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Towards Tosca: discover Puccini's timeline

11th November 2016 in Features News

Discover the key dates in Puccini’s creation of Tosca, one of the world’s most loved operas.

compiled by Philip Reed

24 November 1887, Théâtre de la Porte, Saint-Martin, Paris
Première of Sardou’s La Tosca, with the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt in the title role.

Spring 1889
Ferdinando Fontana, librettist of Puccini’s operas Le Villi (1884) and Edgar (1889), suggests La Tosca to Puccini as an operatic subject. The composer reads the play.

7 May 1889, Puccini to Giulio Ricordi
‘My zest for work, instead of leaving me, has returned more vigorous than before […] I am thinking of Tosca. I beg you to take the necessary steps in order to obtain Sardou’s permission. If I had to abandon this idea it would sadden me in the extreme. For I see in this Tosca the opera that exactly suits me – an opera without the excessive proportions, one not conceived as a decorative spectacle and not requiring the usual superabundance of music.’

[?May] 1889, Milan
Puccini sees Bernhardt perform La Tosca. Although the composer understood little of the performance (given in French), the experience rekindled his enthusiasm.

January 1893, Illica to Ricordi
‘Puccini’s instability is nothing new. Just remember his enthusiasm for Tosca… And then? Was it not I that had to tell you he “no longer cared for” Tosca?’

Autumn 1894
Puccini’s interest in Tosca had waned and a rival composer, Alberto Franchetti, had signed a contract with Ricordi for an opera based on Sardou’s play, with a libretto by Luigi Illica. Illica and Franchetti visit Paris to discuss the adaptation with Sardou. Illica reads aloud the libretto to a small gathering, among which is Verdi (a friend
of Sardou’s, and in Paris for the first French production of Otello).
Verdi is said to have been much impressed by this reading, especially by a long ‘farewell to art and life’ (not in Sardou or Puccini) to be sung by Cavaradossi shortly before his execution, so much so that he snatched the manuscript from Illica and read the verses aloud himself. Verdi later claims that he would himself have set La Tosca to music, provided that Sardou allowed him to change the ending of the opera, but that he was now too old.
Verdi’s reaction is reported to Puccini. This information and Franchetti’s proposed adaptation make Puccini want to write Tosca, and Ricordi and Illica dissuade Franchetti from going ahead with his version. Another twelve months pass before Franchetti renounces his right to composing Tosca.

October 1895, Florence
Puccini sees La Tosca again.

3 July 1896, Puccini to Ricordi
‘At the moment I have no work to do. I am waiting for Giacosa to send me material on which to make a start.’

22 August 1896, Torre del Lago, Puccini to Illica

‘Tosca begun.’

October 1896
Ricordi and Illica pay a visit to Verdi in which he is brought up to date on what new works were on the stocks. When told about Puccini’s Tosca, he said: ‘Puccini has a good libretto! Fortunate the composer who has that work in hand.’

late October 1896
Puccini is in possession of Acts I and II of libretto.

4 November 1896, Puccini to Ricordi

‘Long life to Act II, carefully revised, polished, and speeded on its way by Puccini’s blots. The third act will be really stupendous. At least, everything serves to make me hope so.’

Winter 1896/97, Puccini to Ricordi
‘With what joy I await you I leave it to you to imagine! From Giacosa you will have received the oracle with universal rejoicing. Here the state of repose continues. Chastise me not! Malign me not! I have done nothing.’

Spring 1898
According to the autograph score, work on Tosca makes serious progress, with Puccini completing the finale of Act I, Scarpia’s monologue and the Te Deum.

May 1898
In Paris for rehearsals of the French première of La bohème (13 June), Puccini visits Sardou to discuss the Tosca libretto. The composer gave his first biographer a lively account of the meeting: ‘The man was prodigious. He was more than seventy [recte sixty-five] but there was in him the energy and agility of a youngster. Besides, he was an indefatigable and highly interesting conversationalist, talking for hours on end without getting tired. When he touched on an historical subject, he was a water-tap, nay, a fountain; anecdote after anecdote would pour from his lips in a clear and inexhaustible stream. Our session simply turned into monologues – most delightful of course, but this did not make for much progress with our Tosca. However, he suddenly became compliant and readily accepted the need to suppress one act [Act II of the play] and to fuse the scene in the prison cell with that of the execution [Act V Scenes 1 and 2 of the play].’

Summer 1898, Monsagrati
Puccini continues working on Tosca.

