San Francisco Opera | The Rest of the Story: 'Tosca's' Historical Background

The Rest of the Story: 'Tosca's' Historical Background

Victorien Sardou (1831–1908) would be all but forgotten today, even in his native France, were it not for the extraordinary success of Puccini’s opera based his 1887 play La Tosca. Sardou was an avid historian who took pride in the wealth of factual detail he poured into his plays. In fact the overwhelming supply of erudition relative to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that overburdens La Tosca makes the play a tough slog for modern readers.

Sardou wrote the work as a vehicle for the famously temperamental French actress Sarah Bernhardt, yet the heroine does not make her entrance until forty-five minutes into the play. But the play’s heated melodrama and vivid characters enabled its drawbacks to be overlooked by opera librettists and composers, including the aged Verdi, who at eighty-one allowed that he would have made La Tosca into an opera had he been younger.

Puccini saw the play with Bernhardt in the lead no fewer than three times—the first in Milan in 1889, while he was still finishing preparations for his second opera Edgar. He was certain he had found the makings of a future opera project. But years would pass before he could get to it, by which time Manon Lescaut and La Bohème had made him famous. Sardou had at first had seemed willing to grant Puccini the rights to his play, but later changed his mind and gave them instead to one of Puccini’s rivals, Alberto Franchetti.

Exactly how Puccini managed to retrieve the rights from Franchetti is the subject of somewhat conflicting stories that needn’t detain us. Suffice it to say that Puccini gave the task of distilling Sardou’s wordy play into a usable form to the literary team of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. They had worked on the Manon Lescaut text and created the brilliant libretto for La Bohème. The pair successfully captured the dramatic essence of the story, telescoping its five acts into three, and the opera premiered in Rome in 1900—exactly one hundred years after the action of the story takes place there.

Despite being firmly based on the aftermath of the French Revolution, the opera itself includes no actual historical characters. But real-life figures appear in Sardou’s play, and even the fictional ones may be partly based on actual people. Harvard musicologist Deborah Burton has found evidence that Baron Scarpia, Tosca, and Angelotti may have been based on historical figures of the time. Burton also uncovered the story of an unfortunate prisoner named Palmieri, whose execution was real, not “simulated” as Scarpia suggests to Tosca.

In both play and opera, Tosca is a tempestuous, beautiful, deeply religious opera singer. The aristocratic painter Cavaradossi, we know from the play, has a French mother and lived in France at the time of the Revolution, hence his “republican” (i.e., pro-Napoleon) leanings. He is painting the portrait of Mary Magdalene for the Church of Sant’ Andrea delle Valle not out of religious conviction, but to allay suspicions about his revolutionary leanings. Although the onstage characters are essentially fictional, two important historical personages are mentioned in the opera. The first, of course, is Napoleon, referred to as “Bonaparte.” His troops invaded Italy several times, beginning in 1797, and were countered primarily by forces of the Austrian Empire, which dominated most of Italy in the 18th century. This conflict provides the primary backdrop for the story. But another, less obvious reference in the opera is to a figure no less significant. In Act II, Scarpia scornfully assures Tosca that by the time she runs to seek intercession from “the Queen,” her beloved Cavaradossi will already be a corpse. The royal lady in question is not the Queen of Rome—there was no such person—but the queen of the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies,” i.e., Naples. (The year is 1800, long before Italy became a unified country in the 1860s.)

Queen Maria Carolina was the wife of Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and Sicily, who was descended from the same Bourbon dynasty as the late French king (and guillotine victim) Louis XVI. (Naples had sided with Britain and Austria to oppose Napoleon’s invasions.) Ferdinand and Maria had a foothold of sorts in Rome at the Palazzo Farnese, a Bourbon family inheritance. It is here that Act II of the opera takes place, during and after a concert— with the queen in attendance—celebrating the supposed military victory over Napoleon at the village of Marengo in Northern Italy.

The headstrong Maria Carolina was herself Austrian, the daughter of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa and the sister of Marie Antoinette, who had also met her fate at the guillotine. Thus there can be no doubt that the formidable Queen of Naples had little regard for French “Republicanism,” nor for Napoleon— its principal representative at the time.

The queen’s husband Ferdinand was a feeble leader, and she ruled him with an iron hand. The tug-of-war over Rome began in 1797, when Napoleon invaded the city for the first time. Rome was declared a republic—the government of which the fictional Angelotti would have been a part. Encouraged by his queen, King Ferdinand attempted to invade the Roman Republic but was driven back. The French-led counteroffensive then pushed them back to Naples, sending its royal pair fleeing to Sicily. Naples was declared the “Parthenopean Republic,” but the two French-style republics in Rome and Naples were to be short-lived. By June of 1799 the monarchy had been restored to Naples.

The Roman republic fell a few months later, in September of 1799, and the Bourbon monarchs from Naples took the opportunity to assert their authority over Rome. Republican sympathizers were locked up in Castel Sant’Angelo—the Castel of the “Holy Angel” (i.e., St. Michael, whose statue sits atop the fortress)— where Act III of the opera takes place.

In his 1950 book about the Palazzo Farnese, Raoul de Broglie describes the actions of Queen Maria Carolina’s civil commander:

Under the pretext of establishing order, he filled the prisons with honorable citizens…. Soldiers of the Neapolitan army pillaged the homes of all partisans of the Republic. They shot and killed all who resisted. To flush out suspects, he multiplied the number of police and spies…. A special state tribunal was even created to judge suspects according to the rules and traditions of Naples. The principal agents of the police forces of The Two Sicilies poured into Rome and established themselves in the king’s own residence, the Palazzo Farnese.

The action of the opera takes place amid this tense political atmosphere. (For an interesting read about this period, try Susan Sontag’s 1993 novel The Volcano Lover, based on the true story of the British ambassador to Naples and his wife, who became a confidante of Maria Carolina.)

The actual events referred to in Tosca enable us to date the action to a specific day: June 17, 1800. Three days prior, Napoleon invaded Italy again and was nearly defeated by the Austrians at Marengo. The premature reports of this supposed victory over the French (announced by the Sacristan in the opera) spark the celebration at the close of Act I, as the church quickly organizes a Te Deum, the traditional liturgical celebration of a military victory.

But within hours of that first, erroneous report, a second dispatch arrived with the news that Napoleon staged a surprise counter-attack and had in fact been victorious at Marengo. Scarpia’s henchman Sciarrone rushes in to report this reversal in Act II, giving rise to Cavaradossi’s rash outburst of “down with tyranny” exultation, so angering Scarpia that he seals his own doom. Had he lived, Cavaradossi would have been in for some bitter political disillusionment. Although Napoleon did eventually conquer Rome a second time, in 1806, he had by then forgotten about republicanism, declaring himself emperor and annexing the Papal States to the French Empire. The papacy was finally restored in 1814, shortly before Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.

King Ferdinand of Naples was also driven out by Napoleon a second time, but was eventually restored to his throne once more, in 1816. By then, however, his queen Maria Carolina had fled home to Austria and died there. Ferdinand ruled on another nine years until his death in 1825. Both in Rome and Naples, absolutism in government would remain in place for decades to come.

The Napoleonic Wars failed to bring Cavaradossi’s longed-for republican freedoms, but they changed the face of Europe nonetheless, and provided the historical underpinnings for one of the most gripping dramas in the operatic repertoire.

Did you know? Inside the War Memorial Opera House’s history
'Tosca’s' Roman Monuments