Baron Scarpia is best known as the villain of Puccini’s opera Tosca, set in Rome in 1800 shortly after the Battle of Marengo. Puccini usually based his opera librettos on thumping good melodramas, and that of Tosca was no exception. The original play, La Tosca, was by Victorien Sardou, a Parisian boulevard playwright whose style of historical drama was dismissed by Bernard Shaw as ‘Sardoodledom’ – by which he meant an irresponsible mingling of historical fact with made-up romantic nonsense. Sardou wrote La Tosca as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, who came up with the idea of decorating Scarpia’s corpse with two candlesticks and a crucifix. Puccini took on most of this in his opera (with Sardou’s directorial assistance), the show that ain’t over till the fat lady jumps. Scarpia, of course, is dead by the end of Act II, with Tosca’s knife in his heart, and one act still to go.
Piers Paul Read’s Catholic upbringing and education inform his expansion of Baron Vitellio Scarpia from a melodramatic villain into a thoroughly credible, moody, manly and misunderstood hero. Taking the last decade of the 18th century as his tableau, he sets the story in the wars among France, Austria, Britain and