December 30, 2019
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.
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson
October 26, 2021
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
From Your Site Articles
- From Beirut To Baghdad, Syria's Spillover Is Redrawing The Middle ... ›
- Tamales To Gonorrhea: How Violence Shaped Colombian Spanish ... ›
- Destination Chernobyl? Radioactivity, Jobs And Tourism ... ›
Related Articles Around the Web
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!