Detailed Plot Outline
Act I: Rome, The Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. June 17, 1800
As is typical of Puccini, there is no overture, just a brief orchestral passage to set the mood. The opera opens with three jarring chords, a motif which will be associated with the villainous Scarpia. A series of descending chords introduces the escaped political prisoner Angelotti, looking for the key to the family’s private chapel, which his sister had hidden away for him. Finding it, he exits to the chapel. The elderly Sacristan enters to a jaunty melody, descriptive of his uneven walk. He is grumbling about having to clean Cavaradosi’s paintbrushes. He looks at the basket of food he had prepared for the painter and notices that it has not been touched (a fact which will be significant later). The Sacristan has many characteristics of a stock comic character, but as we will soon see, the consequences of his actions are far from comic.
Cavaradossi, who has been working on a mural depicting Mary Magdalene, enters and uncovers the painting. The Sacristan is horrified to realize that Cavaradossi has used a real-life worshipper at the church as his model. In the aria “Recondita armonia” Cavaradossi compares his blonde model with his beloved brunette, dark-eyed Tosca, while the Sacristan grumbles in the background about the improper mixing of the religious and profane. “Recondita armonia” demonstrates the way in which Puccini was breaking away from the use of formal set pieces in his operas. In one sense, it is not strictly an aria but a duet – the Sacristan even gets to sing the final line – but the two vocal lines are hardly of equal interest. The Sacristan now lets us know (out of Cavaradossi’s earshot) the real reason for his resentment: the painter’s political leanings and lack of conventional piety. He then turns to the painter to remind him that a dinner has been prepared for him, but Cavaradossi replies that he is not hungry, and the Sacristan exits to the same melody associated with his entrance.
Hearing him leave, Angelotti emerges from the chapel, and Cavaradossi recognizes him as a leader of the recently overthrown Roman Republic. Hearing Tosca enter the church, Cavaradossi tells Angelotti to hide again, giving him the basket of food. Tosca, to an orchestral accompaniment of a musical theme which will be associated with her throughout the opera, enters, exclaiming, “Mario, Mario.” She lays a bouquet of flowers at the feet of the statue of the Madonna and then sings a cheerful aria about a rendezvous she and Cavaradossi will have at his cottage, including a musical theme which will henceforth represent the cottage. As was the case with Cavaradossi’s aria, this is not strictly a solo, as Cavaradossi’s response is built into the completion of the melodic line.
Tosca then looks at the painting and recognizes the model as the Marchese Attavanti, and she expresses her concern that Cavaradossi has fallen for her. In a free-flowing duet, which introduces a “love theme,” Cavaradossi assures her that he loves only her, but Tosca admonishes him to at least paint her with dark eyes. She then leaves to prepare for her evening performance.
Angelotti reenters, and Cavaradossi explains that he asked Angelotti to hide because Tosca tells her confessor everything, and he clearly does not trust the priest to keep a secret. Angelotti tells how he has escaped Scarpia’s grasp, as the orchestra restates the Scarpia theme heard at the opening of the opera. Cavaradossi offers to help him escape to his cottage (listen for the cottage theme), and they exit.
The Sacristan re-enters with a group of altar boys, telling them that a celebration is being planned to celebrate the news that Napoleon has been defeated at the battle of Marengo. The children create a commotion, which is abruptly stopped when Scarpia enters, accompanied by the chords we now recognize from the opera’s opening, and admonishes them to show more respect for their surroundings. One critic has compared the sudden change of mood to that experienced by the Bohemians in La bohème, when Musetta interrupts their horseplay to inform them of Mimi’s illness. Scarpia’s entrance may seem to be a coincidence, but in the play it is explained that he was tipped off by a jailer that Angelotti was headed in the direction of the church. Scarpia’s fanatical search for Angelotti is also explained more specifically in the play. He was relatively new on the job, and he was suspected of being at fault in allowing Angelotti to escape. His own future was on the line.
Scarpia finds a fan that the Marchesa had left behind, and the Sacristan, noting that Cavaradossi’s food basket is now empty, helps Scarpia connect the dots. He hears Tosca enter. Referring to the story of Othello, he comments that just as Iago had a
handkerchief to make Othello jealous, he can use the fan for the same purpose with Tosca. Church bells announce the beginning of the service, and Scarpia takes Tosca’s hand to offer her holy water. Lying about where the fan was found, he arouses Tosca’s jealousy, hoping to have her flee and inadvertently lead him to Angelotti’s hideout. As she leaves, he orders his henchmen to follow her.
