Thursday, September 24, 2009

The awful truth

Tosca -- Metropolitan Opera, 9/21/09
Mattila, Alvarez, Gagnidze / Levine

Is Tosca beautiful? Probably, for Cavaradossi lovingly remembers her beauty, but it is her eyes that inspire passion in her admirers -- and not just the physical form on her face, but the spirit shown therein. It's by the storms of feeling seen in her dark eyes that both Cavaradossi and Scarpia are inflamed and ensnared.

For the 2009-2010 season's opening night, the Met seemed to have bet on a similar sort of appreciation for her namesake opera. As it turned out, however, the negative reaction (mostly -- whether from variations of politeness, engagement, or aesthetic -- from the upper sections of the house) to Monday's new production dwarfed even the justified boo-fest for Mary Zimmerman's insult last season. Furthermore, every last booer seems to have put his opinion out on the internet. It seems that "Tosca" is loved in a rather different way than Tosca herself.

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Director Luc Bondy is, despite some hilarious misunderstandings to the contrary, no sort of avant-gardeist. In fact he is a realist, arguably more so than his predecessor Zeffirelli: only where Zeffirelli's interest is in decorative detail, Bondy is primarily focused on the psychology of the piece and its characters. And although she dates the very beginning to an Elektra the year before, one can see Bondy's influence on the flowering of Karita Mattila's great phase in the 1996 Chatelet production of Don Carlos, long a DVD staple (and given that it was an early HD experiment, shouldn't a Blu-Ray be out by now?). Thirteen years ago she -- and the rest of the cast -- was not only gratifyingly precise in character and interaction but as explosively expressive as at any time since.

Now as then, the psychologies of the characters -- even the small ones -- are sharpened and foregrounded. The contempt and contemptibility of the Sacristan, Spoletta as evil's indispensable functionary, even the bland more-or-less sympathy of the last-act jailer (here combined with the firing squad leader) are sketched in full clarity, perhaps not least for not being drowned in a vast accumulation of historical set detail. But this is hardly the stuff of boos or bravos.

It is Scarpia's part that is here most sharpened, to vivid but apparently controversial effect. Scarpia is, as he himself notes, a man of power and appetite -- it is no coincidence that Act II begins with him eating, as Act I begins with Cavaradossi too engaged with art, love, and politics to eat -- and Bondy mercilessly puts it onstage. So, in a remarkable tableau, Act I closes with Scarpia -- after his famous cry that Tosca makes him forget God -- blasphemously and licentiously embracing the processional statue of the Virgin as the Church crowd recoils. Act II opens with Scarpia taking his supper in the easy company of three trollops, who tend to him a bit (the Met's first blowjob scene was apparently cut/made more ambiguous since the dress rehearsal) during his aria. This latter scene recalls nothing so much as Tony Soprano at the Bada Bing club, though the decor and clothing are broadly colorful and neutral, not brassily vulgar.

What the decor is not is elaborate, eye-catching, the High-Renaissance masterpiece that is the actual Palazzo Farnese. It offers no relief, lends no false gentility to Scarpia's gross perversion of power and position. It's for this, I think, that the Act II set got so much grief.

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As the gross and appreciative elements in Puccini's men -- here so decisively split between Scarpia and Cavaradossi -- are sometimes combined in a single character (e.g. Pinkerton), so the imperious and vulnerable elements of Puccini's women -- sometimes split between two characters (Musetta and Mimi, Turandot and Liu) -- are here, as in Manon Lescaut, combined in the title character. But while Manon Lescaut is a seeming naif who is fatally and inexorably tied to the grand, Tosca -- despite the stabbing -- is a grand excitable diva who is really a softie, disastrously out of her depth in the game of life and death Scarpia, Angelotti, and Cavaradossi are playing. (For what else is the meaning of "Vissi d'arte"?)

Bondy again gets this right -- the way Scarpia so easily dupes her in Act I is dead on -- but it goes against the strengths of his lead soprano. For Mattila is sui generis today in her sincere concentrated abandon in emotional extremity. But while Tosca honestly feels the passionate and excited responses she offers to her wild situation, there's always a bit of artifice mixed in, an extent to which her high emotional pitch is true to neither herself (again, look at the aria) nor the world she's in (for once, the long dramatic irony of the last Act is played straight in its perfect eerie tone). That sort of grand humbug is not Mattila's strength; her greatest virtue undercut, she offers a perfectly fine interpretation that lacks the scale of her recent Jenufa, Salome, Elsa, or, yes, Manon Lescaut.

