Magazine article History Today

First Performance of Puccini's Tosca

Magazine article History Today

First Performance of Puccini's Tosca

Article excerpt

January 14th, 1900

AS EARLY AS MAY 1889 Puccini told his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, that he wanted to make an opera out of a melodrama which the highly regarded French playwright Victorien Sardou had written as a sensational acting vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt. Her gift for mime, incidentally, accounts for the long wordless scene in the opera's second act, after the villainous police chief has been murdered. Set in Rome in 1800 during the struggle between the repressive royalist regime and the republican revolutionaries, the play was called La Tosca.

Ricordi had a libretto written, but as Puccini was busy with Manon Lescaut, the publisher gave it to another of his stable of composers, a lesser light called Alberto Franchetti. Puccini was seriously displeased and Ricordi hastened to retrieve the work from Franchetti by telling him that on second thoughts he had decided it was entirely unsuitable for an opera -- brutally violent and involving a murderous heroine and a forgotten political situation that no contemporary audience would grasp. Franchetti was persuaded and relinquished his rights to the work.

In 1895 Puccini went to Florence specially to see Bernhardt in the play. Her performance almost put him off the project altogether, but he made some sort of a start on it in the following summer, after the premiere of La Boheme. Puccini always dawdled over composing, leaving himself plenty of time for the hunting, womanising and foreign travel which he enjoyed. He met Sardou in Paris several times to discuss the work, but was not impressed by the playwright's suggestions, which would have involved making the Tiber flow the wrong side of the Castel Sant' Angelo. Sardou said this did not matter, but Puccini, who was a stickler for accuracy of detail, was sure it did. The opera was finished at last near the end of September 1899, but then there was a problem with Ricordi, who did not think the last act measured up to the dramatic power of the first two. …

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