The aria which follows, “Va, Tosca!,” has no parallel in the original play. Scarpia, who is now revealed as one of the most spectacular operatic villains, sings of his desire to have Cavaradossi hanged and to have sex with Tosca, as the music of the “Te Deum” hymn (a text frequently used for celebrations) is heard in the background, punctuated by cannon shots in the distance. The blending of the diabolical aria with the music of the church underscores Scarpia‘s religious hypocrisy. “Tosca, you make me forget God,” he exclaims at the conclusion of the aria, and he immediately follows these words by joining his voice to the words of the service as the curtain falls on the spectacular, bone-chilling conclusion of Act I.
Act II: The Farnese Palace, later the same day
The curtain rises on Scarpia, who is dining alone, awaiting Tosca’s arrival. The window is opened, and he hears a Gavotte in the courtyard below. As the orchestra plays the Act I love theme, he speaks of Tosca’s love for Cavaradossi. He then launches into an aria in which he expresses his unsentimental view of sexual relations as a series of conquests with no element of romance, and aria which may call to mind Iago’s infamous “Credo,” in view of the fact that the analogy between the two men has already been made explicit.
Spoletta enters and announces that a search of Cavaradossi’s cottage (listen for the cottage theme) has not yielded Angelotti, but Cavaradossi’s demeanor has convinced him that the painter knows the fugitive’s whereabouts, and he has taken him into custody.
A cantata, with Tosca as the lead singer, is heard in the background. Cavaradossi is brought in, and Scarpia interrogates him without success. Tosca, who has been summoned by Scarpia, now comes in, and Cavaradossi warns her to remain silent. Scarpia sends Cavaradossi off to be tortured, and as Scarpia interrogates Tosca, Cavaradossi’s screams punctuate the dialogue. Tosca finally breaks down and reveals Angelotti’s hiding place, and a bleeding Cavaradossi is brought in. The triumphant Scarpia orders his men to search the well, thereby letting Cavaradossi know that Tosca has revealed the secret.
Sciarrone now enters with the news that news of Napoleon’s defeat had been greatly exaggerated. In fact, Napoleon had been victorious in the battle and his enemy was on the run. Cavaradossi exclaims “Vittoria” (victory), and sings a brief tribute to the cause of freedom. This gives Scarpia an excuse to condemn him to death as a traitor, though his fate probably had already been sealed in any event. Alone with Tosca, Scarpia now offers makes her an offer which has been so often depicted in folklore, telling her that he will spare Cavaradossi’s life in exchange for a sexual encounter with her (in all of the folklore
situations I am familiar with, the lover is killed anyway, as will be the case in this story).
Left alone for a moment to consider her dilemma, Tosca turns to prayer, and in her famous aria “Vissi d’arte,” she asks the question that has been central to religious thought throughout the ages – why do bad things happen to good people? She has
devoted her life to art and love and moreover has always been generous to the poor. Why has she been placed in this predicament? Though not so indicated in the original libretto, many sopranos have adopted the custom of performing this aria while kneeling. Puccini had second thoughts about this aria, worrying that it slowed down the action, but his original instincts were right, as this contemplative aria helps build tension by serving as the calm before the storm.
As the aria begins, there are hints of Tosca’s Act I music in the orchestra. More significantly, the climactic line “Perche, perche Signore” (“Why, God?”) is virtually a slowed-down version of the music we have identified with Cavaradossi’s cottage. This underscores the subtle way in which Puccini used these recurring motifs for their emotional impact rather than as an intellectual exercise. There is no logical reason to use the cottage theme here. Rather, we associate this melody with the frivolous Tosca of Act I, and hearing virtually the same notes here in a slower tempo shows how Tosca has grown
emotionally in just a few hours.
Spoletta enters and informs Scarpia that Angelotti committed suicide rather than allowing himself to be captured, and that preparations are being made for Cavaradossi’s execution. Tosca finally consents to Scarpia’s demands. He agrees to write an order of safe passage for the couple, but he explains that people must believe that Cavaradossi has been executed. In Tosca’s presence, he orders Spoletta to arrange a “fake execution” with blanks, just as had been done with Count Palmieri. In order to be sure he understands, Spoletta makes Scarpia repeat the order twice. In case the audience does not guess the innuendo, it later becomes clear that Count Palmieri’s “fake execution” had turned into a real one, and Spoletta wanted to be sure that the same fate was intended for Cavaradossi.
