Indecent Proposals
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Indecent Proposals

The dastardly Baron Vitellio Scarpia is one of opera’s best bad guys. 
By David J. Baker 

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Bryn Terfel as Baron Scarpia at Covent Garden, 2009
© Brian Tarr/Lebrecht Music & Arts
He not only boasts a long genealogy; he also continues to cast a shadow.
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Antonio Scotti sang 217 Toscas for the Met between 1901 and 1931
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Tito Gobbi defined the role of Scarpia in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s

WE START IN MEDIEVAL VIENNA, or rather in Shakespeare’s medieval Vienna, where people have Italian-sounding names. In the 1604 comedy Measure for Measure, Angelo, the new governor of Vienna, has instituted rigid morality laws, under which a young man is condemned to death. His crime is fornication. Isabella, the sister of the accused, appeals to Angelo for clemency.

ISABELLA: My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for it.

ANGELO: He shall not, Isabella, if you
give me love.
Redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will…

Despite the characters’ names and the nature of the prisoner’s crime, the dynamic here is instantly familiar to many operagoers. We recognize in Angelo an ancestor of Scarpia and a foreshadowing of the indecent proposal he makes to Tosca in Puccini’s opera nearly three centuries later. (The Puccini work is based on the 1887 melodrama La Toscaby Victorien Sardou.) But Angelo/Scarpia was not entirely new with Shakespeare either; the Bard found source material in a play by George Whetstone (published in 1578), set in Hungary. Whetstone himself had borrowed from a story collection published in Piedmont.

Given the persistence of sexual harassment in news stories today, we should not be surprised that this form of vice appealed to dramatists. And Shakespeare’s play didn’t have to wait for Puccini to reach the opera stage; it was adapted in 1836 by none other than Richard Wagner, for his second work, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love). Wagner’s libretto, set in Palermo, Sicily, replicates Shakespeare’s major sexual confrontation (with Isabella, again, a novice headed for a convent), along with the original play’s bawdy minor characters and happy ending. The villain now takes the form of a German ruler called Friedrich, the opera’s only non-Italian character.

Coincidentally, in 1835, just a year before Das LiebesverbotFrench author Victor Hugo dashed off a prose drama whose title harks back to Shakespeare, even if its plot takes a different course. In Angelo, Tyran de Padoue, the setting is Padua in the year 1549, and the villain is the podestà, or governor, an agent of the Inquisition. But the heroine in this work, a comédienne named La Tisbe, is the villain’s not-so-enthusiastic mistress. 

Some forty years later, Shakespeare scholar Arrigo Boito—who later collaborated with Verdi on Otello and Falstaff—merged elements of Hugo’s drama and Shakespeare’s comedy to form the libretto for Ponchielli’s Gioconda (1876). He moved the action to Venice, where his villain, now called Barnaba, lusts after the heroine. A singer (and thus reminiscent of Hugo’s actress, La Tisbe), Gioconda enters into a sexual bargain with Barnaba to save the life of her beloved. 

Playwright Victorien Sardou surely knew Hugo’s Angelo, although his Scarpia is a far more fully developed villain. Sardou’s specific sources remained for some time a subject of speculation. 

But then the irrepressible villain made an unlikely debut in the field of academic musicological research. In 1993, Deborah Burton, a Puccini scholar, published a study with the intriguing title “The Real Scarpia: Historical Sources for Tosca.” Her far-reaching research reveals historical figures in Bourbon-occupied Italy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who could have served as models for Sardou’s characters. She cites archival records of events referred to in his play, as well as some texts he apparently borrowed verbatim. And she discovers such historical agents of bloodthirsty repression as a certain Sciarpa (a pseudonym) and the Sicilian-born Vincenzo Speciale (1760–1813).

Sardou has demonstrably drawn on some of the materials cited by Burton, or other documents like them. But historical research goes only so far. If Scarpia’s defining sadism is traceable to biographical records of historical villains, we have to give Sardou and his literary predecessors credit for the character’s sarcasm and wiliness. As for actual dramaturgy, the play’s most mesmerizing scene—the sinister negotiation between Scarpia and Tosca—is another element not traceable to historical sources.

Scarpia begins to look timeless. He not only boasts a long genealogy; he also continues to cast a shadow. As Burton reports, Scarpia avatars figure in at least two recent novels, Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover and Paola Capriolo’s Vissi d’Amore. But we also find the villain quoted in another unlikely venue—a New York courtroom.

In 1888, the year of the play’s U.S. premiere, the words of Scarpia and Tosca were the subject of a plagiarism suit filed by Maurice Barrymore (patriarch of the legendary acting clan), who claimed that the sexual bargaining scene was copied from his 1884 play, Nadjezda

Sardou testified in an affidavit in his own defense, claiming that scenes like the sexual negotiations between the heroine and villain, the bone of contention here, could be found in plays far and wide—such as in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measurewhich he had drawn upon in La Tosca. The relevant lines were read in court—those of the heroine and Scarpia from La Tosca and those of Isabella and Angelo from the 1604 play. Sardou won the case. spacer 

David J. Baker is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. 

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