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Three Characters In Search of a Concept

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
09/21/2009 -  & September 24, 28, October, 3, 6, 10, 14, 17, 2009
Giacomo Puccini : Tosca
Karita Mattila (Tosca), Marcelo Alvarez (Cavaradossi), George Gagnidze (Scarpia), Joel Sorensen (Spoletta), James Courtney (Sciarrone), David Pittsinger (Angelotti), Paul Plishka (Sacristan), Keith Miller (Jailer), Jonathan Makepeace (Shepherd)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine*/Joseph Colaneri (Conductor)
Luc Bondy (Production), Richard Peduzzi (Set Design), Milena Canonero (Costume Design), Max Keller (Lighting Design), Daniel Pelzig (Movement Director)

G. Gagnidze (© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Warner Brothers graced many of their cartoons with music from grand opera. On opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, Luc Bondy returned the favor by replacing the lead characters of Tosca with flat, one dimensional cartoon versions of their former selves. He gave us a dark and listless production with boring, empty sets, a lot of purposeless movement, and a proliferation of garishness and gimmicks. His added touches were alternately irritating, lewd, mystifying, and unintentionally humorous. They were also incredibly distracting. The audience responded with applause for the singers and passionate and prolonged booing for the production team.

Opening night is a major event for the Met itself, for the opera world, and also for New York City. Such an occasion draws a somewhat atypical audience. But reaction upstairs and downstairs seemed pretty much the same. If Bondy had admirers in the house, they were rendered inaudible by his detractors. Surely, there were many explanations for the audience response. Disappointment at being deprived of a much-loved Zeffirelli spectacular spectacle was certainly one – but not the only one. I have always had mixed feelings about his beautiful but over-stuffed and over-the-top staging. But no opera production is meant to last forever, and it was probably time to take a fresh approach to Tosca.

The enthusiastic reception for starkly minimalistic, highly stylized, and visually stunning versions of Eugene Onegin by Robert Carsen and Madama Butterfly by Anthony Minghella demonstrate that Met audiences can absorb and embrace the shock of the new. As long as there is a concept and that concept makes sense.

I had been looking forward to Bondy’s directorial debut with great eagerness, having been, for years, a great admirer of his spare and electrifying Salome with its psychologically complex portrayals by Catherine Malfitano and Bryn Terfel. While Cavaradossi has always seemed to me a weakly drawn character from a dramatic point of view, Tosca and especially Scarpia offered much more dramatic richness and psychological depth for Bondy to mine. But he didn’t. The extraordinary talent of two accomplished singing actors in the cast, Karita Mattila and George Gagnidze, was not fully exploited – and even worse, it was compromised by Bondy’s direction. Mattila got the worst of it. Tosca’s psychological complexity was virtually eviscerated throughout. Gagnidze, at least, was able to strut his dramatic stuff relatively unencumbered during the first act, except for the gratuitous weirdness of his Virgin Mary grope at the end. Bondy’s effect on Marcelo Alvarez, a marvelous singer, was more muted.

Karita Mattila is widely admired for embodying her characters dramatically as well as vocally. She is a committed and passionate artist who has thrilled audiences for years with her unflinching, often deeply moving, portrayals. In this her first Tosca outside of Finland, she clearly put her heart and soul into the role. But Bondy’s conception undermined two essential aspects of Tosca’s character that were crucial to what Puccini meant to be her internal struggle. We did not see or feel her sweetness. Nor was her piety much in evidence in the first act, although we did hear Scarpia describe her as pious.

Puccini’s Tosca (as distinct from Bondy’s) is a gentle and religious person who is deeply in love with the painter and republican sympathizer, Cavaradossi. As a successful and celebrated actress, she has social status. It’s this combination of piety and fame that attracts the unwelcome attentions of Baron Scarpia, the chief of police. The problem with Bondy’s Tosca is that she is virtually devoid of the internal conflict so essential to the character – a clash between her gentle nature and deep religious beliefs and the imperatives of her situation. In order to save her beloved from the torture he is already experiencing and the execution that will follow, she has to yield to Scarpia’s advances. But to save herself from Scarpia, she has to kill him, an act that is totally at odds with her sense of morality.

“Vissi d’arte”, in which Tosca offers a gentle reproach to God for abandoning her despite her virtuous nature, although given a deeply felt and highly affecting performance by Mattila, just did not come across as an authentic expression of Tosca’s suffering. Mattila sang the aria with some shrillness and ragged and splintered high notes at the top, but in her middle range, she sang richly with a gorgeous mellow tone.

Bondy’s Tosca is a flat, one dimensional figure – an archetype of the volatile, jealous woman who throws a chair and takes a knife to Cavaradossi’s painting, which she believes (wrongly) portrays “the other woman”. The audience just laughed. Jealousy is but one aspect of her character, to be exploited by the clever and evil Scarpia, but not all there is. The attack on the painting seemed like a rather clumsy attempt at foreshadowing her stabbing of Scarpia in the second act. It was not only unnecessary, but, far worse, it made it appear that recourse to violence was natural for Tosca.

