Puccini: Tosca **
Metropolitan Opera, 9th November 2013
Putting tried and trusted productions out to grass and replacing them is always a gamble. ENO unveiled its new Magic Flute last week, a spritely filly though some will hanker after Hytner’s faithful old nag. When the opera is as iconic as Tosca and the production is Franco Zeffirelli’s, the stakes are raised. When the Royal Opera retired its Zeffirelli production, which had done sterling service since 1964, it replaced it with an utterly inoffensive one – handsome in its way. But when the Metropolitan Opera premiered Luc Bondy’s effort in 2009, there was a feeling that a backlash was inevitable, simply because it wasn’t Zeffirelli’s. This was my first opportunity to see Bondy’s staging, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t hesitate to call for the vet to put it out of its misery.
Richard Peduzzi’s ugly sets are the main problem. The cast sheet and synopsis provided for this HD screening explains that Cesare Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner, seeks refuge in a church… which is suitably vague, because the set for Act I couldn’t be mistaken for Sant’Andrea della Valle in a million years. What passes here for one of Rome’s most beautiful churches is a towering brick and concrete monstrosity, the main purpose for which seems to be to provide an opportunity for Angelotti’s stunt double to abseil down from a tower after the opera’s thunderous opening chords. (Because entering a church via its tower is entirely practicable.) The staging is stark, shorn of any opulence bar Cavaradossi’s erotic depiction of Mary Magdalene, which would probably have had him ex-communicated, and the bright, utterly traditional costumes, which looked incongruous in this setting.
The Palazzo Farnese of Act II is similarly uninspiring; huge walls, adorned with a map or two, predominate, and with a giant window at the centre, through which absolutely nothing is visible, even when it’s opened. We’re on at least the first floor, yet there are steps leading down into Scarpia’s apartment, where only a red velvet sofa among the soft furnishings hints at any extravagance. Roman finances won’t even run to a decent desk for the Chief of Police. I thought things were looking up in Act III, with a pretty realistic depiction of the ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo (minus its sword-wielding angel). From a high camera angle, I thought I briefly spied the glittering lights of a Roman dawn, only to have my hopes dashed on realising it was merely some plastic sheeting representing the Tiber about a metre below the castle wall, thereby rendering it the easiest prison from which to make your escape unless you hadn’t earned your 25m swimming certificate. Max Keller’s lighting failed to take its cue from Puccini’s score (and libretto) that day was gradually dawning.
Bondy’s direction was conventional bar two instances. In Act I, Scarpia rushes to Tosca’s aid during her meltdown, which she accepts. This indication of some sort of sexual frisson between the two is something that could have been explored further in Act II. Bondy ignored it. He also ignored the very specific stage instructions for Tosca after her (wonderfully bloody) stabbing of Scarpia. I’m normally highly critical when this is done, not just because it goes against the libretto, but it goes against the very detailed musical narration Puccini provides in the score at this point. There being no candles lighting Scarpia’s apartment, and certainly no crucifix on his desk (indeed, no desk!), Bondy has Tosca wipe her hands furiously on the velvet upholstery before heading to the huge window. Climbing onto the ledge, she clearly considers suicide, thus predicating her leap from the Castel Sant’Angelo at the opera’s conclusion, before chickening out. Then she discovers on the window ledge the Marchesa Attavanti’s fan, at which point the realisation finally hits home at how Scarpia has duped her. Up to this point, all well and good, but then Bondy ruins it by having her pass out on the sofa instead of taking her leave. To make matters worse, when Tosca appears on the ramparts in Act III, she’s clearly had time to nip home and change her clothes into a nice little black number, with purple gloves!
It was a pity that the video director missed what I imagined to be Cavaradossi throwing the safe conduct pass into the Tiber, indicating that he knows all too well that Scarpia is still playing his games from beyond the grave. He also missed the shot of Cavaradossi being, um, shot.
Never mind the production, or mis-direction, what of the actual singing? Patricia Racette offered a passable impersonation of Tosca, without quite convincing as the diva and with little in the way of vocal warmth or colour. It all seemed a bit calculated, her jealousy in Act I leading her, predictably, to grab one of Cavaradossi’s brushes to attempt to blacken the portrait’s blue eyes; all very much acting – and painting – by numbers. Vocally, Racette sang safely rather than with any passion in Act I, but turned in a decent “Vissi d’arte”, although during the closing phrases she very nearly ran out of steam. She convinced most in Act III, especially when her Tosca just knew that Cavaradossi had been shot for real before she runs over to him. Sadly, her leap from the ramparts was botched, her panicky “Do I? Don’t I? Where should I…?” indecision leading to the sudden appearance of what looked either like the worst stunt double ever or – even worse – a dummy lurching from the ramparts before a swift (though not swift enough) curtain.
Roberto Alagna gave his usual crowd-pleasing performance as the painter and secret revolutionary Cavaradossi. He bull-dozed his way through “Recondita armonia”, too forceful and with too much steel in the voice, and it was noticeable in the cinema how he sounded a lot louder than his Tosca. He knows which strings to pull, though, and was effective in his cries of “Vittoria!” in Act II, before adopting a softer tone and poised phrasing to pull out a show-stopping “E lucevan le stele”. Literally. Despite there being no pause in the score at this point, singer and conductor colluded once again in a ‘sit up and beg for applause’ scenario. Thus, the postludes to “Recondita armonia” and “Vissi d’arte”, including Scarpia’s crucial question “Risolvi?” were similarly lost when it was within the conductor’s power to press on. In her interview, Racette explained that “Vissi d’arte” was about more than the aria, it was (to paraphrase) about its context… which is utterly ruined when the conductor brings proceedings to a complete standstill. It capped a dismal night for Roberto Frizza, whose limp pacing of Act I made Maurizio Benini’s at Covent Garden last spring seem positively Viagra-induced.
The reptilian Scarpia of George Gagnidze produced an eye-rolling performance for the big stage, which looked too ‘panto villain’ for the big screen. Dressed in a croc-skin frock-coat in Act I, he looked seedy enough without the sexual fumbling around the statue of the Madonna at the Te Deum’s climax. Surrounded by a trio of floosies in Act II, he presented a Scarpia with a lust for… well, lust. Gagnidze does have the chops for the role, however – describing himself as a Heldenbaritone in the interval – and rode the chorus strongly. His singing in Act II was similarly strong, especially his “Ha più forte sapore”.
Most smaller roles were cast from pure Parma ham. John Del Carlo gave a traditionally old-fashioned portrait of the Sacristan, whose morning prayers are interrupted by long, greedy glances into Cavaradossi’s picnic hamper. Eduardo Valdes seemed to be rehearsing as a lecherous Scarpia-in-waiting as Spoletta; no anxiety at bringing the Chief of Police bad news, no sense of horror when saying his prayers during Cavaradossi’s torture. If he’d had a long enough moustache, he’d have been twirling it. James Courtney’s Sciarrone was only slightly more tempered. The single exception came from Richard Bernstein’s firm-voiced and believably acted Angelotti.
The time was when ‘shabby little shocker’ described the opera rather than the production. Unless you’re the most ardent Alagna fan, there was little enjoyment to be had here.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.