Today I want to share with you an aria from the opera Tosca, composed by Giacomo Puccini. The aria I am sharing, “Te Deum,” is not the most popular one, but it is one of my favorites. In addition to the music of the orchestra and the remarkable baritone voice of the character Scarpia, Puccini packed this aria with organ, choir, and the background sound of church bells, creating an incredibly rich, powerful sound.
And then there is emotion. We feel it most strongly in the singing of Scarpia, who plays the chief of police, the villain of the story. He is in love with Tosca, but to get Tosca he needs to send her lover, Cavaradossi, who is hiding from the law, to face a firing squad. You see the duality of Scarpia: an evil mastermind but also a soul tortured by unrequited love for Tosca. The last words of Scarpia in this aria are those of a tortured soul: “Tosca, you make me forget God.” We see all the evil that may be caused by misguided love. Do we hate Scarpia a little bit less once we understand him?
According to the American baritone Cornell MacNeil, who sang this opera over eight hundred times, “When you put together interpretation, action, acting, movement, custom, the attitude, and the voice… it is tremendous. It is the most demanding role.”
Who is your favorite Scarpia? We are lucky that there are a lot of great performances of Tosca and this aria – after all, Tosca is one of the most-performed operas. It is right up there with La Boheme, Carmen, and La Traviata.
The Ruggero Raimondi performance adds a visual dimension to the opera: It is beautifully filmed. Also, if your Italian is rusty, it has subtitles.
The performance of “Te Deum” by Evgeny (Zhenya) Nikitin is very special to me because he was my childhood friend. Zhenya grew up in Murmansk, and we were in the same class until eighth grade (at the time Russia had a ten-grade system). We lost touch when I left school for technical college (the Murmansk Marine College). Zhenya completed his training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and in 2002 he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera. I am biased, but his interpretation of Scarpia is one of my favorites.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who also sang the role beautifully, was a Russian (post-Soviet) opera superstar. He sadly passed away in 2017 at the age of 55. In 2015, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he canceled all his performances; but he could not stay away from the Met and Anna Netrebko, and he travelled to New York to give his last three performances in Verdi’s Il Travatore.
Dear Vitaliyi..thanks for sharing Tosca’s Te Deum, as well as your brother’s painting..he is a genius.
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My favorite Scarpia is Željko Lučić from the Met’s production in 2018. His imposing presence and authoritative voice put so much menace into the Te Deum scene. Toward the end of the Te Deum he climbs the painter’s scaffold and it seems that the chorus is singing its praise to him and not to God. He kneels and makes the sign of the cross, but then beats his breast with violence three times, a gesture more of rage, triumph and pride than of religious humility. Very moving.
Hello, my favorite Scarpia is Sherrill Milnes because he couples perfectly religious hypocrisy and sensual, “sexy” undertones. Perfect Italian, too. Glad to find someone else that loves the te deum scene.
My favorite Scarpia is Cornell MacNeil. To me, his presence, expression, mannerisms, and voice are perfection in this role.
My distant cousin was the Mexican baritone Guillermo Sarabia who performed with many of the great opera companies around the world. Here he is giving a masterful performance in the role of Scarpia with the Teatro Municipal de Caracas in 1981. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A83oGr6Ry5c
To my mind, the Te Deum is the most sacrilegious piece of music ever written. The combination of the children’s chorus with their angelic and pristine sound, the tolling of the bell , and the octave dropping “ O, Tosca” of Scarpia makes the Cathedral into a chamber of sin and seduction. Brilliant. The best setting of the Te Deum I ever saw was at the NY City Opera where Scarpia’s police wore brown shirts and the light which illuminated the Cathedral was a zigzag like swazstika which blazed across the stage. The best Scarpia I saw was at the Met Opera’s modernized Tosca setting in the midst of the “ Me, Too” movement Zeljko Lucic who made my skin crawl when he reached out to Anna Nettebko’s cringing Tosca