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But why, in fact, the angry reception? For some booing was heard after Act II, perhaps the musical and dramatic success of the evening. George Gagnidze had sung and acted Scarpia with relish, tenor Marcelo Alvarez had delivered a stirring "Vittoria!" and maintained his usual firmness of characterization as Cavaradossi, and Mattila had sung well and put her electric nervousness to good use at last, registering the enormity of the stabbing and its antecedent events in the tense rest of her body. Who could object?

Ah, but Bondy had dared to omit the crucifix and candles by which Tosca dresses up her killing in a bit of post-hoc piety. (He, like Zeffirelli before him, also omitted her deliberately washing her hands of blood and fixing her hair, but never mind that...) To be honest, I can scarcely believe people are serious in claiming this as some sort of deal-breaker.

Crucifix and candles are, of course, part of the familiar and comforting wrap of nostalgic historicity in which much of the audience is used to seeing the stark and shocking story of the opera. It is at bottom, as Bondy himself observes in his program note, an unpleasant story, so much so that as one thinks on it one wonders how "Tosca" came to be beloved at all. Yes, there is Puccini's gorgeous music, but the dark and evil presence of Scarpia is strong even in the ear. And Puccini doesn't employ the quick rhythms and cabalettas by which Verdi sounds the exhilaration of doom.

Bondy offers, as is his wont, the dark psychological currents of the piece, unmistakably presented. And, aside from the misconceived freeze-frame "jump" business at the end, I think it works fairly well. But as audiences take different sorts of pleasure in the art, a production that is just the one thing is bound to dissatisfy many.

Unconventional productions that triumph at the Met often do so by offering sheer physical beauty, in design and sound, to make up for the lost pleasures of the familiar. While the current cast certainly sounds good, its virtues are more of character: Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann may transform things when they arrive in the spring. And the design, though reasonably handsome, is hardly the wonder one got with Wernicke's FroSch or Minghella's Butterfly -- its most striking element, Scarpia's wonderfully sinister crocodile coat, is too subtle to be seen by most in the house. (But the movie cameras will pick it up.)

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And still I suspect that Monday's reaction had less to do with the particulars of this production and more to do with Franco Zeffirelli. Though one of his worst Met productions, his "Tosca" is beloved largely because it buries the evil and shocking elements of the story in its mass of comforting -- and, yes, beautiful -- details. To have a Zef production replaced by a show that strips things down was bound to inflame his fans, regardless of the quality (or lack thereof) of the result.

Because of this, and because of the pile-on effect among the critics, I doubt we'll know what's actually in this show for a while. It would not entirely surprise me, however, to see Bondy's "Tosca" return at some point in triumph, as the last epic boo-barrage I attended eventually did. I'd be even less surprised to see the show get a good reception next month in movie form.

One last note before I end this too-long post: unlike too many other production teams, Bondy and company did not cower from their boos or hide behind Levine or the leading lady's skirt. In fact, they came out -- with a smile, I think -- to receive the boos again in the plaza curtain call! For this, at least, one should commend them.


  1. "To be honest, I can scarcely believe people are serious in claiming this as some sort of deal-breaker."

    My feeling, too. And I'm still shaking my head, thinking, "This was really boo-worthy?"

    Thanks for this and many other worthwhile points in an excellent reading of the evening. And kudos for your last paragraph, commending Bondy & Co. for coming out to face the plaza crowd, showing true class.

  2. I honestly to believe the reception to be related to the production itself only circumstantially. Luc Bondy was, as they say, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Something was tapped into by the Sonnambula that now must be expressed, and will be expressed any time a production acknowledges in any way, even just by replacing an old and conservative counterpart without any truly radical revisions, that the past is not always and unquestionably better than the present.

  3. Some years ago, I was lucky enough to perform in a production of "Coronation of Poppaea" in Brussels (which went on to Paris and Florence - with me!) directed by Bondy. He is one of the best directors I've ever worked with, endlessly open to working with singers (even though I had a tiny part in the opera). A wonderful experience - and his "Salome" in Salzburg was wonderful, too. I'm really looking forward to seeing this production.

  4. There are a ton of folks who go to the Met to see the sets. They mostly follow the familiar Italian pieces, with the rare Carmen thrown in. To be fair, the Met actively cultivated this audience by presenting larger and more elaborate sets during the 1970s and early 1980s -- to hell if they marginalized the music. Perhaps the signature production of the House, La Boheme, is a travesty of set design, particularly in Act II.

    Great art cannot succeed without taking great risks. For all the grief that Gelb gets, no one notes that he is quickly moving the Met forward in terms of set design theory. Granted, this may dovetail with other less noble ambitions (lower production budgets; plays better in HD telecasts) and that may explain why he gets no credit here. The big question the Met must face is whether they can alienate the core of their pasta and meatballs audience and still have a business at the end.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.