Met’s “Tosca” revival proves a mixed Puccinian bag
When Giacomo Puccini was seized with the idea of making an opera from Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca, he wrote to his publisher that the subject suited him because it was “without excessive proportions or a decorative spectacle.” After nearly a quarter-century of serving up Puccini’s 1900 thriller in the guise of Franco Zeffirelli’s swollen, Euro Disney-style pageant, the Metropolitan Opera in 2009 offered a new staging of Tosca by Luc Bondy more in line with the composer’s vision of a lean, no-frills theatrical event.
To be sure, Bondy also meddles with Puccini’s pithy intrigue, ditching Tosca’s meticulously choreographed pantomime following Scarpia’s murder and adding his own unnecessary embellishments (case in point: prostitutes servicing Scarpia), now toned down since the production’s first season. (The program now credits Tomer Zvulun as stage director.) But Richard Peduzzi’s spare, handsome sets —the massive, bare-brick interior of a church; Scarpia’s lair, all dismal, totalitarian efficiency; and a castle roof swallowed up by a yawning, stubbornly inky sky—create a riveting mood.
For all the talk of priests and Rome and prayers, this is a godless Tosca, its players mere fodder for the cruel, inexorable theatrical machine that George Bernard Shaw famously styled “Sardoodledom.” No wonder Tosca appears to “rescue” her lover Cavaradossi in Act III wearing the black and purple of mourning. Even in their theatrical life, these characters are puppets in a sadistic show, subject to chance and calculation no less than the cards and chess pieces with which the executioners while away the time before tending to their murderous duty.
In musical terms, this season’s Tosca is not one for the ages, but it is capably sung and played. As is her way, Patricia Racette invested every note and word she sang with intelligence and great-hearted feeling. Her reckless credulity in Act I prepared the way for Scarpia’s later manipulations; and the fact of Cavaradossi’s death hit her Tosca earlier than usual, making for an unusually harrowing final scene. Racette’s voice takes on a flutter under pressure, and one of the top C’s was a desperate yelp, but she is a first-rate musician very much capable of gorgeous singing—witness the luminous thread of sound she summoned for Mille ti dirò nomi d’amor. Like her Butterfly, which she reprises at the Met in February, Racette’s Tosca is a lovable, palpably human woman, supremely touching.
George Gagnidze, a forgettable Rigoletto in seasons past, is a frightening Scarpia: tall, fleshy, and seemingly rank with sweat, so much so that his Tosca must wipe clean her hand after he has clasped it. While his sound is unremarkable, his musicianship and presence are anything but, and Gagnidze was a demented, unhinged Scarpia to whom the Met audience payed a well deserved compliment: scattered boos, directed not at him but at his repulsive character during the curtain calls.
Roberto Alagna was a magnificent Cavaradossi in Act III. He brought power and poetry to E lucevan le stelle, gracing one phrase with a meltingly beautiful morendo, and sang O dolci mani with all the rapt tenderness the music demands. Unfortunately, Alagna showed none of his sensitivity and skill in the first two acts. The tenor barked his way through Recondita armonia, barely spared a glance for Tosca and the escaped prisoner Angelotti, and veered painfully sharp in his cries of Vittoria! Dramatically, too, Alagna was at his best in the final scene. Before the firing squad, he shrank into a corner with childlike vulnerability, tiny and helpless against Peduzzi’s towering set, then crumbled like a rag doll when the shots rang out. Wrenchingly played, the scene made one regret all the more bitterly the tenor’s cavalier ways earlier in the show. (In fairness, Alagna had substituted for an indisposed colleague in Monday’s Faust, and thus was singing two demanding lead roles on consecutive evenings.)
The very first voice one hears in Tosca belongs to the agitator Angelotti, and Richard Bernstein’s lush, ebony tones made it a memorable one. Played and sung with dignity, the sacristan of Paul Plishka was happily free of the usual folkloric shticks. Also fine were the Spoletta of Joel Sorensen and Sciarrone of James Courtney.
In this staging, all of Scarpia’s henchmen are notably creepy, clad in black and scattering silently about like so many rats, or taking malevolent joy in Tosca’s anguish and gullibility. David Crawford sang well as the jailer. Neel Ram Nagarajan gave an enchanting performance of the shepherd’s song, though what sounded like heavy-handed amplification spoiled the misty, melancholy mood the piping distant voice is meant to create.
In his company debut, Mikko Franck, the artistic director of the Finnish National Opera, led a brisk and colorful reading of Puccini’s cannily crafted score. The breathless, chromatic panic of Angelotti’s entrance tingled the spine, and the final chords of Act II did not so much sound as shudder, acrid and baleful like the quiet drip of poison. The children’s chorus under Anthony Piccolo once again showed itself to be one of the company’s glories.
Tosca runs through January 30, with Aleksandrs Antonenko as Cavaradossi and James Morris as Scarpia in all remaining performances. metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.