Scarpia is a thug, kept in power by an extensive network of secret police who use torture and informants to maintain an oppressive regime. Scarpia could only exist after Shakespeare, after the creation of villains such as Iago, who know their own evil from inside and out, who know they are evil, not just misunderstood, not just set upon by complex events and heavy burdens. Scarpia abuses power, willingly and in full knowledge that what he does is reprehensible.
When he first enters, interrupting a bumptious children's choir singing in a church, the timpani and lower brass produce a rumbling thunder of sound on the notes B-flat and E. This is the tritone, an interval so unstable and harsh that it has been known for centuries as "the devil in music." It is a horrifying moment, and by placing that most unstable interval in the lowest range of the orchestra, Puccini limns not just the man, but the fundamental instability of all tyrannies.
Whatever order may seem to exist on the surface is undermined by a far deeper and uglier perturbation of decency. Governments such as Scarpia's, Puccini argues, are contrary to nature. They must be resolved, as music always moves to resolution.
There's a tendency to think that art is complicated and nuanced, while politics is crass and direct; that the creative mind deals in shades and degrees, while people who traffic in power prefer black and white.
But sometimes just the opposite is true. Scarpia's evil emerged across the airwaves with blunt perfection, while U.S. political leaders seemed unable to say anything that didn't sound like an equivocation or carefully parsed half-truth. Most art is, of course, more subtle than politics. Yet, when one needs moral clarity, there are some artworks that are much more satisfying than anything politics can offer.
It was anything but clarity one heard from the political class. Egypt, meaning President Hosni Mubarak, was an important ally; Egypt, meaning the people of Egypt, deserved a better, freer, less sclerotic government. The fear of instability in a strategically important country was offered up with strange echoes of the old domino theory, as if freedom was all well and good for some people, but we couldn't afford its side effects in a country so close to Israel, sitting atop one of the world's most import shipping routes. Revolution seemed to be on the streets, and suddenly, the stewards of a once-inspiring democracy could speak only of incremental reforms and baby steps to self-governance.