July 1898, Puccini to Ricordi
‘I have read through Act II and have made some changes which I consider necessary, as, for instance: “Come tu mi odii!” [“How you hate me!”] is good, and “Tu mi odii?” [“Do you hate me?”] is impossible. Why has the last line been cut out: “E avanti a lui tremava tuta Roma” [“And before him all Rome trembled”]? I put it in, and it
serves my purpose. It is accordingly better to keep it. With regard to the torture, do what you think best. I have not the music here, and I do not remember the notes. In substance, what you have written is all right. If that is how Sardou wants it, let us have it so. It makes no material change in the scene. I am working, and I hope to dispense with the last triumphal effusion (the Latin Hymn). I think that I shall finish the duet with the words: “E mille ti dirò cose d’amor e gli occhi ti chinderò con mille baci” [“And I shall say a thousand loving things to you and close your eyes with a thousand kisses”]. It makes a passionate close. I have a bad piano, sent from Florence, and I have permission to work during the day, but not at night. Inclination? Yes, it is there, but it could be greater. Carignani has finished the arrangement [i.e. the vocal score] of Act II and will send it off tomorrow.’

31 July 1898, Puccini to Ricordi

‘I am in a hideous, hateful place, drowned in the middle of woods and pine-trees so that one can see nothing, shut in by mountains, and lighted by a broiling sun with no breath of wind. The evenings, however, are delicious, and the nights enchanting. I work till four in the morning from ten. The house and grounds are large, and indoors one is very comfortable. In fact, I am very happy to have fled to this tedious place where the human being is the exception. We are really alone. I shall send on some material which I have already orchestrated, but I beg you not to look at it, as the calligraphy has deteriorated. I cannot understand it, but as I grow older I lose that neatness of hand which was so conspicuous a gift in me! Could you please send me on a bottle – not very large – of the usual Stephens’ Blue-black Ink? I have heard nothing more of Illica. Can you give me his address? I hope to stay here till October […] If so, I shall be able to get ahead with my opera, which I think is going more than well.’

August 1898, Puccini to Ricordi
‘I need these lines from either Illica or Giacosa in a metre precisely as indicated on the enclosed slip. They must be sure to keep the first four lines and the arrangement – Mario–Tosca – exactly as I have indicated. I beg you to see to it. You are more successful in obtaining what you ask, and you get it more quickly than I. Thank you very much. I need them soon, that I may send you the score; without them the duet remains incomplete.’

August 1898, Puccini to Father Pietro Panichelli
‘I am working at Tosca, and sweating with the heat and the difficulties which I encounter, but which will – I hope – be overcome. Now I wish you to do me a kindness. At the end of the first act in the Church of S. Andrea della Valle there is sung a solemn Te Deum of rejoicing for a victory. Here is the scene: from the sacristy enter the abbot in his mitre, the chapter, and all the rest, while the people watch the procession on either side. In the front of the stage one of the characters (the baritone) soliloquises independently, or very nearly so, as to what is happening in the background. Now, for the sake of the phonic effect, I want some prayers recited during the procession of the abbot and chapter. Whether it be by the chapter or by the people, I need some murmuring of prayers in subdued and natural voices, without intoning, precisely as real prayers are said. The Ecce Sacerdos is too imposing to be murmured. I know that it is not usual to say or sing anything before the solemn Te Deum, which is sung as soon as they reach the High Altar, but I repeat (whether right or wrong) that I should like to find something to be murmured during the passage from the sacristy to the altar, either by the chapter or the people; preferably by the latter, because they are more numerous and therefore more effective musically. Look for the thing I need and send it to me at once, and thus do a very kind deed to your sincere friend.’ Panichelli was unable to help and Puccini located a text himself. But Panichelli did find the version of the plainsong in which the Te Deum is sung in churches in Rome. He also provided the composer with a detailed description of the correct order of the Cardinal’s procession
and put him touch with a campanology specialist at St Peter’s, Rome, as Puccini wished to reproduce in Act III the authentic effect of Matin bells and the pitch of St Peter’s largest bell (an E below the bass stave). Puccini visited the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo in order to gain an impression of the Matin bells. In his pursuit of documentary realism, Puccini approached Luigi Zanazzo from whom he obtained the verses for the shepherd’s pastoral heard at the beginning of Act III.

13 January 1899, Paris, Puccini to Ricordi
‘This morning I spent an hour with Sardou, who told me of variousthings in the finale that he does not like. He wants that poor woman dead at all costs! Now that [the French executioner] Deibler’s sun has set, the Magician insists on being his successor. But I certainly cannot agree with him. He accepts her access of madness, but would like her to swoon and die like a fluttering bird. Then, in the reprise [of Sardou’s La Tosca] which Sarah [Bernhardt] will give on the 20th, Sardou has introduced an enormous flag on the Castel Sant’Angelo which, flying and flashing (so he says), will make a magnificent effect; go in for the flag – he is keener about that than about the play at the moment […] In sketching the panorama for me Sardou wished the course of the Tiber to pass between St Peter’s and the Castello!! I pointed out to him that the flumen flows past on the other side, just under the Castello, and he, as calm as a fish, answered, “Oh, that’s nothing! ” Curious fellow, all life and fire and full of historicotopo‑panoramic inexactitudes! […] On Tuesday morning I must go to see Sardou again – so the Magician has decreed. Perhaps he will insist on killing Spoletta too. We shall see.’

