Monday 6 September 2021

The history behind: 17 June 1800 - Puccini's Tosca and Sardou's La Tosca

Soprano Hariclea Darclée, the first Tosca
Soprano Hariclea Darclée, the first Tosca
Have you ever wondered why Cavaradossi, in the middle of Act Two of Puccini's Tosca, suddenly launches into a triumphal aria 'Vittoria, vittoria!' despite having just suffered torture at the hands of Scarpia's minions? You need to follow the libretto pretty closely, something I suspect few people bother to do, to realise that the aria arises directly from the very specific historical context of the opera.

Puccini's inspirations for his operas were many and various (and reading his biography the net seems to have been cast remarkably wide with some surprising ones that got away). But many of his ideas came from seeing stage works, so that both Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West are based on English-language stage plays by John Belasco (despite Puccini understanding barely any of the spoken English texts). 

Tosca is based on French-language dramatic play, La Tosca, written in 1887 by playwright Victorien Sardou as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt. Puccini saw La Tosca at least twice, in Milan and Turin and on 7 May 1889 he wrote to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, asking him to get permission for the work to be made into an opera. The path to creating the opera was rocky, Puccini started with librettist Luigi Illica, but Illica was not keen and Sardou disliked Puccini's music! Ricordi eventually transferred the opera to Alberto Franchetti, who started work on it but somehow the project got transferred back to Puccini. There is a suggestion that Franchetti was never at ease with the subject matter. But however it happened, Puccini resumed work in 1895 and the opera premiered in 1900 in Rome with Hariclea Darclée, Emilio De Marchi, and Eugenio Giraldoni, conducted by Leopoldo Mugnone. Ricordi had arranged to premiere the work in Rome, rather than at La Scala, Milan, because of the opera's very specific Roman setting.

Sardou sets La Tosca at a very specific period of time and place, the afternoon, evening, and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800 in Rome.

A French army under Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796. At the time, much of Northern Italy was held by the Austrians (the Holy Roman Empire), whilst Rome and the Papal states were ruled by the Pope, and Naples and Sicily were ruled by King Ferdinand, a member of a cadet branch of the Spanish Bourbon family, whose wife was Queen Marie Antoinette's sister.

Napoleon entered Rome unopposed in 1798 and established a republic there. The Pope (Pius VI) was taken prisoner and sent into exile. He would die in exile and his successor, Pius VII was elected in Venice in 1800 and he would not enter Rome until 3 July 1800. The French had also tried to install a republic in Naples, but a peasant revolt supported by British forces had meant that King Ferdinand was able to return.

Key amongst the British forces was, of course, Lord Nelson who would be rewarded with the title of Duke of Bronte for his aid to King Ferdinand and his family. It was at this time that Nelson's liaison developed with Emma Hamilton (wife of the Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples and Sicily),

Queen Maria Carolina of Naples by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun
Queen Maria Carolina of Naples by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun
The French republic in Rome was governed by seven consuls one of whom, Liborio Angelucci, was probably the model for Angelotti in the play and opera, though their back stories differ somewhat. It is only in the play, that Cesare Angelotti had been a wealthy landowner in Naples and defender of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic. When it fell and King Ferdinand was returned as ruler, Angelotti fled to Rome where he became one of the Consuls of the equally short lived Roman Republic. He is a wanted man, not only for his revolutionary activities but also for a youthful dalliance in London, where he had an eight-day liaison with Emma Hamilton. At the time she had been an actress and member of the demi-monde, but by the time of the play she had become the wife of the British Envoy to Naples, William Hamilton, and was a favourite of King Ferdinand's wife, Queen Maria Carolina. 

But in September 1799 the French withdrew and King Ferdinand's Neapolitan forces were able to occupy Rome. This is the exact period of the opera, and the Queen that Tosca refers to is in fact King Ferdinand's wife, Queen Maria Carolina, the sister of Queen Marie Antoinette. 

But in May 1799, Napoleon returned to Italy with French forces and on 14 June his army met the Austrian Army at Marengo. The Austrian's were initially successful and their commander thus sent a message to Rome to this effect. This is why they prepare for a Te Deum in Act One of the opera, to celebrate that the alliance between King Ferdinand and the Austrians (and other allies) had defeated Napoleon. But in fact, the news was wrong. By the end of the day, Napoleon was in control of the field and the Austrians retreated in disarray. It is this news which is brought to Scarpia during Act Two and it this this that sets Cavaradossi off. He has been a supporter of the short-lived republic and that is the reason he is on Scarpia's black-list.

In history, the Neapolitans would abandon Rome and it spent the next 14 years under French domination. As for King Ferdinand, he had to make concessions to Napoleon in 1801, and finally in 1806 Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as King of Naples, followed two years later by his sister Caroline and her husband Joachim Murat. Ferdinand retired to Sicily, where he was supported by the British fleet, and he was only, finally, able to return to Naples in 1815.

The French occupation of Naples would have a musical corollary. They brought French operatic style to the city, and the idea of serious opera with through-composed orchestrally accompanied recitatives took root and it was when Rossini took his post in the city in 1815 that he started writing opera seria with orchestrally accompanied recitatives. Italian opera would never be the same again.

The Battle of Marengo, by Louis-François Lejeune
The Battle of Marengo, painted in 1801 by Louis-François Lejeune

I have no idea whether the details of this history were remembered in detail by the average opera goer. in 1900. Whilst more recent Italian history had been eventful (and at the time of the premiere there was unrest in Rome), Napoleon's invasion of Italy some 100 years before must have still been in people's minds. Added to which, Sardou's play La Tosca was astonishingly successful and Bernhardt would tour it extensively, and the play goes into a lot more explanatory detail than the opera. So we have to assume that, unlike the average modern opera goer, those in Puccini's day had a relatively clear idea as to the historical background to what was going on.

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