Opera Memorabilia: Tosca - The Tumultuous Premiere of a Puccini Classic

Some operas seem destined to take a firm place in the repertoire from their

Tosca - Original World Premiere Playbill 1900

premiere, and Tosca can certainly be said to be one of these. Tosca opera memorabilia is widely sought-after, and a new production is something that is always guaranteed to sell well, or if cast with international stars, sell out.

The historical events detailed in composer Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" are separated from the opera's premiere by only a hundred years, and the Italy of 1900 was barely more settled than that of a century before. Italy was a relatively new country - prior to 1861, it had been the Papal State, Venice, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and various other districts - with Rome only becoming the capital in 1871. The north, traditionally wealthy, had been Europe's main silk producer, but there were pockets of severe deprivation, and poverty and public health got worse the further south you traveled.

The country was relatively weak, with overwhelming levels of poverty and overwhelming power for the church. Even the royal family wasn't safe, and Tosca was premiered in the same year that King Hubert was assassinated.

The Tosca premiere had been set for January 13, but the police had received warning of an anarchist bomb threat and suggested a postponement. The day of the performance was no less fraught, though thankfully with no bombing. Half of Rome's dignitaries were in attendance, including Queen Margherita (who arrived late), and the Prime Minister, Luigi Pelloux. The audience also included a frightening number of Puccini's rivals - Franchetti, Mascagni, Cilea, and Pizzetti to name but a few. In addition, latecomers caused the opera to be stopped briefly. The critics might not have been immediately impressed, but there were several calls for encores, and the initial 20 performances constituted a sell-out run.

In other words, the Italy of the premiere and the Italy of the opera setting aren't as far apart as they may seem, perhaps accounting for the immediacy with which the public took to the work - even if the critics didn't always agree.

The setting of the opera has a very precise date; the events of the afternoon and evening of June 17, 1800, and the early morning of June 18, 1800. After the French Revolution, the French army under Napoleon sent an invasion force to Italy in 1796, and established a republic in Rome in 1798 ruled by seven consuls - one of whom, Libero Angelucci, was possibly the model for the character of Cesare Angelotti in the opera.

The French withdrew the following year, and the troops of the Kingdom of Naples moved in. By May of 1800, Napoleon was moving his troops into Italy again. He initially met with resistance from Austrian soldiers in the Alps at Marengo, but French reinforcements arrived and the Austrians retreated (the events related to Scarpia in the second act of the opera).

The Opera

The three-act opera was premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on January 14, 1900, set to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Based on a French play from 1887 by Victorien Sardou, the opera tells the story of Rome's control by the Kingdom of Naples, threatened by Napoleon's invasion.

The opera seems to pass at breakneck speed, depicting torture, murder, and suicide and is full of some of the most memorable music Giacomo Puccini ever wrote.

Puccini saw the play at least twice on its Italian tour in 1889, in Milan and Turin, and finally started work six years later. Sardou was not a fan of Puccini's music and offended the composer so much that he withdrew from the agreement Ricordi was negotiating. The publisher reassigned the commission to Franchetti, with Illica as the librettist. Franchetti, however, wasn't comfortable with the opera - stories vary on how Ricordi persuaded him to down tools and hand the task back to Puccini, but Puccini signed a contract to resume work in August 1895.

Paring a five-act play into three acts for an opera was a mammoth task, especially as the uniquely French flavor of the play had to be turned into Italian opera. The first draft of the libretto - which had been lost - resurfaced in 2000 - and is significantly different from the final cut. Gone is a longer third act, including different words to "E lucevan le stelle", and a rather bizarre mad scene for Floria Tosca. Thankfully, Sardou refused to allow this change, and insisted Tosca must throw herself to her death. Puccini, thankfully, agreed. The composer downed tools in 1897, devoting himself to performances of La Boheme, but was back at work by January 1898, the date on the first page of the autograph score, containing the motif associated with Baron Scarpia. By the end of the year, Puccini wrote that he was "busting his balls" to finish the opera.

Puccini was immediately struck with the possibility the play offered: "I see in this Tosca the opera I need, with no overblown proportions, no elaborate spectacle, nor will it call for the usual excessive amount of music." Turning the verbose play into something which could be set to music took another four years, and Puccini and his librettists - and publisher - argued frequently. The premiere mirrored the plot, with significant unrest in Rome at the time, and the first performance was delayed for a day as a consequence.

It was not an unqualified immediate success, but still, it was going to make a mark in opera history. The critics were indifferent. The public loved it.

The opera is powerfully inventive, and - still relatively unusually - entirely through-composed, and this 'shabby little shocker' (musicologist Joseph Kerman) has held a firm place in the repertoire ever since, with frequent live performances and recordings.

The Roles and their Creators

The great creator, soprano Hariclea Darclée, was the first Floria Tosca; the title role had been written with her voice in mind. She was an extraordinarily versatile artist, with a repertoire ranging from lyric coloratura roles to lyric Wagner. Baron Scarpia was created by Eugenio Giraldoni, son of Leone Giraldoni, the great Verdi creator. A young Enrico Caruso had hoped to be entrusted with Mario Cavaradossi, but this went to the experienced tenor Emilio De Marchi - this was a decision Giacomo Puccini was later claimed to have regretted. However, the Mapleson Cylinder fragment of the "Vittoria!" sequence at The Metropolitan Opera on January 3, 1903 (with Emma Eames as Tosca) suggests De Marchi had a robust and thrilling voice.

In March of 1900, the La Scala premiere took place under Arturo Toscanini as conductor, with wonderful opera singers in the cast, Romanian soprano Darclée and Italian baritone Giraldoni reprising their roles, and Giuseppe Borgatti replacing De Marchi. Again, it played to full houses. In July of that year, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden staged it with Milka Ternina and Fernando De Lucia as Tosca and Cavaradossi, and Antonio Scotti as Scarpia. A contract was negotiated by Ricordi to take the opera to New York, and the Metropolitan Opera premiere was in February 1901, with Giuseppe Cremonini taking over the role of Mario Cavaradossi. By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, it had been performed in more than 50 cities around the world.

The market for opera memorabilia for Tosca is lively. This playbill for the original performance is a superb example of the kind of collectibles many collectors are looking for, alongside artist photographs, autographs, signatures on album pages, manuscripts, music quotes, original programs and other items part of any opera collection.

Many singers have had great success in the roles, and the immediacy of the story and the music make it a popular seat-filler 120 years on from its first performance. Singers who have had career-defining success in the opera include Emmy Destinn, Maria Jeritza (who Puccini considered his ideal Tosca), and of course, star soprano Maria Callas. Famous interpreters of Mario Cavaradossi include Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti, and of Scarpia, the great singer Tito Gobbi, and in more recent times, Sir Bryn Terfel all have been successful performers.

It's impossible to estimate how many performances and productions Tosca might have had since it entered the repertoire, but this "shabby little shocker" is, without doubt, one of the most loved of Puccini's operas.

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