Opera and cultural change: Understanding the “verismo” of Tosca
What should opera look like in a world marked by rapid industrial and technological development? Though such questions certainly resonate in the 21st century, opera composers were asking the same questions at precisely the moment Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca was born.
At the turn of the 20th century, the broader world was undergoing a massive amount of social, cultural, technological, and political change. It saw the rise of modern industrial states and urban politics, increasing scientific progress, and the crest of European power with its colonialism, empire-building, and imperialism. Concurrently there was a radical desacralization of sacred spaces, a rise of secularism, and a collapse of metaphysical claims. Modern technologies surged as well with the invention of the telephone (1876), phonograph (1877), lightbulb (1878), gas-powered automobile (1885), zinc-carbon battery (1886), zipper (1891), diesel engine (1893), and cinema (1895). Overall, there was a self-conscious concern with being “modern,” a watch-word of the last decades of the 19th century.
Such was the world in which Puccini’s generation grew up. Artists and composers who came of age at the turn of the century bore the responsibility of creating artistic responses to this rapidly changing world. One can imagine them asking, “As a musician, how can I address this emerging world of science, realism, and technology, while still holding onto art as something that moves the soul? How do I find new, truer, bolder things to say? How can I develop music in ways that outflank my predecessors but still use the same basic musical language?” A dilemma indeed.
Puccini was among a group of young Italian opera composers whose response to the emerging sense of modernity involved turning to verismo—Italian for “realism.” Influenced by French literary circles, the Italian verismo movement considered the real world worth representing. Verismo composers gave their artistic interpretation of things that someone might actually experience. As such, verismo operas presented audiences enough details of the real world to feel more authentic or scientifically true than the artistic work of previous generations. They could be set in any time or place, be it 1850s rural Sicily, present day Japan, or—as with Tosca—Rome in 1800, truthfully recreating that reality, wherever and whenever it existed.
Puccini composed Tosca squarely within the verismo tradition. The opera premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on Jan. 14, 1900 with the choice of the Italian capital for the premiere presumably inspired by the Roman setting. The libretto was by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, Puccini’s collaborators for both La bohème and Madama Butterfly. It was based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 five-act play La Tosca, which was set in the days following Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo in June 1800. It featured acclaimed actress Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. Though one of Sardou’s most successful works, the play is rarely performed today, its popularity outshone by Puccini’s opera. Puccini drastically shortened the original drama, reducing the number of characters and focusing on the interpersonal drama between celebrated Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Scarpia rather than on political motivations or historical background. Tosca also features three of Puccini’s best-known arias: “Recondita armonia,” “Vissi d’arte,” and “E lucean le stelle.”
A variety of Tosca’s elements lend themselves to heightened realism. The plot dramatizes a moment in Italian history when Rome was alternately under Napoleonic and Neapolitan occupation, and featured actual Roman locations—the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant’Angelo. The libretto uses ordinary speech and a relaxed metric structure instead of the tightly organized poetic texts typical of earlier Italian operas. Moreover, the shepherd boy’s song at opening of Act III features local Romanesco dialect.
Musically, Puccini recreated a realistic Roman soundscape through the use of bells, real melodies, and diegetic song. He asked a priest about the Te Deum melody used in Roman churches, the correct order of the cardinal’s procession, and the Swiss Guard’s costumes. Puccini even learned the exact pitch of the great bell of St. Peter’s Basilica and made a special journey to Rome to hear the matins bells from the ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Tosca’s structure also aligns with verismo ideals. Until the mid-19th century, operas typically consisted of discrete blocks—arias, duets, choruses, and so forth. For the veristi, however, an externally imposed structure was artificial. Instead of opening with a grand instrumental delivery of the aria’s memorable tune, Tosca’s arias often start simply and without pomp, so the audience might not even realize an aria has begun until a sudden burst of lyricism arrives.
In true verismo style, Tosca also depicts torture, attempted rape, murder, and suicide—uncommon subjects for earlier operas. Puccini’s treatment of Cavaradossi’s torture shocked audiences, who would have preferred being told about it rather actually hearing the tenor’s off-stage screams. The execution scene proved even more unsettling. Though in Sardou’s play it took place off-stage, Puccini made the scene more explicit, with both victim and firing squad in full view on stage.
Like verismo opera, early cinema also shared a broader interest in realism. The earliest films were exhibitionist in nature, emphasizing effect, spectacle, and technological novelty and offering viewers the opportunity to “really see,” seemingly without mediation. Famously, audiences found the Lumière brothers’ silent film of the arrival of a train so realistic that they screamed and ran from the room to get out of the way of the on-coming train—despite the fact that it was only on the screen. Tosca’s shocking elements can thus be seen in connection to early cinema’s shocking immediacy and realism. Moreover, both Tosca and early Italian cinema engaged with a broader cultural interest in encountering the past, experiencing it as realistically as possible. As cinema turned increasingly toward narrative subjects in the decade after Tosca’s premiere, the burgeoning Italian film industry became known for its historical and epic films.
Though Tosca was an immediate public success, with Puccini describing the premiere as “a veritable triumph… Italian-style with shouts and calls for encores,” its early critical reception was mixed, largely due to its veristic nature. A reviewer in the Mercure de France called it “coarsely puerile, pretentious and vapid,” while a Le Figaro critic disparaged its “disconcerting vulgarities.” Critics were shocked because they were unaccustomed to a heightened level of objectivity in a genre they expected to be fictional and subjective. The stage—and especially opera—was not a place to see reality, but to see fiction. Yet in combining art and reality, Puccini produced a verismo opera that has both shocked and enchanted audiences for generations.
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