For the libretto of Tosca, Ricordi and Puccini again turned to Illica and Giacosa. They divided the labor much as writers of today’s Broadway musicals do, assigning one writer to write the “book” or story line while the other writes the lyrics to the songs. In this pair, Illica was considered the stronger dramatist while Giacosa was known as the greater poet.
Luigi Illica (1857-1919), a sailor in his early days, became one of the major literary figures of his day. He wrote thirty-five librettos, for a variety of composers, and was known for a straightforward style that was perfectly suited for the verisimo (realistic) style which dominated the Italian opera of his day. In addition to La bohème and Tosca, he also worked with Puccini on Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. He was also responsible for the libretto for Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, which, unlike most operas of the time, was an original play and not an adaptation. After Giasosa’s death, Puccini turned elsewhere for his librettos, feeling that Illica was not capable of writing sufficiently high caliber works on his own.
Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) was educated as a lawyer and worked in that capacity until the success of one of his plays convinced him that he could write full time. He likewise was involved in Madama Butterfly. He was one of the leading
playwrights of his day. Nicknamed “the Buddha” because of his calm personality, he successfully kept the other members of the creative team working together despite the numerous disagreements they encountered along the way.
Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), the dramatist whose play La Tosca was the source of Puccini’s opera, was born in Paris. Along with Eugène Scribe, he was best known for the development of the “well-made play,” dramas based on elaborate plot devices. His early writing met with little success. Paradoxically, a serious illness turned his fortunes around, when a female friend who was nursing him back to health took an interest in his career and introduced him to some of her theatrical acquaintances (She was later to become his first wife). His career began to flourish in the 1860s with a series of successes, writing in a satiric vein that appealed to the Parisian audiences of the day. He was elected to the L’Académie française in 1878.
Sardou was also known for his ability to create star vehicles for the leading actors of his day. Fédora (1882) was written specifically for the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was later to create the role of Tosca. Like La Tosca, this play was also adapted into an opera, with music by Umberto Giordano. It also gave birth to the word “fedora” for a style of hat. It was Bernhardt’s performance in La Tosca (1887) that represented the greatest success for both actress and playwright, and with the operatic adaptation (in which he took an active role) his literary immortality was assured.
Even in his own day, some critics considered his plot devices overly artificial. George Bernard Shaw coined the term “Sardoodledom” to describe his method of writing. Like Puccini, however, Sardou was intent on pleasing the public, not the critics.