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Intimacy and nuance combine in 'Tosca'


“He's a cop. Above everything, he's a cop.''

That's legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes describing Scarpia, the bad guy in Puccini's operatic potboiler Tosca. Scarpia was one of Milnes' signature roles, and he performed it more than 150 times in productions around the world and in several acclaimed recordings.

Scarpia is the police chief of Rome in 1800. His job is to protect the city against the revolutionaries supporting Napoleon, who has Italy under siege. Puccini's opera turns on Scarpia's diabolical manipulation of the diva Floria Tosca and her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi.

"Scarpia is the most brutal, sadistic and horrible figure in the literature of opera,'' said Guido LeBron, who is playing him in the Opera Tampa performances Friday and Sunday.

Though Scarpia is a monster, he is a great role. One of the most thrilling scenes in all of opera is the Act 1 finale in which the police chief declares his lust for Tosca while a chorus blasts the Te Deum over a large orchestra.

"You've got to sing pedal to the metal without blowing out your voice for the second act,'' Milnes said. "The brass can wipe you out. Puccini's orchestrations are fat, they're huge.''

LeBron, who has portrayed Scarpia in half a dozen productions, said that the Act 1 finale requires the baritone "to sing on your interest, not your capital. It becomes a pacing game, because the hardest singing in the opera is in the second act."

Scarpia to the bone

Milnes, retired from performing, is artistic adviser to Opera Tampa, and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves, is the company's associate general director. As a young singer in the 1950s, the baritone was strongly influenced by the Scarpia of Tito Gobbi, who is featured with Maria Callas in a definitive Tosca recording.

"I listened to all the Gobbi stuff,'' Milnes said. "The way he colored words was revolutionary. It was not a beautiful voice, but his imagination, his concentration, his depth of knowledge and digging into a character was so much greater than anyone else at the time.''

The fictional Scarpia, a Sicilian, is a torturer, murderer and rapist who rubs elbows with Roman nobility and clergy. He was made a baron for doing the dirty work of the royalists.

"Scarpia should be elegant,'' Milnes said. "Maybe Scarpia wasn't brought up elegant, but he learned manners. He learned the right fork to use.''

Having Milnes involved with a production of Tosca could put the baritone playing Scarpia on the spot.

"Any Scarpia performing in front of Sherrill Milnes would wonder how he's being compared, but that's okay. Not everyone is Sherrill Milnes,'' conductor Anton Coppola said.

A Sicilian connection

Milnes and LeBron exchanged pleasantries about playing the role during rehearsal, but

LeBron will be doing it his way. "I saw (Milnes') Scarpia in Barcelona, I saw one of his movies, but this is Guido LeBron's Scarpia, and it will be totally different,'' he said. "It will be a Sicilian Scarpia.''

LeBron finds inspiration in Sicily as ancestral home of the Mafia. He likens Scarpia to Luca Brasi, a murderous enforcer in The Godfather, or the real-life Sicily-born mobster Lucky Luciano.

"The brutality comes natural to Scarpia,'' LeBron said. "He sees himself as a fanatical religious figure who believes he is doing the work of God. But when you strip all the religion away, you see that he is nothing but a thug.''

Historian Susan Vandiver Nicassio, author of Tosca's Rome, an entertaining critical analysis of the opera, sees Scarpia as "a corrupt and ruthless man whose special talent is for doing jobs that other men are too delicate to accomplish.''

Nicassio, who teaches at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and once sang the role of Tosca, said that Puccini's thunderous scoring for Scarpia reflects the character. "He just grabs you by the throat with those big chords. But it's not beautiful. It's compelling. Scarpia's music is in clear contrast

to that of Tosca and Cavaradossi. Their music is lyrical, while

his is declamatory.''

Cherchez la femme

Ultimately, the relationship between Tosca and her tormentor is the crux of the opera. "The biggest difference in Scarpias is what the Tosca is like,'' Milnes said. "There are a lot of valid points of view for Tosca. She can be whore-y. Or then there's the soft, gentle, ladylike Tosca.''

Milnes played Scarpia opposite a roll call of great sopranos, including Dorothy Kirsten, Leontyne Price, Mirella Freni, Grace Bumbry, Montserrat Caballe, Leonie Rysanek and Eva Marton.

One of his favorite Toscas was the Italian soprano Renata Scotto. "That was probably the most satisfying, because Renata would give you a little different turn of a phrase in every performance,'' Milnes said.

There was some drama in the early days of Opera Tampa's rehearsals when the singer playing Tosca, Patricia Stevens, had to be replaced. "It just wasn't working out,'' Coppola said, adding that Stevens was "not a Tosca voice.'' The conductor took responsibility for the casting. "Let's call it a miscalculation. It was my fault.''

Rosa D'Imperio was brought in to perform Tosca. The change "really doesn't affect us that much,'' said LeBron, who was in a production of Puccini's Il Tabarro with D'Imperio last November. "Hopefully, we have some chemistry, which I think we do.''

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or

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Opera Tampa stages the Puccini opera at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $59.50-$99.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free


What to read,

hear and watch

Tosca's Rome (University of Chicago Press), by Susan Vandiver Nicassio, is a lively study of the opera, putting it into historical and political perspective. Nicassio's book is not only a rich slice of Italian history but would be an excellent companion on a trip to Rome.

Among the many CDs of Tosca, the 1953 EMI recording with Maria Callas remains the gold standard, documenting the great soprano at her peak. It has Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, with Victor de Sabata conducting La Scala's orchestra and chorus.

On DVD, the 1976 Tosca (Deutsche Grammophon) filmed on location in Rome features Raina Kabaivanska as the diva, Placido Domingo as the painter and Sherrill Milnes as the police chief. The performance was lip-synched, with Milnes recording his part in a San Francisco studio.

Intimacy and nuance combine in 'Tosca' 04/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 4:20pm]
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