The volatile characterization also undermined the tenderness between Tosca and Cavaradossi in the first act. Mattila and Alvarez did some beautiful singing, with his ringing tones and dynamic finesse and her richly voiced anticipation of their night together. But there was never any real chemistry between them.

George Gagnidze revealed his exceptional talent as a singing actor when he debuted at the Met last season in the role of Rigoletto. Puccini gives Scarpia one of the greatest and most dramatic entrances in all of opera and Gagnidze made the most of it. His stage presence was riveting. With his imperious bearing, his commanding stride, his barely suppressed sneer, he was truly the man whom Tosca described as capable of making all of Rome tremble. Gagnidze embodied much of the character with only a single telling gesture – his clenched left fist. Puccini’s Scarpia is a volcanic character – with outsized inner passions, mingling sex and violence, passions that are ever ready to erupt but kept under iron control, as befitting his social and political station. Gagnidze’s costume here (as opposed to what he wore in the second act) was apt – a snakeskin coat, so appropriate for Scarpia’s serpentine nature. He is merciless and relentless, and he tells us he has two goals: to possess Tosca and kill her lover. As Gagnidze, with crystal clear declamation, gives us Scarpia’s commentary on how well his plans are working, these thoughts seem to be occurring to him in real time.

With Iago as his acknowledged role model, Scarpia sets out to make Tosca jealous. With an unctuous manner and false sympathy he both plants the seed of jealousy in Tosca’s mind and comforts her in her distress. Gagnidze accomplishes this shift from Scarpia’s public face to the one he wants to present to Tosca (at least for the moment) with a marvelous change of vocal color and dynamics and an exceptionally fine legato line.

Gagnidze’s “Te Deum” is sung with his richly colored dark voice redolent of menace, with excellent intonation and unforced power. It is a great shame that Bondy (no doubt to achieve a more appealing stage image) put Scarpia on the extreme left of the stage, under the side boxes, thus disrupting the dynamic balance between singer, chorus and orchestra.

In act two, Bondy’s conception of Scarpia slides into vulgarization and outright farce. For Puccini’s Scarpia, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Despite his telling us that only the use of force to conquer and subdue women brings satisfaction, Bondy served up a tasteless scene with Scarpia being serviced by three prostitutes, one of whom has her head in his lap. He gave us a vulgar version of Botticelli’s three graces (the allusion was unmistakable) to match his vulgar version of Puccini. While it is true that Scarpia also sings about his liking for a variety of women, this is not the catalogue aria and he is no Don Giovanni. Puccini’s Scarpia is a man who lives for and through intimidation and violence. Here, he is torturing Cavaradossi in order to blackmail Tosca into having sex with him.

Alas, for poor Puccini (and Gagnidze), even worse was to come. Scarpia as primate. When Tosca tells him that she still wants to leave Rome with Cavaradossi, Bondy’s Scarpia falls on the floor, crawls across the stage and sobs. Several audience members seated near me seemed absolutely dumbfounded by this development. It provoked bemused laughter.

Gagnidze’s Scarpia dies magnificently – musically, but certainly not visually. For the psychological and dramatic context, one must look back to his portrayal of Scarpia in act one, and not at the thuggish perverted character Bondy serves up in act two. After Scarpia is stabbed, Gagnidze used subtle vocal coloration to capture a mixture of stunned incredulity and indignation. After all, as Tosca observed, looking at his lifeless body, Scarpia was the man before whom all of Rome trembled.

The role of Cavaradossi carries most of the musical weight in this opera, while the other two main characters carry the dramatic weight. Marcello Alvarez was in superb voice. He sang with melting lyricism, ringing high notes, a fine legato line, and a wide range of both dynamics and colors. His third act aria, one of the most famous in the tenor repertoire was ravishing.

The Met orchestra under James Levine was marvelous in its evocation of the varied colors of Puccini’s orchestration. The orchestra plays a major role in this opera because of the composer’s use of musical motives that are combined and recombined to form the fabric of the work. Particularly effective dramatically are the chords associated with Scarpia which open the opera, and make it so clear that he is the dominant force, setting events in motion and sealing the fate of the other characters.

Richard Peduzzi replaced Zeffirelli’s overstuffed sets that dwarfed the singers with vast empty sets than managed to do exactly the same thing. Uniquely, his set for act three was visually interesting with a clear focus.

Tosca’s death can only be described as bizarre. She ran up the stairs to the tower, pursued by soldiers who seemed to be running in slow motion. She stopped mid-way, beckoned to her pursuers and then turned around and resumed her journey up the stairs. She disappeared through a doorway and, after what seemed to be an excruciatingly long pause, a stunt double (some in the audience seemed convinced that it was a dummy) pitched sideways out of the tower and then froze in suspended animation. The lights went out. This was the last image the audience saw before the booing started, and it was clearly a contributing factor.

The Met

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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