Puccini's shocker

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, January 14, 2020

On today’s date in 1900, “Tosca,” a new opera by Giacomo Puccini had its premiere at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Rome was, in fact, the opera’s setting and those in the audience would have instantly recognized the real-life landmarks depicted on stage.

Puccini composed “Tosca” at the height of the “verismo” or “realism” craze in opera. It might seem downright silly that a theatrical form as UNREAL and stylized as opera could ever be described as “realistic” – but the idea was to depict “a slice of real life” – even if that slice includes melodramatic characters like a sadistic, lecherous police chief and a beautiful opera diva he lusts for.

To be as realistic as possible, Puccini visited Rome to listen to the early morning church bells from the ramparts of the Castel Sant'Angelo, the setting of his opera’s third act and to consult with a Roman priest on the details of the liturgy for the Te Deum that concludes Act I.

Some early audiences for “Tosca” thought Puccini had taken this realism thing way too far. One proper British reviewer wrote: “Those who were present were little prepared for the revolting effects produced by musically illustrating torture ... or the dying kicks of a murdered scoundrel.”