by: Lisa Kramer Reichel
TOSCA is the only opera that can be
tied to an exact date, time, and place. It is set at a critical time in the
military campaigns of the French general (and later Emperor) Napoleon Bonaparte.
During the late 1700s, the invasion of Italy by Napoleon and his French armies
resulted in the expulsion of the old dynastic rulers, including the Pope.
Radical French republics or states were set up in northern Italy and in Naples.
The city of Rome became the Roman Republic (of which, in TOSCA, Angelotti was a
While Napoleon was in Egypt in
1799, an Austrian-Russian army defeated the French republics in Italy. Maria
Carolina of Austria, the wife of the defeated King of Naples, Ferdinando IV, and
sister of Marie Antoinette, inspired the Austrian reactionary party. Maria
Carolina assumed the regency and began to "clean house" — eliminating thousands
of republicans and liberals and anyone who had supported French rule. In the
spring of 1800, Napoleon and his forces crossed over the Alps and moved to the
town of Marengo in northwestern Italy. Here they were met by Austrian forces
commanded by General Melas on June 14, 1800. Napoleon believed that the attack
by the Austrian force was a diversion and he ordered General Desaix to continue
searching for the main Austrian Force in the south. By noon, however, with his
forces falling back, Napoleon began to realize that he was losing to an all-out
Act One of TOSCA reflects this
moment. The Sacristan announces the news of the apparent victory of the imperial
forces over Napoleon. The act ends with a "Te Deum" to celebrate the triumph,
and Tosca will sing that evening for the Queen herself.
But the Battle of Marengo was not over. Napoleon sent a request for help to
General Desaix who, returning with his troops, and at the cost of his own life,
helped turn defeat into glory. During the second act of the opera, news arrives
of the defeat of the monarchy. Mario's excitedly proclamation of "Victory"
further angers Scarpia, who as chief of police for the monarchy, orders Mario to
be dragged off to prison.
This dramatic scene reflects the
divided sentiments of the people of Rome, torn between their loyalty to the
crown and hopes for new freedoms under Napoleon. By the end of the opera, with
Napoleon's victory secure, it seems as though Mario and Angelotti will have
posthumous revenge. Napoleon, however, decided to compromise with Italy's
traditional rulers. The newly elected Pope, Pius VII, regained control of the
By coincidence, the world premiere
of TOSCA took place almost exactly 100 years after the historical events which
form its background.
Each scene in TOSCA takes place at
locations that still exist in Rome today. Act I takes place in the church of
Sant' Andrea della Valle, Act II at the Farnese Palace, and Act III on the roof
of the Castel Sant'Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel, so-named because of the
large statue added to its roof. See drawing.) This castle was built by Roman
Emperor Hadrian who reigned from A.D. 117 until his death in A.D. 138. Hadrian
had this monument built to be his tomb. It was the largest and grandest of all
Throughout the centuries, Castel
Sant'Angelo has had various uses. It has been a fortress, a castle, the home of
popes, and even a prison — which is how it is portrayed in TOSCA. Although the
castle has been battered in sieges, shaken by earthquakes, often flooded by the
overflowing Tiber River along which it is built, and frequently changed by man,
it stands as a wonderful monument to the historical glories of the past.