The Italian grand opera still had years to live after 1900, but that was the year when Puccini brought the form to its apex with a single passage in Tosca. At the end of Act I, the evil chief of police, Scarpia, sings of his passion for the diva Tosca while the chorus is singing a Te Deum. “Go Tosca, in your heart is nesting Scarpia” he sings, while everybody else is singing in praise of God. The dramatic counterpoint is so richly reflected in the music that most people’s initial memory of the work is not an aria by either Tosca or her lover Cavaradossi, but a single phrase from Scarpia. “Va, Tosca…” At the end of Act II, Tosca kills Scarpia, and if the opera does not really survive him into Act III, it is because of the initial impact he made when he came on in Act I. There have been many great exponents of the role but there were opera goers who lived to be a hundred and never heard anyone better than Tito Gobbi. I saw him in the role several times at Covent Garden. His pairing with Maria Callas in the title role is usually thought of as one of the operatic highlights of the post-war era, and it’s a tribute to his power that he had to hold off a bit to give her room. This, you felt, is the way a baritone is meant to sound. As for his looks, Gobbi resembled a benevolent bank manager, but his winningly plump features only made his Scarpia more terrifying as he deployed his charismatic hatred in all directions, often with just the flashing of an eye. In the clip featured here, he sings a long stretch directly to camera, so you can see his bloodcurdling cynicism from up close, but I promise that it carried all the way from the Covent Garden stage to the gallery, where I was perched on high like an owl in the roof of a barn, but could still see his every facial twitch. What counts most, though, is the voice, and how it shaped the music. A big help there was the baton of Charles Mackerras, one of Australia’s most conspicuous gifts to the international lyrical theatre. Despite the French voice-over, the viewer is advised not to skip the first couple of minutes when Gobbi is putting on his makeup. It’s a hint of how he is going to transform his genial personality into the very instrument of evil. Puccini, who had earlier been turned down for the job of composing the music to suit Sardou’s creaking vehicle of a play, proudly wanted to refuse when he was asked again. Verdi talked him into it. A generous gesture from a greater composer, you might think: but not even Verdi ever topped the scene you are about to see.
See and hear Tito Gobbi as Scarpia in Tosca.