(Tosca—Puccini) by Sir Jonathan Miller
Who is Scarpia and how should he be played? One answer might be that he's the voluptuary sadist who appears in Tosca and that he should be played as Puccini self‐evidently meant him to be portrayed, as he was ‘done’ until meddlesome modern directors started to undo him. And the fact is that ‘traditional’ productions have perpetuated a more‐or‐less standardized version of the character, in the belief that the longevity of such a characterization guaranteed that it must have been what Puccini intended, so that messing around with alternatives is as blameworthy as putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. But that argument just won't wash. In contrast to pictures and sculptures, which continue to exist without subsequent efforts on the part of other artists, the continued existence of an operatic character depends on periodic reconstruction. Unless the producer makes the questionable assumption that precedent is the best guide to such a process, the character in question inexorably ‘develops’ from one production to the next and not necessarily along the lines hypothetically intended by the composer and his librettist. Through no fault of his own, Puccini was unable to allow for the fact that posterity is a foreign country where they do and feel things differently. So the character of Scarpia is therefore less determined than some critics fondly imagine. Since Puccini composed his opera, the world has undergone social and political changes which he could not possibly have foreseen. As a result, the reasons for reviving the opera in the 1990s are not quite the same as they would have been in the 1950s, let alone in 1910. When a late 20th‐cent. producer confronts the task of realizing Tosca, he does so in the knowledge that political tyranny has been perpetrated by people conspicuously unlike the somewhat clichéd villain of traditional productions. What is more, the modern director is familiar with what one can loosely call ‘psychology’ so that his approach to someone such as Scarpia will inevitably take an ‘interpretative turn’ which prevents him from taking the character at his face value. A literate producer is bound to take account of the notion of the ‘banality of evil’, which means that the ‘monstrosity’ of Scarpia cannot be represented in conventional terms. On the contrary, the suavely lecherous connoisseur of wine and pain seems almost comic by comparison with the bureaucratic mediocrities of the Gestapo, the OVRA [the Italian Fascist Secret police, 1942–3], or the KGB. In fact, the pen‐pushing clerkiness of such real characters is much more alarming than the Grytpipe‐Thynne [of the Goons] silkiness of traditional opera. And the succession of three tourist locations is just another distraction, as there's nothing more irritating for the cast than the sound of an audience applauding their own recognition of Sant’ Andrea, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castello Sant’ Angelo.
As someone who grew up during the Second World War, the notionally Napoleonic setting of Tosca seems to me thin and unconvincing by comparison with the one which Rossellini projected in his painfully unwatchable film Rome Open City. The narrative parallels are sufficiently close to allow an almost frictionless transposition and the character of Scarpia undergoes an intriguing metamorphosis, without dishonouring or deforming the words and music which were written for him. He emerges as someone disconcertingly ‘ordinary’, sorting and signing papers, absent‐mindedly sipping cold coffee, apparently indifferent to or even mildly irritated by the screams of the tortured Cavaradossi in the next room, outside which a drab typist imperturbably takes down the interrogation.