Chicagoans love their Toscas. Puccini’s opera has attracted passionate performers and audiences alike since it first arrived in Chicago. The latest incarnation will certainly join the distinguished  ranks of the best Toscas seen in the city.

Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca is based on Victorian Sardou’s wildly popular drama La Tosca, made famous by Sarah Bernhardt’s world tours of the play. Sardou, in turn, based his drama on real life events and people.

“Sardou’s plays are peopled by a mix of factual and fictional personages. But even the fictional ones were often based on characteristics drawn from two or more actual individuals. Usually, the personal history of a character would be taken from someone’s real life, while his or her name would be appropriated from someone else.”[i]

The action of the play (the best source for the  backstory)and opera,  takes place between June 17 and June 18, 1800, shortly after the fall of the Parthenopean Republic in Naples. The Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800) saw Napoleon, the champion of French Revolutionary principles, defeat the forces loyal to monarchy. Michele Girardi notes ,

“Sardou excelled in using history as a frame in which to set fictional plots, creating a believable amalgam of history and fiction. The historical figures in Tosca gave authenticity to the  invented characters, whose destiny was supplied by real-life biography.”[i]

Cesare  Angelotti was modeled on doctor Liborio Angelucci, Consul of the Roman Republic as of March 1798. Angelotti and his artist pal Mario Cavaradossi are revolutionaries. Baron Scarpia, on the other hand, is beholden to the papal monarchy. Sardou changes real names only slightly, often anagrammatically. In Italy a Baron “Sciarpa” displayed extreme religiosity to hide his sadism. Add to this real person, the “monster” Vincenco Sperciale, a Sicilian judge with the same initials as “Vitellio Scarpia”.

The title character, the opera singer Floria Tosca, hasn’t  a political bone in her body. She finds herself in the middle of the dangerous warfare because she has followed her heart into  a  relationship with Cavaradossi, who, in order to preserve the relationship, has kept Tosca in the dark about the danger facing both of them due to his political beliefs. The dramatic essence of the plot springs from Tosca’s intense and uncontrollable passions: Tosca acts with emotion rather than with reason. And the two most important aspects of her paradoxical character are her religiosity and her propensity for jealousy. Tosca’s  religiosity stems from her youth. While she was an orphan who tended goats outside Verona, Benedictine monks took pity on her and took her into their convent. Her upbringing in a convent explains her piety and profound religiosity. “Floria Tosca” derived from well-known Italian soprano Angelica Catalani who lived in a convent, was discovered by employee of an opera house, and was both very religious and very jealous.

Deception is an important part of Cavaradossi’s character. To counter suspicions about his atheistic and leftist political leanings, Cavaradossi misled the authorities by offering his artistic services to the Jesuit church of Sant ’Andrea della Valle where he painted the Madonna slaying a serpent: the symbolic representation of the triumph of good over evil.

Both play and opera present a tragedy for Floria Tosca -a political innocent whose only guilt is her association with her deceitful  opportunistic  lover, Mario Cavaradossi.

Tosca premiered at the Constanzi Theatre, Rome, on January 14, 1900.  New York City saw it soon afterward, at the Metropolitan Opera House, on February 4, 1901.

The Metropolitan Opera Company’s tour, arranged by director Maurice Grau, was the first Tosca to hit Chicago. Tosca played at  the new Auditorium Theater  on April 24, 1901.

Puccini’s Tosca seems to have been a Windy City favorite. The Croatian soprano Milka Ternina(1863 -1941) debuted Tosca to America, accompanied by Giuseppe Cremonini (1866-1903) as Cavaradossi, and the Neapolitan baritone Antonio Scotti (1866-1936)as Scarpia.  Act Two thrilled the  Chicago audience to the point of riotous applause, such as was not equaled until Titta Ruffo (1877-1953) came a decade later.

In 1913 conductor Cleofante Campanini  (1860-1919) led the great Mary Garden(1874-1967) tas she sang Tosca in French while the rest of the cast sang in Italian. Her Scarpia was the French baritone matinee idol Vanni Marcoux (1877-1962) making his first Chicago appearance. The audience was  intrigued by the “brutal ruthlessness” he and Garden injected into the second act.

