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A real-life diva gave ‘Tosca’ some of its flavor

W&D Downey via Getty Images

The Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Federico Cortese, presents a semi-staged performance of “Tosca” on Sunday. Giacomo Puccini’s melodrama is inherently theatrical: The title character is a famous diva, and the plot hinges on instances of performance, down to a pantomime-execution denouement situated on the knife edge between make-believe and reality. Even the theater of the table plays a part: The dinner that Scarpia, the villain, grazes on in Act 2 not only reflects his appetitious nature, but also provides crucial cutlery to effect the opera’s most shocking act of violence.

One could get into the spirit by providing Scarpia with a completely “Tosca”-themed meal, as culled from the repertoire of classic French cuisine. Start with consommé Tosca, clear chicken broth, thickened with tapioca, garnished with julienned carrots, quenelles of minced chicken and foie gras, and tiny chicken-and-pistachio profiteroles. Then, perhaps, tartelettes Tosca, pastries filled with crayfish tails, covered with souffléd Parmesan. Follow with a poularde Tosca, a whole chicken stuffed with truffled rice pilaf, roasted and served with braised fennel. For the meat course, a saddle of veal à la Tosca: The entire saddle is braised, then the tenderloins are removed, sliced, interspersed with slices of truffle, then rearranged on the bone, which has been lined with macaroni and more truffles, the whole thing coated with Mornay sauce. Finally, finish with a Bombe Tosca, ice cream studded with maraschino-spiked fruit, covered in a shell of apricot and lemon sorbets.


The recipes, however, all by the authoritative chef Auguste Escoffier, were most likely created not to honor Puccini’s opera but rather its source, Victorien Sardou’s 1887 play — and, especially, the play’s star, Sarah Bernhardt (inset). Escoffier met Bernhardt in 1874 and was immediately smitten; the two became lifelong friends (or, it was rumored, more than friends). Bernhardt’s birthdays were customarily celebrated with Escoffier cooking her a private dinner of champagne and scrambled eggs — “the finest of all egg preparations,” in Escoffier’s estimation.

The original play is now rarely performed, but Puccini’s “Tosca” owes more than a little to Bernhardt’s example. Sardou created the role with Bernhardt in mind, and her international success in playing what was, on one level, a version of herself, fueled Puccini’s interest in the story. In that sense, the opera itself is, appropriately, a cultural confiture, preserving some essence of the object of Escoffier’s affection.


The Boston Youth Symphony performs Puccini’s “Tosca”

Sunday at 3 p.m. at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Tickets: $30-$40,

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at