Fine operas have always been a great place to find villains. Yet, the precise ingredients needed for a memorable operatic villain can be difficult to pin down -- fiendishly difficult, you might say.
One example is Mephispheles, from Gounod's Faust. He's the devil himself. Name the bad act and he's done it. But he's also incredibly seductive, which is how he manages to get away with it all.
Two other examples of deceptive villains come to us courtesy of operas by Mozart. When we first meet The Queen of the Night, in The Magic Flute, it's hard to know that she even is a villain. And her music is so spectacular that we almost forgive her evil ways. Then there's the title character in Mozart's Don Giovanni. He's a rapist and a murderer. Yet it's all too easy to like the guy. So at the end, when he's finally dropped into the fires of hell, we're kind of sorry to see him go.
Still, a great operatic villain doesn't necessarily need to be complicated, or deceptive -- and for evidence, we need look no further than Baron Scarpia. He's the force for evil in this week's featured opera, Puccini's Tosca. And, unlike the other characters we've just examined, he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Scarpia is corrupt. He's a torturer. He's an extortionist and a sadistic killer. And he does it all with a sort of malevolent glee. So, after meeting the disturbingly likeable villains found in so many other operas, encountering Scarpia is almost refreshing. Almost.
Puccini based Tosca on an 1887 play by the French writer Victorien Sardou. The composer secured operatic rights to the drama immediately after he first saw it, and began composing his version of the story in 1896. Puccini called it, "an opera that I need."
It's easy to see why. He always took a "no holds barred" approach to his operas, and he turned the play into a sensational, roller-coaster of a drama that's one of the most popular operas of all time.
Tosca has also had some eminent detractors. Benjamin Britten, for example, said he was "sickened by the cheapness and emptiness" of Puccini's opera -- proving that what one great composer sees as poison can be milk and honey for another.
Even for Puccini lovers, Britten's statement is easy to understand. While listening to Tosca, with all its undoubtedly sensational aspects, it's easy to question its redeeming values. But surely, it has plenty. There's the music, for one thing. It's as beautiful as anything Puccini ever composed. And while the drama is extreme, it's also masterful -- poking at the darker side of our desires, and even satisfying them, at least vicariously. There's nothing like Puccini for highbrow entertainment with soul, often leading to a guilty grin.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Tosca in a production from the historic Vienna State Opera, with a truly outstanding international cast. Soprano Angela Gheorghiu sings the title role, with baritone Bryn Terfel as Baron Scarpia, and tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi. In fact, Kaufmann gave such a stirring performance of his big number in Act Three that a raucous Vienna audience demanded an encore -- and got one! So, if you tune in this show, you'll hear two blockbuster performances of "E lucevan le stelle" -- one of Puccini's most moving tenor arias.