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 ar1a – 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. Watch this version of the aria to gain a visual overview of the whole opera.
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.