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Giacomo Puccini’s TOSCA, which had its world premiere at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1900, is a drama of frightening power. Like all Puccini’s operas, it shows his genius as a composer and dramatist, for he made the music and the characters quite simply unforgettable. In Tosca, Puccini brings three main figures to life. The title role is Floria Tosca.
She is a famous opera singer, deeply religious and spiritual, yet passionate and fatally jealous. Her lover is Mario Cavaradossi, a sensitive artist who courageously tries to help a condemned political prisoner. From the very beginning of the opera, Puccini portrays Cavaradossi as an idealist, honest and good-natured, a man who admits to being madly in love with Tosca, although he understands how jealous she is.
Both Tosca and Cavaradossi are caught in the web of the evil Baron Scarpia, the chief of the Roman police. Scarpia, a power-maddened monster, stands as the most fully realized of all Puccini’s villains, a brutal and sadistic killer who delights in the psychological and physical torture of his victims. For a long time, Scarpia has been secretly in love with Tosca, and he is determined to possess her physically.
In Act I, Tosca’s jealousy is on full display, from the moment she comes onstage. Believing that Cavaradossi is seeing another woman, she sweeps in and demands her rival’s name. Here Puccini gives full rein to the imperious diva. But she quickly lets Cavaradossi reassure her. Then the composer brings out the more subtle aspects of Tosca’s character. Her tenderness is evident in her love for Cavaradossi. And she is a woman of great piety and unshakeable faith. She believes in God and the Virgin Mary and lays flowers and other gifts on the Virgin’s altar in church. But her flaw, her jealousy, lets Scarpia trap her and her lover.
In Act II, Tosca and Cavaradossi are Scarpia’s prisoners. With terrible guile, he interrogates her in a scene that builds excruciatingly, when he has Cavaradossi tortured in an adjacent room. Tosca hears her lover’s screams. But Scarpia offers to save Cavaradossi’s life on one condition: that Tosca have sex with him. That is what he wants. Determined to beg the Queen for help, Tosca starts for the door, but as Scarpia reminds her, not even the Queen can intervene, for he alone has the power of life and death over them. He will have Cavaradossi executed the moment she leaves. In the ferocious physical struggle that follows, Scarpia throws Tosca down.
Utterly defeated, she prays to God. As she says in her prayer, she has always lived for art and love. In her whole life, she has never harmed anyone. She is devout. She prays. As a singer, she offers her voice to God and the heavens. She helps the poor. Why, then, does God repay her like this?
But Scarpia has no pity. Desperate, Tosca agrees to give him his way; but as he prepares to rape her, she sees a knife on the dinner table, seizes it and fatally stabs him. In a moment of stunning courage, she stands over him and watches him die. The last thing he hears is her shout of triumph: "E ucciso da una donna!" – "And killed by a woman!!" This monster, who has ruled all of Rome by terror, is killed by a woman. But Scarpia, with his wiles, cheats her even after death by having Cavaradossi shot by a firing squad. Still, Tosca has the last word, committing suicide by jumping off the parapet of the prison. Brave to the very end, she cries: “O Scarpia, we will meet before God!"
From "Notes on the Opera - A Woman of Courage" by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz