Opera in three acts.

Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giacomo Giacosa, based on the play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou (1888), a role made famous by Sarah Bernhardt.

First performed in the Liceo Musicale G. Rossini, Pesaro, on 2 March 1896.


Act 1


The church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle in Rome; alas, it does not contain an Attavanti family chapel – that is only a fictional invention, but it does have the second-largest dome in the city, surpassed only by that of St Peter’s basilica.

(The Roman settings of all three acts of the opera are just a short walk from one another and can easily be visited today – author’s photograph)


A desperate man rushes into the church of Sant Andrea delle Valle.  He is Angelotti, and he is wearing dishevelled prison clothes and appears exhausted; he looks around in relief and fear.  He starts to search for a key, muttering to himself that his sister had told him that it would be near the stoup by the pillar near the feet of the statue of the Virgin.  Eventually he finds the key and uses it to open the gate to the Attavanti family chapel.  He disappears inside the chapel and locks it behind him just as the church sacristan comes in grumbling.  There is a scaffolding platform in the church on which a canvas is covered by a cloth.  The sacristan has heard a noise and assumed that the painter had returned, but he is surprised to see that there is no-one there and he finds that a basket of food has not been touched, so he just goes on grumbling and collecting up the dirty paintbrushes.  The Angelus bell rings, and he kneels and starts to pray quietly.  Cavaradossi, clearly the painter, comes in through a side door, climbs the scaffolding and takes the cover off the painting.  It is of Mary Magdalene and depicts a beautiful woman with golden hair and huge blue eyes.  The sacristan comes to speak to Cavaradossi and is surprised to see the painting – it looks exactly like an unknown woman who has been coming into the church to pray recently.  Cavaradossi agrees, and says that while she has been praying, he has been copying her features.  As the sacristan bustles disapprovingly around him, Cavaradossi resumes work on the painting, then stops and takes a locket from his pocket and gazes at a miniature portrait which it contains.  He comments that his lover Floria Tosca is dark-haired, whereas the unknown beauty whom he is painting is blonde, and that Floria has dark eyes, whereas his model for the picture has blue.  Art, he says, blends beauty together, and while he has been working on the painting he has been thinking only of Tosca.  The sacristan comments in a priestly grumble that the range of different skirts which try to compete with Madonnas all have a whiff of hell about them.  Cavaradossi ignores him and carries on painting.  The sacristan gestures to the full basket and asks him if he is not hungry, then he takes a couple of pinches of snuff and moves off, reminding Cavaradossi to lock up when he leaves.


As Cavaradossi works on in silence, Angelotti, thinking that the church is now empty, appears inside the chapel gate and starts to unlock it again.  Cavaradossi reacts to the noise and Angelotti is at first terrified, but then recognises Cavaradossi.  Cavaradossi also recognises him – as a friend and as the Consul of the now dismantled Roman Republic.  Angelotti explains that he has just escaped from the Castel Sant’Angelo prison where he had been held as a political prisoner and that he is exhausted.  Just as Cavaradossi promises his help, Tosca’s voice is heard outside.  He tells Angelotti that she is a jealous woman and that Angelotti should hide again, so he pushes Angelotti back into the chapel, thrusting the basket of food into his hands as he does so.


Tosca calls Cavaradossi (whose first name is Mario) with increasing frustration, and when he eventually opens the door to her, she rushes in, looking this way and that with great suspicion.  When Cavaradossi tries to embrace her, she pushes him away and demands to know why the door was locked and who he was talking to – she assumes that the unknown model is somewhere around.  Cavaradossi tries to kiss her, but she insists on first arranging some flower which she has brought and then praying at the statue of the Virgin.  Then she tells Cavaradossi that she is singing that evening, but that the performance will be short and she will meet him at the stage door so that they can go off to his villa together for the night.  Cavaradossi seems preoccupied, and Tosca reminds him of their tiny cottage in the country, surrounded by nature.  This wins Cavaradossi over and they swear their love to one another.  He then tells her that he must get on with his work, and Tosca looks at the painting and recognises the mystery woman – it is the Marchesa Attavanti.  Immediately she assumes that Cavaradossi is having an affair with her and that it was her who was with him earlier.  Tosca says that the painting seems to be looking at her, mocking her, and Cavaradossi tells her that it is just a painting and that it is Tosca that he loves.  Reassured, she eventually leaves; once Cavaradossi is certain that she has gone, he lets Angelotti out of the chapel, and tells him that the less Tosca knows, the better, because she always tells everything in confession.


Angelotti explains his escape plan to Cavaradossi: he will either remain in hiding in Rome, or leave the state completely using as a disguise some women’s clothing which his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, had hidden for him in the family chapel.  Cavaradossi realises that the regular visits and the apparently fervent praying by the mysterious young woman whom he has painted were a cover for her preparing the way for her brother’s escape from the vicious police chief, Baron Scarpia.  Cavaradossi obviously knows of Scarpia’s reputation and says that he will do whatever he can to help Angelotti.  He tells Angelotti how to find a footpath across the fields which leads to his own cottage; he gives Angelotti the key to the cottage and tells him that if things get rough, he should hide in the well there, because half-way down the well-shaft there is a small secret chamber where he will be safe.  They hear a cannon shot – the alarm that a prisoner has escaped from the Castel Sant’Angelo, and they realise that Scarpia will now be hunting for Angelotti.  Quickly, they both leave.


The Sacristan now bustles in, full of excitement and calling together the choirboys, altar-boys and brothers.  He tells them that Napoleon Bonaparte has been defeated in battle and that there is to be a torchlight procession that very evening and a royal gala at the Palazzo Farnese, with a brand new cantata which will be sung in celebration by the great Floria Tosca, while all the churches are to put on special services.  The choirboys quickly realise that this unplanned service means double pay for them and rush around getting ready, but they are stopped short by the arrival of Baron Scarpia, with his lieutenant Spoletta and several other police agents.  Scarpia announces that they must prepare to sing a Te Deum, and tells the sacristan that the escaped prisoner was seen entering the church.  He orders Spoletta to search everywhere, and when the sacristan realises that the gate to the Attavanti Chapel is open, he realises what has happened.  Scarpia searches the chapel, but finds only a fan bearing the Attavanti family crest.  Realising that the cannon has alerted Angelotti to the discovery of his escape, he looks around and sees the unfinished painting, which he recognises as the Marchesa Attavanti, the sister of his quarry.  He asks who is the painter is, and the sacristan tells him that it is Cavaradossi.  Scarpia immediately recognises the name as Tosca’s lover.  One of Scarpia’s men discovers the empty food basket in the chapel, and the sacristan blurts out that it was previously full of food, but that it cannot have been eaten by Cavaradossi because the basket was inside the chapel, to which the painter does not have a key.  Scarpia, certainly no fool, now realises Cavaradossi’s involvement in Angelotti’s escape.


Tosca returns, now in an agitated state.  Scarpia sees her coming and hides behind a pillar, commenting that Iago used a handkerchief to destroy his rival, but, for Tosca, a fan will work just as well.  When the sacristan tells Tosca that Cavaradossi has disappeared, she begins to suspect that he really does have a lover.  Scarpia emerges and begins to praise Tosca’s talent.  She responds coldly but politely.  Scarpia gestures to the painting, and comments that while Tosca has clearly come to church to pray, other women use the church to meet their lovers.  Tosca immediately rises to the bait, now thinking that the painting is proof of Cavaradossi’s infidelity; she tells Scarpia that she had come to tell Cavaradossi that their arrangement for later that evening is off because she has been asked to sing at the royal celebration of the victory over Napoleon for longer that she had expected.  Bit by bit, Scarpia feeds her jealousy, and she reveals that she and Cavaradossi had planned to meet at Cavaradossi’s villa.  Very upset, the rushes out, and Scarpia tells Spoletta to follow her and then report back to him at the Farnese Palace, where he has his headquarters.  As the congregation begins to gather for the service, Scarpia gloats about his dual victory – over Tosca and Cavaradossi.  Even when the Te Deum service begins, he continues to lust after Tosca, saying that she makes him forget God.


Act 2


The Farnese Palace from the Piazza Farnese.  Built in 1517 for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (the cornice and the central window on the first floor were designed by Michelangelo, as was the bridge linking the rear gardens to the bank of the Tiber), the palace became the French Embassy in 1635 and has been in French hands aver since.  (Author’s photograph)


That same evening, in Scarpia’s quarters of the top floor of the Farnese Palace, Scarpia is sitting at a table laid for dinner for two.  He is waiting for a report that Angelotti and Cavaradossi have been captured.  He calls for Sciarrone, one of his officers, and tells him to wait for Tosca at the palace gate and to give her a note when she arrives.  Sciarrone opens a window onto the central courtyard of the palace and Scarpia can hear the music of the party being given by the queen in the state rooms below.  When Sciarrone leaves, Scarpia muses on his situation: Tosca will come to him because he has sent her a note to say that Cavaradossi is a prisoner but that Tosca can save him.  He then expounds his philosophy: he is no poet or musician, but he knows that a violent conquest has a better taste than gentle consent – he takes what he wants, uses it and then discards it.  God, he says, created different beautiful women to be enjoyed like different wines.


Spoletta now reports in.  He and his men followed Tosca to a remote villa, hid in the bushes until she left and then broke in.  Scarpia’s delight turns nasty when Spoletta says that they did not find Angelotti, but he is mollified by the news that Spoletta has arrested Cavaradossi, convinced that he knows where Angelotti is hiding.  Through the open window, the sound of the celebratory cantata beginning can be heard.  Scarpia orders Spoletta to show Cavaradossi in, and then to bring Roberti (his torturer) and a tame judge.  As Tosca can be heard singing the cantata below, Cavaradossi is brought in and Scarpia mockingly greets him with exaggerated politeness.  Cavaradossi, full of bravado, demands to know why he is being held and refuses to sit down.  As Cavaradossi recognises Tosca’s voice, Scarpia relentlessly questions him about the escaped prisoner.  Cavaradossi defiantly points out that Scarpia’s men have searched his villa and found nothing, and when Spoletta says that Cavaradossi was laughing as they searched, Scarpia warns Cavaradossi that he is now in a place more suitable for tears and then bluntly demands to know where Angelotti is.  Cavaradossi continues to deny everything and Scarpia tells him that a quick confession will save him a great deal of pain.  Spoletta is eager to start the torture, but Tosca rushes in, breathless, and is shocked to see Cavaradossi as a prisoner.  Under his breath, he tries to warn her to keep quiet about what she has seen at the villa, or she will cause his death.


Scarpia hands Cavaradossi over to the ‘judge’ and sends them all into the torture chamber to begin work on Cavaradossi.  Left alone with Tosca, Scarpia invites her to sit down for ‘a chat’.  She declares that she is not worried about anything and that her reaction to the fan was just silly jealousy.  She tells Scarpia that Cavardossi was alone with her at the villa – adding that a jealous eye misses nothing.  Scarpia checks on how the torture is going and Sciarrone reports that Cavaradossi has confessed nothing yet.


Tosca asks whether she is going to have to lie to please Scarpia, but he responds by telling her that the truth could save Cavaradossi from a lot of pain.  Tosca now realises what is happening to Cavaradossi, and Scarpia piles on the pressure, telling her that Cavaradossi is securely trussed and that a hooked metal head-band is being tightened around his skull and that blood spurts out each time he tells another lie.  Horrified, Tosca says that she will do anything.  Scarpia orders Sciarrone to remove the head-band and advises Tosca to tell him everything.  She calls out to Cavaradossi and he shouts back that the torture has stopped but that he can stand the pain as long as she can keep quiet.  She denies knowing anything, so Scarpia orders Roberti to carry on with the torture.  Tosca calls him a monster, but Scarpia coolly tells her that it is her silence that it hurting Cavaradossi: he calls for the door to be opened so that Tosca can hear Cavaradossi scream.  Spoletta opens the door and stands in the doorway, blocking the access.  To Cavaradossi’s defiant cries, Scarpia urges Tosca to talk.  She still refuses, so he tells Spoletta to move aside so that she can see inside the torture chamber.  She begins to weaken, but Cavaradossi encourages her to keep quiet, shouting out ‘What do you know?  What can you tell him?’


Tosca pleads with Scarpia, but he waits impassively while Spoletta mumbles a mocking prayer.  Tosca blurts out that Angelotti is hiding in the well in the garden.  Scarpia calls for the torture to stop and orders Cavaradossi to be brought out and the torture team to leave.  Tosca hides her face from him and kneels beside him crying.  Through his pain, Cavaradossi asks her if she has said anything, and although she replies no, Scarpia orders Spoletta to go and search the well.  Cavaradossi realises that Tosca has given the game away and curses her.


Sciarrone suddenly rushes in with news of Napoleon’s victory over Melas at the Battle of Marengo.  Cavaradossi is exultant, and turns on Scarpia, calling him a hangman and telling him to be afraid.  Tosca, more pragmatic, urges Cavaradossi to be quiet, and Scarpia, unperturbed, tells him that he is as good as dead and orders him to be taken away.  Tosca tries to cling to Cavaradossi as he is dragged out, but Scarpia pulls her back.  He sits down to resume his meal, and invites Tosca to join him to continue their little chat.  She is well aware of his intentions, and asks him, ‘How much?’  Scarpia reveals his true self, telling her that her spirited defence of Cavaradossi inflamed his lust and made him want to seduce her even more.  Tosca’s first thought is to throw herself out of the window, then she thinks of seeking help from the Queen (for whom she has just sung), but Scarpia anticipates her every time, telling her that whatever she tries, Cavaradossi will die anyway.  Their argument is interrupted by the sound of drums, and Scarpia tells Tosca that it is the executioner coming to collect Cavaradossi, and that a scaffold is already being erected.  Cavaradossi has less than an hour to live.  Tosca launches into a bitter tirade against God – she has lived for her art and for love, she has helped the needy, prayed regularly and done all the right things, so why has God repaid her like this, she asks.


Scarpia goads Tosca, telling her that she wants a whole life while he just wants a moment of her time.  Spoletta now arrives with news that when he searched the well, he found that Angelotti had already killed himself, and Scarpia orders him to hang Angelotti’s body from the gibbet alongside the place waiting for Cavaradossi.  At this, Tosca succumbs.  She demands that Cavaradossi be freed at once, but Scarpia tells her that he cannot be seen to be weak, so he must simulate Cavaradossi’s death.  He tells Spoletta that Cavaradossi must be shot instead, and that it must be done the same way as it was done to Count Palmieri.  Spoletta understands exactly what is required of him.  Tosca says that she wants to tell Cavaradossi herself of the plan and Scarpia agrees, ordering Spoletta to admit Tosca to the prison at four o’clock in the morning.  Spoletta leaves, grinning – ‘Just like Palmieri …’ he mutters to himself.


Scarpia tells Tosca that he has kept his side of their bargain, now she must keep hers, but Tosca demands that first he must write a safe conduct which will enable her to leave Rome freely with Cavaradossi.  Scarpia agrees and asks what route they will use.  Tosca confirms that she intends to leave through Civitavechia.  As Scarpia writes, Tosca approaches the dining table, sees a sharp-pointed knife and hides it behind her back.  Scarpia finishes the letter, seals it and approaches Tosca with his arms outstretched.  ‘Mine at last,’ he cries, just before Tosca stabs him in the chest, telling him, ‘This is Tosca’s kiss!’


Scarpia, mortally wounded, calls for help but then falls back, dead.  Tosca uses a napkin and a glass of water from the table to tidy herself up, then she prises the crumpled safe-conduct letter out of Scarpia’s dead fist.  ‘And before him, all Rome trembled,’ she hisses contemptuously.  As a final insult, she blows out the two candles on the table and places them either side of Scarpia’s head, and takes a crucifix from the wall and lays it on his chest.  Then she leaves, quietly.

Act 3

The Castel Sant’Angelo started life in 139AD as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian and has served as a citadel, a safe residence for popes in times of conflict (with a secret corridor direct to the Vatican) and a prison.  It is now a museum. (author’s photograph)


On the terrace of the roof of the forbidding Castel Sant’Angelo, there is a small building at the top of the access stair.  It is night, close to dawn, and the stars are out.  In the distance can be heard the wistful song of a shepherd boy.  A gaoler arrives, sets a lamp and settles drowsily in a chair in the guardroom.  A platoon of soldiers come up the stairs, leading Cavaradossi.  The sergeant of the platoon hands the gaoler a paper and the gaoler establishes Cavardossi’s identity.  The soldiers leave and the gaoler tells Cavaradossi that he had one hour, and that a priest is available if he wants one.  Cavaradossi turns down the priest but offers the gaoler a ring in exchange for a pen and paper.  The gaoler agrees, and lets Cavaradossi sit at the table to write.  Cavaradossi sings longingly of Tosca, imagining that she is coming to him in his villa, and then despairing that he will die without seeing her again.  He slumps over the table, his hands over his face.


Spoletta comes up the stairs, followed by the sergeant and Tosca.  The two men leave, and Tosca, seeing Cavaradossi so distraught, cannot speak; she raises his head and shows him the document of safe-conduct which Scarpia had signed.  He reads, uncomprehendingly at first, and then realising that the document guarantees safe passage to Floria Tosca and the gentleman accompanying her.  He comments that this is Scarpia’s first merciful act, and Tosca answers grimly that it was also his last.  She tells Cavaradossi of the dilemma that Scarpia presented to her, and how she tricked him into signing the safe conduct before stabbing him to death.  Cavaradossi is amazed by her courage, and when she tells him that her hands are stained with blood, he praises them, saying that they are sweet, gentle hands, intended to comfort children and do pious work, and that, emboldened by love, they have dealt a deserved death.


Hurriedly, Tosca tells him of the plan: she has collected all her gold and jewels to give them some money, and she has arranged for a carriage to be waiting.  There will be a firing squad, but it will be a sham execution – Cavaradossi is to fall down and feign death when the soldiers fire, and remain still until they leave, then the two of them will be free to leave and escape from Rome by sea.  Tosca says that there is no grief on earth like the grief that she has known, and Cavaradossi tells her that death was only bitter to him because it would have separated him from her.  Rapturously, they declare their love and their good fortune.


Tosca, ever practical, makes sure that he understands that he must fall at the first shot, and that he must make it look natural.  Cavaradossi reassures her that he will play his part convincingly.  A troop of soldiers comes up the staircase, followed by Spoletta and the sergeant; Spoletta gives the soldiers their orders.  A bell is heard striking four, and the gaoler announces that the time has come.  Cavaradossi says that he is ready, and Tosca whispers to him to fall well and remain still.  He jokes that he will act his part as well as Tosca does on the stage – he kisses her and takes up the position indicated by the officer.  The officer offers him a blindfold, but Cavaradossi, smiling, refuses it.  Tosca, watching the ‘execution’, comments that it is all going so slowly, then she sees the soldiers raise their rifles and she covers her ears.  As the officer brings down his sword, a volley of shots rings out and Tosca gestures to Cavaradossi to fall – he does. ‘Die!’ she comments, ‘How handsome my Mario is; what a performer!’


The sergeant bends to examine Cavaradossi’s body and is about to deliver the coup de grace but Spoletta steps forward, pulls the sergeant away and covers the body with his cloak.  Then the officer calls the troop to order and, led by Spoletta, that all leave.  Tosca waits anxiously until everyone has gone, urging Cavaradossi under her breath to remain still.  She peers over the parapet to make sure that they have all left and then runs over to where Cavaradossi fell.  She pulls at him, urging him to get up, but Cavaradossi remains motionless – he is dead.


Stunned, she realises that Scarpia has tricked her, and as the awfulness of the situation sinks in, voices are heard, shouting that she must not be allowed to escape.  Sciarrone and Spoletta appear at the top of the steps, and Spoletta calls out that she will pay for Scarpia’s life.  ‘Yes’, she cries, ‘with my own!’ and as Spoletta rushes forward to grab her, she pushes him away, climbs onto the parapet of the terrace and throws herself off.  Spoletta and the others run to the parapet and look over, speechless.




Related articles can be found on


  • The background to the writing of Tosca

  • The life and operas of Giacomo Puccini

  • The life and librettos of Luigi Illica and Giacomo Giacosa, the librettists of Tosca

  • Victorien Sardou’s life and his contribution to opera

  • Dramatic roles in Sardou’s plays played by Sarah Bernhardt, and her life

  • The plots of other operas which were based on Sardou’s plays, and of all of Puccini’s operas

… and many, many more aspects of opera


© Roger Witts 2004