Puccini & Religion

During the early stages of Tosca’s composition, Puccini asked his librettists to place an increased emphasis on the religious elements of the story, and indeed the church looms large in this story. Two of the acts conclude with God’s name, and the other ends with a personal religious ceremony as Tosca places a crucifix on Scarpia’s chest. The heroine’s most memorable aria is a prayer, and a crucifix is prominent in Cavaradossi’s cell in the final act.

Because of the largely negative view of the Catholic church not only in this opera but in several other Puccini operas, some writers have asserted that Puccini was anti-religious (We should note here that even though Puccini did not write his own libretti, he had enough input into the writing that we can assume that the operas reflect his own philosophy). Yet it is important to make a distinction between anti-clerical views and anti-religious ones. It is not Christianity or religion in general that comes under attack, but rather the corruption of religion by the Church.

Puccini’s anti-church sentiments are clear in Tosca. Scarpia represents the Papal authority, whose hypocrisy is underscored by the mixture of lust and false piety in the first-act finale, a scene which has no parallel in Sardou’s play. The torture of Cavaradossi is clearly condoned by the Church. The outwardly comic Sacristan is a sinister informant in league with Scarpia. Cavaradossi refuses the services of a priest before his execution, and when he says that Tosca tells everything to her confessor, he implies that he does not trust the priests to honor the confidentiality of the confession booth.

Nevertheless, the religious element in this opera runs deeper than these negative images would imply. In the first act, Tosca is seen as a conventionally pious young woman (despite her liberal views on sex), bringing flowers to the statue of the Madonna and speaking of her as if she is a real person. By the second act, however, she has already come to question her beliefs. Why, she asks, would God allow a good, pious person to suffer? Her aria ends with a question that for the moment remains unanswered. It is only in the final moments of the opera that this issue is resolved. With her lover dead and her own imminent death assured, she utters a line that has no parallel in Sardou’s play: “Scarpia, onward to God.” It is not God but human institutions which have failed her. She dies with an assertion that God’s justice will ultimately prevail.

At least one critic has argued that the musical repetition of Cavaradossi’s aria at the opera’s conclusion is an ironic comment on her statement of faith. But to view the opera this way is to deprive it of much of its meaning. Likewise, if we assume that
anti-religious views are prevalent in Puccini’s other operas, we must also assume that Puccini meant to mock not only Tosca but many of his other heroines.

Organized religion never fares well in Puccini’s operas. Convents are not seen as places for women who desire a contemplative life. They are rather prisons to which women are assigned by their families. Manon escapes with a lover to avoid the cloistered life, and the title character of Suor Angelica, Angelica, is sent to a convent to atone for the sin of bearing a child out of wedlock. The title character of Gianni Schicchi cleverly alters a will to deprive a monastery of an inheritance and directly asks the audience for a sign of approval (which is always granted in the form of applause). Butterfly, in Madama Butterfly, converts to Christianity for superficial reasons, seeing it as the American religion of success and power.

On the other hand, Puccini generally treats the genuine religious feelings of his heroines sympathetically. Mimì, in La bohème, seems to be the ideal, describing herself as a woman who rarely attends Mass but frequently prays to God. Musetta’s prayer in the final act, accompanied by an act of charity, shows us a sympathetic side of her character which we do not see earlier in the opera. Angelica commits a mortal sin by taking her own life when she learns of her son’s death, but despite the teaching of the Church, she is rewarded with a vision of her son accompanied by the Virgin Mary. Butterfly demonstrates genuine piety when, in her moment of despair, she rejects her adopted religion and returns to the faith of her ancestors.

Besides Tosca, the opera in which religion plays the largest role is The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del West), though there is not a church or minister in sight. In Belasco’s play about the Gold Rush, the tavern-keeper Minnie seeks to educate the miners with lessons about classical literature. In the opera, her “school” is replaced by a Bible class, where she teaches lessons of repentance and forgiveness. In the final scene, begging the miners to pardon the man she loves, a repentant leader of a gang of thieves, she reminds them of the lesson she taught them, moving one of the miners to declare, “Your words come from God,” as he frees him. This, and not the pageantry of the Church service depicted at the conclusion of the first act of Tosca, was the sort of religion that Puccini could accept.

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