Tosca: Sardou / Mucha / Bernhardt

I’ll take Mozart or Rossini over Puccini most days of the year, but (OK, husband and daughter, I admit it) I do enjoy Tosca. Alphonse Mucha, who created a poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s performance as Medea (see this post), also created one for Bernhardt as Tosca.

Alphonse Mucha, Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca, 1899.

But Bernhardt isn’t portraying Puccini’s Tosca. She’s the star of La Tosca, an 1887 play by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908). Since 1900, when the opera adapted from it premiered, Sardou’s play has rarely been performed. I read the play last week, because I was curious how it differed from the opera.

Both works are set in Rome in June 1800, when news has just arrived of that Napoleon lost (no, wait, won) the Battle of Marengo. Rome is ruled by the Bourbons, who want Napoleon destroyed. Napoleon has not yet declared himself emperor: he’s still seen by many as the successor to the Enlightenment and to the noble(r) ideals of the French Revolution. The painter Mario Cavaradossi favors the French. His lover Floria Tosca, an acclaimed opera singer, sides with the Italian royalists. Scarpia, the loathsome chief of the secret police, wants Mario punished for helping a prisoner escape and lusts after Tosca. In the play, their contest takes place across five acts, including a party scene, and includes much historical detail, such as comments on the vindictiveness of Lady Hamilton (see More).

Puccini, the librettists (Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa), and Giulio Ricordi, Puccini’s publisher, have tightened up the story.  For example, the escaped prisoner is an old friend of Mario’s: we know without a lengthy dialogue that Mario will want to help him escape. Another example: Scarpia plays on Tosca’s jealous nature in Act I (in the church), not in the party scene (Act II). Although much extraneous dialogue has been cut, the Sardou play does have some brilliant lines that I miss.

  • Capreola to Tosca (Act II, scene 3): “On ne sait jamais, diva, quel plaisir est le plus grand: de vous voir ou de vous entendre.” “I never know, diva, which pleasure is greater: seeing you or hearing you.”
  • Scarpia to Tosca (Act IV, scene 3): “Quelle revanche de ton mépris, quelle vengeance de tes insultes, quel raffinement de volupté, que mon plaisir soit aussi ton supplice…” “What a revenge for your insults, what a perfection of pleasure: that my enjoyment should also be your torture.”
  • Tosca regarding Scarpia (Act IV, scene 3): “Ah! Dieu bon, Dieu grand, Dieu sauveur! Qu’il y ait un tel homme! et que tu le laisses faire! Tu ne le vois donc pas? Tu ne l’entends donc pas?” “Oh, good God, great God, God the savior! That there is such a man! And that you let him be [or allow him to act this way]! Don’t you see? Don’t you hear?”
  • Cavaradossi on the monks who’ve been sent to him before his execution (Act V, scene 1): “La mort est assez fâcheuse par elle-même sans qu’on l’attriste encore par de telles cérémonies.” “Death is bothersome enough without making it more sad with rites such as those.”

Most surprising absence in Sardou’s play: Tosca has no speech equivalent to “Vissi d’amore,” one of the most famous of all Puccini arias. The closest to it is Tosca’s lines in Act IV, quoted above.


  • Sardou’s play is available in French as a Kindle book. There seems to be no digitized version in English; for a print version see here.
  • More on Vissi d’arte, with links to performances by Maria Callas, Angela Gheorghiu, Leontyne Price, and Montserrat Caballe.
  • That Hamilton Woman, the Oscar-winning 1941 film with Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, is available for streaming here. The Criterion Collection offers a restored version.
  • The first time I saw Tosca was in 2011, when my daughter sang her first paid role as an opera singer, as the shepherd whose solo opens Act III.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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