In December 1916 Boston-born Geraldine Farrar(1882-1967) and Scotti performed the opera. “Farrar’s interpretation departed widely from  the tradition established by Sarah Bernhardt in the Sardou play. Bernhardt had played the heroine as a mature woman of the world, quite sure of herself, cold and deliberate in her actions. Farrar presented her as a young girl, timid and hesitant. Her slaying of Scarpia was committed as if she were in a dream”[ii]

Born Rose Burchstein in Bialystok, the Chicago-based Polish soprano Rosa Raisa (1893-1963) had changed her name to sound like an Italian soprano, hoping that would make her more employable. Her Tosca was one of the most memorable of the century.  Musical America found “her singing of the role easily compared to the very best, and her delineation equaled that of the most famous actressses [Sarah Bernhardt] who have appeared in the drama.”[iii] In  1933 Raisa found herself among a group of La Scala artists performing Tosca in Berlin for an audience which included Hitler, Goebbels, and Hess. They were found on their feet cheering the Jewish Raisa’s performance.

The next decades saw several memorable Toscas. The French soprano Yvonne Gall (1885-1972) presented a very moving performance without “tearing the roof off. “It is not necessary to shriek to express the emotions of anger and horror…It is by gesture, by coloring the tone of the vice, by facial expression….Mere fortissimo singing expresses nothing except lung power.”[iv]

Italian Claudia Muzio (1889-1936) played Tosca at the Auditorium in 1924 and became a local favorite, second only to Rosa Raisa.

Czech-born Maria Jeritza (1887- 1987), who just about owned the role at the Metropolitan Opera, opened Chicago’s new Grand Opera Company in the Civic Opera House in 1933. Charles Moore, the Chicago Tribune’s music critic, hailed her performance as the best Tosca ever seen in the city. Jeritza had had a friendship started with Puccini.[v]

“We began immediately to work on his Tosca. At that time he said to me, ‘I don’t compose operas, I compose musical dramas in which everything fits into an order without interruption. Between it must always be continued drama.’ To prove this, he explained Tosca to me in every detail, so I became Tosca.”

“For instance about Vissi D’Arte. You have to sing it in a way that the people are spell bound and unable even to applaud and find something, so they are unable to do so (Int: not applaud – almost impossible at that moment). He told me I should work out something so the people would sit petrified and can’t even move. “My dear, you will do it and you have the imagination – I depend on it.”

“I tried, I tried. I racked my brains and couldn’t find anything. Then during the second act Scarpia was carried away with the part and he and his emotion and he threw me down on the floor and I fell down on my nose. I lay there. Thought my nose was bleeding and I was afraid to start my Vissi D’Arte. The Konzertmeister thought I lost the pitch and so he start from the orchestra again. But I was afraid to start. He started again – two or three times. I was so afraid my nose was bleeding, but I thought blood or no blood you have to start. So I started Vissi D’arte flat on my nose. After the first bars I managed to reach my face and found out that my wet face was full of tears and not blood. And so I started slowly but surely to raise in a kneeling position.

“All of a sudden I heard the familiar sound of Puccini’s voice – “basta”. And he came rushing on the stage, took me in his arms and kissed me. And said “Cara, carissima, thank you oh thank you so very much for the wonderful idea you had.” “Maestro, that was not an idea of mine, that was an accident. Your Scarpia was carried away in his temper and he threw me on the floor.” “Never mind, promise me that whatever happens you will always sing it in this accidental way.”

The great Croatian soprano Zinka Milanov (1906-1989)came to the city in 1945 to offer her Tosca to Chicago, just before she made her La Scalla debut in the role in 1950.