Spoletta leaves, and the orchestra takes up a somber theme suggesting that some momentous event is about to occur. As Scarpia writes out the safe conduct, Tosca sees a knife on the table and picks it up. Scarpia approaches her exclaiming, “Tosca, you are finally mine!” and Tosca replies, “This is Tosca’s kiss,” stabbing him. His faint cries for help are of no avail, and he soon expires. Tosca takes the document from his hand and, kneeling over his dead body, says in monotone “And before him all of Rome trembled” (Contrary to the score, many sopranos speak this line). As the somber music continues in the orchestra, Tosca turns the assassination into a ritual by placing a pair of candlesticks by Scarpia’s head and a crucifix on his chest. She then hurries out as the curtain falls.
Act III: The next morning on the rooftop of Saint Angelo Castel
Following the turmoil of the previous act, there is a complete change of mood. Following a brief melody on the horns, a shepherd boy is heard offstage singing a melody based on the pentatonic (five-tone) scale, suggesting an ancient folk song. Various church bells are heard in the distance.
Puccini personally visited the site to be sure that he accurately captured the sounds of the bells. However, the opening tableau does more than simply provide local color. Puccini seems to be reminding us of how beautiful life could be if we could learn to live with each other in peace.
The mood changes as the orchestra introduces the somber melody the aria we will hear soon from Cavaradossi, “E lucevan le stelle” (“When the stars were shining.”) A jailer leads Cavaradossi in, telling him he has an hour to live. Cavaradossi refuses the services of a priest and asks instead for the opportunity to write a letter, bribing the jailer with his ring in exchange for his promise to deliver it to Tosca. As he writes, the orchestra plays some of the Act I love theme, followed by a solo clarinet playing “E lucevan le stelle.” The aria follows an unusual pattern, for whereas in most arias the singer voices the melody from the beginning, here the orchestra takes the lead while Cavaradossi begins his contemplation in a virtual recitative (partly a monotone) over the orchestra, joining the melody with the last line of the first verse. He recalls his erotic adventures with Tosca, saying that he now dies in despair at a time when he never loved life more.
He is surprised by Tosca’s entrance (accompanied by her Act I music). She tells him what has happened (as she describes the killing, we hear the melody that accompanied it). She tells Cavaradossi of the plans for the fake execution and warns him to play his part well. The two sing a duet, during which Cavaradossi marvels that such delicate hands could accomplish such a brutal deed.
The firing squad enters to a melody which seems to suggest their almost matter-of-fact attitude. Whereas in the original play Tosca does not witness the execution, the opera heightens the dramatic tension by having her present. The soldiers fire, and Cavaradossi falls. Not wishing Tosca to learn the truth until they leave, Spoletta orders the captain to bypass the coupe de grace (the final shot that would prevent the prisoner from suffering a slow death). The soldiers leave, and the orchestra falls silent for a moment. Tosca rushes to Cavaradossi and tells him it is time to get up, only to discover that the bullets were in fact real. As music of growing intensity is heard in the orchestra, Sciarrone and Spoletta rush in, announcing that Scarpia’s murder has been discovered and that they realize Tosca was the perpetrator. She rushes to the edge of the parapet and, crying defiantly “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” (“O Scarpia, we shall meet before God!”), she leaps to her death as the orchestra reprises “E lucevan le stelle.”
The use of this melody for the conclusion has been the source of some controversy, including Joseph Kerman’s oft-quoted remark that “the orchestra screams whatever comes into its head.” Mosco Carner explains his objection more rationally, pointing out that this melody is associated with Cavaradossi, whereas the focus of the final tableau should be on Tosca herself. Julian Budden takes the opposite approach: “That Puccini should choose the blackest theme of the opera to sum up the final tragedy is therefore perfectly logical.” Others see it as a positive statement, pointing out that this is also the music to the line “I have never loved life more,” suggesting a posthumous triumph for Cavaradossi. All of this analysis, however, is quite beside the point. No one attending this opera for the first time would ever question Puccini’s use of this melody for the conclusion. It may not seem right intellectually, but it feels right, and that for Puccini would have been the ultimate criterion.