Met’s “Tosca” opens season with hoary new cliches

By George Loomis

NEW YORK: The audience’s reaction to the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Tosca, which opened the company’s new season Monday night, shows what general manager Peter Gelb is up against as he tries to broaden the company’s theatrical orientation with European-style, director-oriented stagings.

  The experienced and accomplished Swiss director Luc Bondy, who is by no means part of Europe’s radical fringe, emphasizes the dark side of Puccini’s opera, and the massive sets by Richard Peduzzi look grim, especially compared to Franco Zeffirelli’s for his lavish 1985 production, which is now replaced. 

 Yet, while adding a number of original touches along the way, Bondy, in his Met debut, respects the essence of Puccini’s action.  This was no production touting a concept that runs counter to what the opera is about.  Bondy’s Tosca is still a story of torture and a sordid bargain in which each party double-crosses the other.   And he draws gripping portrayals from the principals, who essentially play it straight.  But when Bondy and the production team appeared at the final curtain, there erupted such an uproar you would have thought he had flouted Puccini at every turn.

 Perhaps the audience was emboldened by a piece that appeared on the New York Times website  in which Zeffirelli, speaking by telephone from Rome, condemned the production (on the basis of “advance word”) and even called Bondy third-rate.   He also spoke about the need “to follow Puccini’s precise instructions.”  In any case, many in the audience were out for blood.

 Nevertheless, there is no getting around the fact that Bondy’s production is a disappointment.  Directors of his ilk justify their work by saying that operas need to be reinterpreted for new audiences.  But when their productions, as here, come up short of ideas, the process rings hollow.  Most of Bondy’s innovations are on the periphery, such as having Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene show a bare breast and later having the jealous Tosca attack the painting with a knife.   In the big Te Deum scene at the end of Act One, Baron Scarpia embraces a statue of the Virgin Mary in some bizarre way.

Scarpia’s sexual appetite is gratified at the start of Act Two by a collection of beauties eager to please, a detail that, incidentally, finds justification in the text when Scarpia observes that God created diverse beauties and that he wants to enjoy as many as possible.   For what it is worth, the production also has a kind of symmetry, inasmuch as it not only ends but also begins with a physical leap by a character.  The fugitive Angelotti, an object of searchlights, appears in a church balcony and jumps to the floor (with the aid of a rope).  Tosca’s suicide leap, by contrast, is almost cartoonish.  She scrambles to the top of an enclosed tower, whereupon a dummy appears and starts to take the plunge by leaning out a window.   Sudden blackout.  The swap reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

 Richard Peduzzi’s rather forbidding sets (lit by Max Keller) will not have won many admirers either.  His church is an imposing but drab brick structure, although the Act Two set for Scarpia’s quarters is more interesting.  The era is early 20th century, with the walls painted in rich, solid colors and decorated by maps of Italy.   Furnishings include a couple of overstuffed sofas, on one of which Tosca knifes Scarpia in the lower groin, just as he starts to mount her. 

Admirers of Karita Mattila, singing her first Tosca outside her native Finland, will be pleased that Bondy’s staging is not a drag on her vivid portrayal and may have even enhanced it.  The role is a fine match for her temperamentally—not just its prima-donna airs but also its anguish and suffering.  The creamy voice sounds secure and surprisingly idiomatic—-only in Vissi d’arte did I occasionally miss a sense of Italianate luster.   Her rich red dress (costumes by Milena Canonero) brought to mind Maria Callas in Covent Garden’s old Zeffirelli production.

 Also strong is Marcelo Alvarez’s Cavaradossi, sung generously and with ringing tone.  The voice may not be the ultimate in beauty but it is handsome, and in Act 3 he brought stylish soft singing both to E lucevan le stelle and his subsequent duet with Tosca.  The excellent Georgian baritone George Gagnidze contributes a formidable, richly sung Scarpia that emphasizes the police chief’s brutality rather than his pseudo-gentlemanly ways.   The supporting cast, which includes the veteran Paul Plishka as the Sacristan and David Pittsinger as Angelotti, has no weak links.  Conductor James Levine’s reading of the score is loud, slow and intermittently exciting.

 George Loomis writes about music for the International Herald Tribune and other publications.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Wed Sep 23, 2009
at 6:10 pm
No Comments