The Met’s new production of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” (the only utterance Joseph Kerman will be remembered for) Tosca was broadcast throughout the world today in HD. It was booed at its premiere on the Met’s opening night of this season. Let’s get this out of the way first. There’s nothing in this pedestrian mounting that merits booing. It’s tame compared to the usual stuff inflicted on European audiences. Director Luc Bondy didn’t even change the time or locale of the piece. I would have moved it to the present and set it in Naypyidaw. All he did that’s even slightly out of the ordinary is add three whores to the beginning of Act 2 and eliminate Tosca’s shtick with the candles and the cross at the conclusion of the same act. There was nothing in the production that would interfere with success given the right performers, which the show more or less has. This austere staging was an understandable reaction to Franco Zeffirelli’ s flamboyant and grandiose mounting which has held sway at the Met for the last quarter century.
Karita Mattila was better in this encounter with Puccini than she was last year as Manon Lescaut. But she’s still not a fit with Verismo opera. her voice does not have the sound required for late Italian opera; it lacks both the velvet and the steel needed to bring Puccini’s diva to life. Her acting is also not right. Her gestures are awkward and sometimes out of place. For example, her hand motions encouraging her pursuers to come to her just before her fatal leap seemed more Al Pacino than Tosca. Also the closeup is not kind to her. She’s had some bad cosmetic surgery that have made her eyes look odd. No one in the house would notice, but when your face is 10 feet in diameter every flaw is magnified, especially when you’re pretending to be someone half you age. Despite all these problems she still managed a credible impersonation. “Vissi d’arte” was particularly well sung.
Cavaradossi, of course, is one of opera’s greatest tenor roles. It requires both lyric and spinto singing. I wasn’t expecting much from Marcelo Álvarez whose singing has sounded gruff and forced the previous times I’ve heard him. Earlier this season he was very unimpressive as Manrico in Il Trovatore. But something happened today. His tone was burnished and his high note had squilo and were free. Even “La vita mi costasse, vi salverò” probably the most awkward line Puccini ever wrote was delivered smoothly and with ease. His reading of “E lucevcan le stelle” was impassioned and poetic. His was clearly the best performance of the day. Whether this was a freak or an augury will soon be revealed. Regardless, it’s been decades since I’ve heard the role this well sung.
Georgian baritone George Gagnidze (sorry about all those Gs) was Puccini’s mustache (he didn’t have one, but he should have) twirling villain Baron Scarpia. Neither he nor Bondy aimed at subtlety. But it’s true that Scarpia is a “son of a bitch” which was what costume designer Milena Canonero called him during the second intermission. Gagnidze has a dark baritone which he used to great effect as Puccini’s only real SOB. A first rate villain. I’d like to hear some more from him.
Paul Plishka has gone from comprimario parts to leads and back to small roles over the past 42 years and more than 1500 performances at the Met. He played the Sacristan as a mean dried up reactionary which is what he pretty much is.
Joseph Colaneri took the baton from James Levine after the opening night performance of this production. Maestro Levine is undergoing back surgery which will keep him off the podium for at least several months. Colaneri who was very impressive leading the Glimmerglass company’s Cenerentola this summer led a fast paced performance. He more than made up for Levine’s absence.
This was the Met’s 897th performance of Puccini’s masterpiece – forget about the “shabby little shocker” nonsense. There’s nothing any company can do that will diminish Tosca’s stature. Scarpia’s henchmen wore sunglasses in the first act, but so what. Ditto for Tosca’s leap (by a stunt double or a dummy) to a blackout at the opera’s conclusion. Give an audience great voices and a first rate conductor and Puccini will do all the rest. With the usual post-premiere tinkering this staging should last a while. It’s stark, dark, and spare decor won’t need much maintenance as there not much to maintain.