West Virginian Eleanor Steber (1916-1990) was the Lyric Opera’s first great diva, offering her Tosca in 1954. But Tito Gobbi (1913-1984)’s Scarpia dominated the performance. The Tribune’s Claudia Cassidy remarked, ‘Mr. Gobbi had the obsidian elegance of the self-centered tyrant, silky cruel and enjoying it. He knows makeup, he has his stage timing figured out to the beat, and he can handle that voice.:[vi]

In 1956 Italian Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) “came out of her Tosca corner like a hungry tigress defending her young”[vii]

The French dramatic soprano Regine Crispin (1927-2007), gifted with an instantly recognizable, sensuously beautiful instrument, displayed an instinctive gift for the stage and enormous personal magnetism in her 1962 Tosca.

Since then a veritable who’s who of opera stars have presented Tosca to Chicago in various venues. Carlo Bergonzi, Luciano Pavarotti, Cornell MacNeil, Grace Bumbry, Renata Scotto, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Deborah Voigt,Tatiana Serjan, Patricia Racette, and Bryn Terfel.

Theatre and operatic history has followed Tosca‘s Chicago career.

In October 1972 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle presented his new and gorgeous Tosca at the San Francisco Opera, with Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi and the Czech soprano Hanna Janku (1940-1995) as Tosca. That production is now on display at the Lyric Opera House, even though none of the performers had even been born at the time of its premiere

For the latest Chicago Tosca, conductor Eun Sun Kim is the generator who sets the production ablaze. Her driving energy and acute psychological insights allow Puccini’s music to unfold all the drama and theatricality one could ask for.

And the singers!

Michelle Bradley is an ideal Tosca. Haughty as a diva, childlike  as a pius Roman Catholic, and passionate in her loves, Ms Bradley’s voice and very presence dominate the stage whenever she is on. She will have a great career.It is just beginning and you will want to see her before the ticket prices hit the stratosphere. She brings some new stage actions to the role of Tosca as well. When Caravadossi cries “Victory” upon hearing that the rebel forces have been victorious, Bradley gives him a look of amazement that her lover could have kept his revolutionary aspirations a secret from her all this time. After placing two candles candle by the dead body of Scarpia,  she makes the sign of the cross.  Even if she may have murdered,  she still desires to remain a faithful daughter of the Church. With that action she begins her repentance.

Her counterpart is the  Cavaradossi of Russell Thomas. Although Pavarotti-esque, he can nestle his head on Tosca’s shoulder like a fearful puppy or defy anyone trying to muscle him away from what he thinks is right. His vibrant  voice acts a triumphant clarion whenever he wishes.

Fabian Veloz fortunately chooses not to portray Scarpia as a salivating sadist, as too many have done and still do. Instead he seeks to portray Scarpia as a reasonable man, defending both his nation and his office by whatever means are necessary. His sings sweetly as well.

Duane Schuler’s lighting accentuates the beauty of Poinnelle’s settings and Marcel Escoffier’s costumes with a stunning night sky turning into sunrise and the use of subtle follow spots to highlight the singers’ faces.

Director Louisa Miller does a generally fine job recapturing Ponnelle’ staging. She wisely keeps the singers apart during duets in so as to fill the theater and auditorium’s space with their voices. The best direction is invisible direction and hers is that, except for two unfortunate moments. First, she has the cardinal bless Scarpia with the Holy Monstrance, an action dubious under any circumstances. And finally, the opera ends with Tosca throwing herself off the parapet, though in this production a manikin is used, which looks like falling laundry. An unintentionally cheesy and unfortunate ending to a wonderful evening of opera.

[1] Michele Girardi, Puccini. His International Art. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p.157.

[ii] Deborah Burton, “The Real Scarpia. Historical Sources for ToscaMusical Quarterly 10, no. 2 Winter 1993-1994, p.  67.

[iii] Ronald. L. Davis. Opera in Chicago. New York: Appleton-Century, 1966, p.94.

[iv]Charles Mintzer, Rosa Raisa. A Biography of a Diva with Selections from Her Memoirs. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001, p.62-63.

[v] Davis, p. 128.


[vii] Davis, p. 236.

[viii] Claudia Cassidy, Chicago Daily Tribune October 31, 1956, p. B1.


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