A new rendition of the famous Puccini opera opens this month in Milan, and it all revolves around the powerful and predatory Scarpia character.
MILAN — The title should be "Scarpia," not Tosca, because he's the protagonist, in life and in death, of Giacomo Puccini's opera, which opens the season at Milan's La Scala theater, on Dec. 17.
In this rendition, conducted by Ricardo Chailly and staged by Davide Livermore, some form of Scarpia's presence — be it a shadow or a grin — is alive and sealed into every character. He appears as a nightmare in every scene, every narrative junction of the opera's three acts, from the opening to the end.
Suddenly, even before the curtain rises, the music informs us with a fortissimo, at full force, that this man is a monster. His theme is composed of three degrees of a whole tone scale, utterly foreign to the horizon of European classical music. He's an alien, in other words. A virus that nurtures and destroys the other characters.
When, in the last scene, Tosca throws herself from the battlements of the Castle Sant'Angelo crying, "O Scarpia! Onward to God!," thus setting an appointment with the executioner to have him carry out his revenge on her in the afterlife, her last word ends on a B flat, the very note of perfidy.
Between the opera's two lovers — Tosca, an overly jealous actress and Mario Cavaradossi, an imprudent painter-patriot — Scarpia, the chief of the Papal Political Police, is the only one who has his thoughts in order: take the diva to bed; possess her body in exchange, supposedly, for Mario's salvation; but then eliminate the political opponent. "One in the noose, the other in my arms," he sings.
One finds oneself between the twisted paths of sadism and the exciting complicity between spiritual and temporal powers.
Sicilian and of noble origin, Baron Scarpia knows well the proverb Cumannari è megghiu di futtiri — commanding is better than fucking. Except he doesn't take it as a comparative. It's an equivalence, rather: commanding isn't better than fucking, it is fucking.
A symbiosis that the staging of Livermore underlines clearly. During the second act, the stage is split into two levels: Above, Scarpia brutally tries to possess Tosca, while below Mario is tortured, his screams rising up to the second floor. The public will see the two sequences simultaneously.
Livermore is still deciding whether to add one more destabilizing element: Scarpia accompanied by a retinue of religious sisters, all young except one. Cooking for him, serving him meals, they would witness everything, the eldest of them present during the torture. One almost finds oneself in the pages of a Marquis de Sade novel, between the twisted paths of sadism and the exciting complicity between spiritual and temporal powers.
The only city where the original drama, penned by Victorien Sardou and later adapted by Puccini, could conceivably be set is Rome. It is the coexistence, customary in Rome, of the exercise of spirituality, of temporal power and of political power, that generates Scarpia's pulsions and perversions.
In the last scene of Act I, it is while the Te Deum service is being celebrated in the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle that Scarpia explodes, already excited by the diva, "Tosca, you make me forget even God!"
The baron — and through him, Puccini and his librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica — know the lust and madness of power. It's since become the marching beat of every monstrous character created in musical theater in the 20th Century.
Italian critic Fedele d'Amico was the first to understand this. "Salomé, Electra, Wozzeck: we must really find the courage, sooner or later, to nominate Tosca to this list," he wrote in 1981. "The opera debuted in 1900 and chronologically would come in the first place."
Power is exercised through physical as well as moral humiliation of the supporting roles. Tosca is set in June of 1800, after the short-lived Roman Republic was defeated by the returning Papal government. But Scarpia is a universal type, ubiquitous, confirming that the #MeToo movement has global motivations.
Tosca lays a crucifix on Scarpia's body — Photo: The Victrola Book of the Opera, Camden, N.J.
In 1986, when staging Tosca as set in Nazi-occupied Rome for the annual opera festival Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, director Jonathan Miller defended his choice by declaring, "In one of her books, historian and novelist Gaia Servadio narrates the episode of the imprisonment of theater, opera and cinema director Luchino Visconte and the attempts of actress Maria Denis to free him. Denis went to Pietro Koch, the head of that eponymous gang, Banda Koch, that terrorized Rome in those years. In response to her request, Koch responded that he would set Visconte free if she accepted his sexual advances."
Similar episodes can be found everywhere, always.
The Italian popular conscience is chock full of them. The song Povera Cecilia, or "Poor Cecilia," tells the story of a "signor Capitano" to whom the woman turns to plead mercy for an imprisoned man.
Tosca is a more modern and prophetic work than it ever could have been in the hands of Verdi.
"Come sleep with me and tomorrow he shall be free," the captain replies. Here, the tale has several variants: She accepts, but her beloved dies anyway; she refuses and kills the captain; she doesn't want to, but her man insists because he wants his freedom.
In his 1997 book Viva la Libertà!: Politics in Opera, Anthony Arblaster recalls the characteristic "sophisticated, obsessive cruelty and pleasure taken in cruelty of so many modern political regimes," adding that Puccini's "Tosca is a more modern and prophetic work than it ever could have been in the hands of Verdi."
When Tosca grabs the knife with which she kills Scarpia a moment before he possesses her, the way in which she finds the weapon is ambiguous: Had she been looking for it, or did it happen by chance to fall into her hands? The libretto specifies that she spies it on the table "suddenly," that is to say, fatefully. For once, fate is on the side of women.