration when she stabs and kills Scarpia and gives his corpse a mock funeral (concluding a scene called by the musicologist Ernest Newman as “the most impressively macabre scene in all opera”).

Original poster for Tosca, depicting the death and mock funeral of Scarpia
Original poster for Tosca, depicting the death and mock funeral of Scarpia

Finally, let us weep together when Tosca witnesses the execution of her beloved Cavaradossi and subsequently self-snuffs by hurling herself off the roof of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo. 

“Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said ‘Write for the theater – mind, only for the theater.’ And I have obeyed the supreme command.”

Yes, indeed, Puccini obeyed, and rarely has the alignment of music and drama been more brilliantly realized than in his masterworks: Tosca, La bohème, and Madame Butterfly, with Turandot and Manon Lescaut close behind.

For lots more on Puccini and Tosca, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, How to Listen to and Understand Opera.

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