I saw the broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s superb production of Tosca last Saturday. What I found most thought-provoking was the character of Baron Scarpia, the villain. Scarpia is chief of police in Rome in 1800. The Kingdom of Naples has just recaptured Rome from the Bonapartist Roman Republic. Scarpia is using any and all means, including torture and extrajudicial execution, to defeat the Bonapartists.
It is possible for authoritarian enforcers such as Scarpia to be devoted family men. Not Scarpia, who is an unrepentant and proud sexual predator. He has no interest in love, only the satisfaction of his lust, as he sings:
For myself the violent conquest
Has stronger relish than the soft surrender. …
I pursue the craved thing, sate myself and cast it by,
And seek new bait. God made diverse beauties
As he made diverse wines, and of these
God-like works I mean to taste my full.
Tosca enters Scarpia’s world because she is the girlfriend of the painter Cavaradossi, one of the Bonapartists. Scarpia has Cavaradossi pursued, and then tortured when he is captured. Scarpia promises Tosca Cavaradossi’s life if she will become his next conquest. Tosca responds angrily, and Scarpia even finds her anger sexually arousing:
But tonight I have beheld you
In a new role I had not seen before.
Those tears of yours were lava
To my senses and that fierce hatred
Which your eyes shot at me, only fanned
The fire in my blood.
Tosca consents to Scarpia’s advances only to save Cavaradossi and makes clear her loathing:
Don’t touch me, devil! I hate you, hate you!
Fiend, base villain!
What does it matter?
Spasms of wrath or spasms of passion …
I quote at length because of the opera’s chilling portrayal of a violent sexual abuser. Scarpia is sadistically attracted to a woman who hates him, and he enjoys a woman’s anger (“spasms of wrath”) as much as he would enjoy her orgasm (“spasms of passion”). Scarpia uses his power to assert sexual dominance, and gets perverse satisfaction from their anger and resistance – which would make a woman a truly worthy conquest.
But Tosca turns out to be different from past conquests. As Scarpia is getting ready for his sexual assault, Tosca sees a table knife, seizes it and stabs Scarpia to death, proclaiming “this is Tosca’s kiss.” Tosca had her revenge in the moment.
It is impossible not to think about this opera through the lens of contemporary events. Scarpia reveals the evil in his soul. Most contemporary sexual abusers sugarcoat their motivations. Some make minimal efforts to ingratiate themselves with their victims before striking. Scarpia doesn’t bother. Scarpia is comparable to the worst of the contemporary abusers, Harvey Weinstein perhaps.
Tosca, availing herself of a fortuitously-placed weapon has her revenge instantly. Contemporary victims of abuse have kept their anger within themselves for years. The MeToo movement is giving them the support to have their moment of revenge now, a dish served cold, as the saying goes.
For her resistance at the moment she was attacked, the character Tosca deserves to be a genuine hero of the MeToo movement.