Sunday, November 6, 2011

The many faces of Scarpia

Next week, the Royal Opera House in London will be broadcasting Puccini's great opera Tosca through Emerging Pictures' Opera in Cinema program.  While some critics called it a "shabby little shocker" at its premiere,today Tosca is largely considered one of the greatest operas ever composed.  In fact, to some, it represents what opera is all about.  Basically, it has it all: love, hate, lust, torture, murder, deceit, jealousy, political intrigue, and some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear.  For all this, any production can be made or broken by the right (or wrong) cast.  It goes without saying that in any opera, the principles have to be able to sing well.  And for some operas, that's really enough: good acting isn't mandatory for it to work.  But for certain operas, no matter how pretty the music may sound, if the singers can't portray the characters' personalities effectively, the audience won't believe it.  Tosca is one of those operas, and of particular importance are the roles of Tosca and Scarpia.  You can have a bland Cavaradossi and still be okay, but the other two determine whether the performance sizzles or fizzles. 

This particular production stars Angela Gheorgheu as the diva Floria Tosca, Jonas Kaufmann as her lover, the painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, and Bryn Terfel as the evil Baron Scarpia.  Scarpia is one of that rare breed of truly evil operatic characters, as opposed to all those "villains" who are just a bunch of guys reacting poorly to their circumstances.  And every baritone who has ever sung Scarpia casts that evil in a different light.  Subtle differences in singing and acting styles change the whole character and his motivations.  For example, Tito Gobbi, who was arguably one of the greatest Scarpias of all time, played him as so purely evil that he thought himself untouchable.  He knew he was bad, and he seemed to enjoy every minute of it.  Sherrill Milnes' Scarpia was ruthlessly cold and subtly calculating.  No big, overexaggerated grabby motions from him.  He was in control, and could afford to take his time and enjoy the hunt.  Ettore Bastianini only sang the role a handful of times, and unfortunately there is very little available by way of video, but he is reputed to have played a very dark, dangerous, yet very attractive Scarpia.  And then, on that note, there is Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  While we have as yet only heard the Te Deum from him, when he does finally take on the role, I think we can expect a deliciously sensual, yet wholly evil, Scarpia.  Such a performance will, no doubt, leave many women in the audience furious with Tosca for dispatching this sinister villain.
While I would love to include several dozen video clips of various Scarpias, I've managed to pare the list down to just a handful.  Here are four Scarpias singing the Te Deum from Act I, each providing a different flavor for the character.  We'll start with Cornell Macneil, whose Scarpia is pure, unadulterated evil.

Up next is Rugerro Raimondi, whose many brilliant portrayals of Scarpia each differ from the next.  In this performance, taken from the on-location film also starring Placido Domingo and Catherine Malfitano, he shows himself to be so drunk with power that he is almost in awe of it.

In the Metropolitan Opera's new production, George Gagnidze plays Scarpia as somewhat of a twisted pervert.  As I watched his performance, I could almost see the slime oozing out of every pore in his body!

And finally, here's a taste of what we might expect next week from Bryn Terfel.  Please excuse the expression, but he is badass!  Terfel's Scarpia is mean, and he enjoys bullying everyone around him.  I think we are in for a real treat!

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