by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 5, 2009.
It takes a certain effort to suck the life out of Tosca. No other opera in the repertory is so immaculately crafted to deliver its thrills on cue. Revolutionary sentiment seethes in royalist Rome; a famed diva, in love with a rebel artist, confronts a Te Deum-singing, sexually slobbering chief of police; the villain is stabbed with a dinner knife, the lover falls to a firing squad, the diva leaps to her death while screaming about God. Each act unfolds in real time, in precisely mapped locales, with no major improbabilities impeding the flow of events. The music is both refined and brutal, late-Romantic opulence pinned to raw action. If a director purchases sufficient quantities of papier-mâché to suggest the settings specified in the libretto, and if singers and orchestral players merely approximate the notes in the score, you are assured of a passable evening’s entertainment. If you happen to have Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi on hand to play the diva and the heavy, you get high-low bliss, like a B movie directed by Rembrandt.
Tosca has played at the Metropolitan Opera almost nine hundred times, and until last week, when a new staging by the Swiss director Luc Bondy was unveiled, the company pretty much stuck to the script. For more than twenty years, audiences swooned over a Franco Zeffirelli production, in which the Roman settings—the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle, the interior of the Palazzo Farnese, and the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo—were re-created in fanatically ornate detail. Like most Zeffirelli stagings of the eighties and nineties, it was a Cecil B. De Mille affair, with supernumeraries running amok. Nonetheless, it was handsome to behold, at times magnificently chilling. I was one of thousands mesmerized by a “Live from the Met” telecast in 1985, starring Plácido Domingo and the late Hildegard Behrens. I last saw the show in 2005, with Aprile Millo, one of the few working Toscas who have the right verismo bite in their voice, chewing up as much of the scenery as she could stomach.
When Peter Gelb took over as the general manager of the Met, in 2006, he made it clear that he wanted a more agile sensibility—opera as live theatre rather than diorama. Inevitably, he has begun to discard the Zeffirelli spectaculars that have long ruled the house. I might have started by getting rid of the chintzy Traviata or the cutesy Bohème, but Gelb was within his rights to go after Tosca. No production is sacrosanct, and connoisseurs have long complained that Zeffirelli isn’t nearly as faithful to the composers’ intentions as he likes to claim. We can be sure that Verdi would have loathed the idea of an extended pause for a scenery change in the middle of Act II of Traviata. Puccini almost certainly would have rejected a split-level approach to Act III of Tosca, with Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, singing about the stars in a dungeon. (Zeffirelli in his younger days was another matter: his direction of Callas and Gobbi in Act II of Tosca, as seen on a 1964 telecast from Covent Garden, is remarkable both for its attention to detail and for its ferocious formal control.)
By all means, then, let’s have a new Tosca. But it needs to be good. And this is not. Although Bondy has conceived potent stagings of Salome, Don Carlos, and Handel’s Hercules, among other operas, he has failed to find a clear angle on Tosca, and instead delivered an uneven, muddled, weirdly dull production that interferes fatally with the working of Puccini’s perfect contraption. Karita Mattila was miscast in the title role. No one else sang with particular distinction. By the end of opening night, Gelb had on his hands a full-blown fiasco, with boos resounding from the orchestra seats, the upper galleries, and even the plaza outside, where people had watched on a screen for free. You could almost hear Zeffirelli laughing from his villa.
The sets are by Richard Peduzzi. The church in Act I consists mainly of featureless gray brick walls, as if a gut renovation were under way. Historical cues are vague: Cavaradossi wears a modern-seeming raincoat, Scarpia’s henchmen are outfitted with what might be called Victorian psychedelia (top hats, dark granny glasses, canes), and Tosca enters in an eccentric thrift-shop assemblage of no obvious provenance. The lighting is dim without being atmospheric. All the same, the set serves the action, and an impressively sinister Te Deum procession closes the act: priests and altar boys advance in a thick crowd behind Scarpia—a chorus line of malignant power.
Things get goofy when we arrive at the Palazzo Farnese. At the start of Act II, Scarpia is attended by no fewer than three prostitutes. Such neon-sign direction condescends to singers and audience alike: are we too stupid to recognize that Scarpia is a lecher? (Gobbi said it all with his eyes.) Tosca’s struggle with Scarpia has a gutsy violence to it, but an awkwardly elongated stage layout saps the tension. The major gaffe of the night comes after Tosca kills Scarpia, when, according to the libretto, she places candles by his side and a crucifix on his chest. This business predates the opera, having been invented for Sarah Bernhardt in La Tosca, the play by Victorien Sardou, and it need not be retained. Yet something should happen during the thirty-bar postlude that Puccini composed for the ritual. And it should involve Scarpia, whose signature chords echo in the orchestra. Here Tosca climbs onto the windowsill, apparently with the thought of ending the opera an hour early; turns back to utter the line “Before him trembled all of Rome”; returns to the window; and then picks up the Marchesa Attavanti’s fan and retires to the couch. Tosca murders, then dithers.
Act III is recession-era Zeffirelli, with a few soldiers marching about and a plain tower rising to the right. Cavaradossi is shot without suspense. Tosca runs up a flight of stairs into the tower, and then a stunt double leaps from a window and, thanks to a wire, stops in midair. At first, this looked like a comic malfunction, but a freeze-frame effect was apparently intended, as at the end of “Thelma and Louise.” While there is nobility in an ambitious failure, there is no glory in ineptitude.
Mattila, the Finnish soprano who has given the Met many blazing performances over the past decade or so, threw herself into the melee with her customary fervor. Yet she ran into vocal trouble on opening night. Although she had no difficulty making herself heard above the orchestra, her tone sounded frayed at the top of the range, and a wobble intruded at the end of “Vissi d’arte.” She is not an Italian singer born. Certain Tosca-isms that should explode from the mouth—“Assassino!” “Quanto?” “Presto, su! Mario!”—were obscured in the Nordic dusk of the voice. Still, her unflagging commitment kept alive hope that the evening would redeem itself, even if that moment never came.
Marcelo Álvarez, as Cavaradossi, placated the crowd with prolonged high notes. He lacked lustre in quieter passages and extracted little poetry from “E lucevan le stelle.” George Gagnidze, a Georgian baritone who stepped in as Scarpia on short notice, acted with snaky vigor and etched some of his lines effectively, but lost power in the Te Deum sequence. The bass-baritone David Pittsinger, singing strongly as the political prisoner Angelotti, might have done better as Scarpia. James Levine drew rich colors from the orchestra, yet his slow tempos contributed to the grimness of the night.
Opera being a delightfully paradoxical medium, this whole debacle left me in an upbeat mood. The Met is refusing to repeat itself and is seeking, by trial and error, a new theatrical identity. One or two meetings might be in order to determine how things went awry, and once Bondy is safely on the plane back home it should be relatively easy to devise new stage business to replace his lamer notions. The audience was, at least, paying attention. If I’m not mistaken, someone shouted “Vergogna!”—“Shame!”—when the production team shuffled onstage to face the firing squad. I doubt that mass revulsion is part of Gelb’s marketing plan, but a scandal has its uses: the Met made the evening news.