THE BLOG
03/12/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

Take Them to Tosca!

All of us have a desire to share things we love with people we care about. If our friends end up liking it too, we've managed to introduce them to something rewarding which they just may go on to enjoy for the rest of their lives. And it doesn't hurt that their liking it serves to justify our own passion.

This applies equally to both martinis and opera, but let's stick with opera for the time being. In truth, opera is an uncommonly huge art form, and trying to introduce someone to it for the first time can be daunting; where do you start? How can you possibly articulate just what that special moment is like, when the force of the dramatic situation, the glory of the music, the power of the text, and the passion of the performance, not to mention the visual effect of the costumes, scenery, and lighting, all work together to surprise and startle you with "something" that is absolutely unlike anything else?

In short, you can't. So rather than bother trying, take your opera-free friends to Tosca. Among his other accomplishments, with Tosca, Puccini has provided us with the perfect vehicle to transport our friends from the land of relative operatic innocence to one of opera intoxication, or ebbrezza, as they will soon be learning.

Victorien Sardou's 1887 play, La Tosca, was a hugely successful work created for the special talents of Sarah Bernhardt, arguably the most famous actress of her time. She toured the world in it, giving more than 3,000 performances in France alone. American women were warned that La Tosca had scenes that were shocking, offensive, and "which might inflict injury on persons yet unborn." In London, George Bernard Shaw, who disliked Sardou's work, called it "a cheap shocker," but amazingly stated that it would make a good opera a full decade before Puccini's Tosca was first seen in 1900. All of that lurid press ensured full houses for the play.

Puccini saw Sarah Bernhardt in La Tosca when it toured Italy in 1889, and was able to negotiate permission to base an opera on it. It took him nearly five years, but the 1900 Rome premiere of his opera Tosca was a truly major event, attended by the Prime Minister, Queen Margherita, and many of Puccini's competitors, including Pietro Mascagni, of Cavalleria rusticana fame. In spite of a lukewarm press, the public was wild and twenty performances were given to sold-out houses. Tosca would soon take up residence among the world's ten most frequently performed operas, where it remains comfortably today.

The action of Tosca begins on June 17, 1800 and ends at dawn the next day after a particularly eventful night. And as so often happens in opera, it ends badly. For everyone. But in Tosca, it ends really badly. By today's standards, maybe not badly enough to harm unborn children, but enough to make Tosca one of opera's most riveting experiences.

The sadistic Baron Scarpia, Rome's Chief of Police, has arrested the political activist Mario Cavaradossi, lover of the beautiful singer Floria Tosca. Scarpia has Tosca brought to his apartments, where she is treated to the screams of her lover as he is being tortured in the adjacent room. Scarpia presents Tosca with a "Sophie's Choice:" She can let him have his way with her, and her lover goes free, or she can refuse, and he will be executed at dawn.

Against her better judgement, she agrees, but as he grabs for her, she tags him in the heart with his dinner knife that she has secreted behind her back. "Here is the kiss of Tosca," she exclaims as he goes down. She heartlessly encourages him to die, and he obliges her.

Now part of the "deal" they struck included a mock execution, lest the citizens of Rome should think Scarpia had gone soft, so to speak. Tosca, with a safe conduct pass in hand, goes to fetch her lover from the prison on the roof of the Castel Sant'Angelo, and tells him he has an acting assignment ahead, as the mock execution will be staged before they can leave together.

But the bullets are real. Just as Tosca had failed to keep her part of the bargain, Scarpia had never intended to keep his. Soldiers, having found Scarpia's body, storm up to seize her, and she rushes to the parapet where she cries out, "O Scarpia, Avanti a Dio!" (O Scarpia, we meet before God!) before she jumps to her death. For some reason, the astonished soldiers can never resist the urge to look over the edge as the powerful last cords are played and the curtain falls.

Your friends will love Tosca because:

1) It's comparatively short. Three acts of about 43, 42, and 27 minutes respectively. Save those 767 minutes of Wagner's Ring Cycle until after they're hooked.
2) It's racy. 1900 audiences were shocked that Tosca and her lover were spending time together at his villa (maybe even cohabiting) and Scarpia's naked lust is pretty shameful even today.
3) Tosca was ahead of her time. She really "mans up" when the going gets rough.
4) Each of the three acts are anchored with famously beautiful arias.
5) They will have had an unexpectedly amazing experience of great music and high drama.

If your friends fail to respond to a really good performance of Tosca, maybe you're spending time with the wrong people. After all, what's not to like? Give it some thought.