16 July 1899
Orchestration of Act II completed.

27 September 1899
Orchestration of Act III completed.

11 October 1899, Puccini to Ricordi
‘Your letter was an extraordinary surprise to me!! [Having read through the score to Act III of Tosca, Ricordi wrote to the composer to tell him that he did not like it.] I am still under the unpleasant impression. Nevertheless I am quite convinced that if you read the act through again you will change your opinion! This is not vanity on my part, no. It is the conviction of having coloured to the best of my ability the drama which was before me. You know how scrupulous I am in interpreting the situation or the words and all that is of importance before putting anything on paper. The detail of my having used a fragment of Edgar can be criticised by you and the few who are able to recognise it, and can be taken as a labour‑saving device if you like. As it stands, if one rids oneself of the idea that it belongs to another work, if one wipes out Edgar, Act IV, it seems to me full of the poetry which emanates from the words. Oh I am sure of this, and you will be convinced when you hear it in its place in the theatre. As for its being fragmentary, I wanted it so. It cannot be a uniform and tranquil situation such as one connects with other love duets. Tosca’s thoughts continually return to the necessity of a well‑acted fall on Mario’s part and a natural bearing in face of the shooting‑party. As for the end of the duet (the so‑called Latin Hymn, of which I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the poets’ version), I too have my doubts about it, but I hope that it will go well on the stage. The duet in Act III has all the time been the great stumbling block. The poets have not succeeded in saying anything good, and, above all, anything with feeling in it. (I am talking of the end.) They are academic, academic all the time, and introduce all the usual amorous embroideries. I have had to contrive to get to the end without boring my audience too much and without indulging in any academics whatsoever. Mugnone, to whom I have sung this act on several occasions, is enthusiastic about it. He prefers it, indeed, to Act IV of Bohème. Various friends and the members of my own household have formed an excellent impression of it. As far as my own experience of it goes, I am not displeased with it. I cannot really understand your unfavourable impression. Before I set to work to do it again (and would there be time?) I shall take a run over to Milan and we shall discuss it together, just we two alone, with a piano and with the music in front of us, and if your unfavourable impression persists we shall try, like good friends, to find, as Scarpia says, “a way to save ourselves” […] I am still working at the prelude, which is giving me much trouble but which will come.’

December 1899, Puccini to Father Pietro Panichelli

‘Thank you for the information about the costume of the Swiss Guards and for your kind letter. Let us hope that Tosca will be successful and do honour to the composer. I hope that my friends in Rome, Vandini, Panichelli, and so on, will be pleased with the work of the vain maestro. Tell Vandini that the less bataclan they make about my person the more grateful shall I be. After the sacramental three performances (if I am not hissed at the first) I am going into hiding in the woods which were a safe refuge for so long to Tiburzio and his companions. There I shall vent my sportsman’s rage on the birds and compensate myself for the sufferings experienced during thirty or thirty‑five days of rehearsals […] I believe that my opera will have a performance hors ligne. Mugnone will put into the directing and conducting of it all the manifold resources of his artistic intelligence, and all the splendid executants, already inspired to do their best, will work wonders and will give their all. This time I am in good hands: management, orchestra, artists, and conductor. I have good hopes of a propitious Roman public and, above all, of a successful production of my opera. We shall see if my instinct is right.’

14 January 1900, Teatro Costanzi, Rome
Première of Tosca. Present are Queen Margherita, Prime Minister Pelloux, Minister of Education Baccelli, and other Italian political and cultural figures, including Mascagni, Cilea, Franchetti, Sgambati,
Marchetti, Costa.

15 January 1900, telegram to the Gazzetta Musicale

‘Last night first performance of Tosca. Enormous crowd at theatre doors from 11am. Orchestra hardly begun when stopped by shouting and stampeding of people unable to enter. Forced to drop curtain and begin again when silence restored.
Act I: Aria of Cavaradossi (De Marchi), “Recondite armonie” encored, two calls. Te Deum finale magnificent effect. Repeated. Wild enthusiasm. Five calls.

Act II: Torture scene, very moving. Tosca’s prayer, “Vissi d’arte”, encored (Darclée). Four calls, end of act.

Act III completed the success. Scene of Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan lestelle’, also closing duet of Tosca and Cavaradossi encored. Ten calls end of opera, of which six clamorous for Puccini. Total,
twenty-one calls, five encores. Whole execution extremely nervous partly from first-night excitement, partly from panic caused by letters sent to members of company threatening probable violence. These are the arts to which
those jealous of the composer’s fame vainly resort.’