The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A galavanting about Puccini's Tosca - 10.10.2009 - Met in HD (on PBS)

This was about the worst joke of a staging of Puccini’s Tosca I have yet run across, and as one with real appreciation for productions by Nuria Espert, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Luca Ronconi, next to which the new Luc Bondy production hardly raises a whimper thus far.

One incongruity followed another throughout, and for butt-ugly sets, Act One won hands down for the abstract non-representation of the St. Andrea della Valle church. The Palazzo Farnese seemed comfortably loungey, but as perhaps copied from Jonathan Miller’s production from Florence, huge maps covering the entire walls. There was little sense of where Cavaradossi might have been led to be interrogated. The last act in its abstraction of the top of Castel Sant’Angelo was the one set by Richard Peduzzi that just about entirely worked.

Angelotti (David Pittsinger) was best among the supporting cast vocally, but too casually cut a heroic figure as the rebel. Upon entering down a rope, it looked as though he just as easily could have reported in from the local gym. Moments he had with Cavaradossi not far into this proved more plausible, but still confused in how to provide meaningful perception of this character. Paul Plishka (Sacristan) emerged even less well, given so many notes sounded so raw they barely spoke; his acting emerged as just utterly silly and banal. Pissy-toned Joel Sorenson (Spoletta) relied upon overworked cliché to represent menace, the Sciarrone (James Courtney) was just barely passable - or noticeable, and Keith Miller (Jailer) had ample voice - but apparently he also had the hots for both his soldiers and for a bloodied up Cavaradossi.

Marcello Alvarez (Cavaradossi), acting and even singing the part as almost cross between Ramon Vargas and Lucky Luciano (Pavarotti) was vocally pleasant, but represented what I have always found an odious characterization of the painter. Mario Cavaradossi's putting his life on the line for his ideals and his friend Angelotti completely went for naught. Whether Bondy, Alvarez, or Pavarotti know or knew that there is a heroic accent to the part of Mario Cavaradossi, let me remind them there indeed is. Capping a thoroughly insipid evening from Alvarez was his look of surprise that he had been shot at the end of the opera, and his tendency at once to smile and grimace. His lines in defying Scarpia, upon first entering the Palazzo Farnese or being dragged in there were pouted, wimpy in place of being defiant.

When I heard that there were three whores to jolly up or service Scarpia at the start of Act Two, I falsely surmised that all this action would only carry on through “Tosca e un buon falco” and lines leading up to “Ella verra." Instead, it carried on all the way through the aria. George Gagnidze gave one of the worst performances of Scarpia in recent memory. Those who know the performing legacy of Tosca know Giuseppe Taddei’s interpretation for Karajan in the early 1960’s - though still good, my least favorite of three principals on the old Vienna Decca recording. Must you have however a dandy of a Scarpia, with legs, stature, coiffure of dainty proportions but still able to incisively issue out orders for his henchmen to carry out the carnage he will have done, then for subtlety and getting the point across most effectively this way, Taddei is your man. He fortunately got to sing it under for once a dramatically fully engaged von Karajan.

Gagnidze and much earlier Raimondi until he shaped interpretation of his own, much better than the Karajan/Raimondi contrivance on DGG, are not. Lehnhoff took similar risk in how he had the Baron Scarpia costumed (in lizard like outfit), but thanks to the intelligence of producer, maestro, and Terfel, it still worked.

George Gagnidze certainly has the figure to make Scarpia a force to be reckoned with, but vocally it was hardly ever there at all. A good raft of notes got placed badly, awkwardly. He had a way of reaching for high notes by both crooning them and placing them far back, thus increasing tendency to oddly intimate a buzzing sound. He appeared very limited in what he could give in terms of line, effective color, or menace.

His death scene, with Mattila sprawled out on a nice sofa, was a variation on Nikolaus Lehnhoff's take on this. It was incisive and menacing from Malfitano vs. Bryn Terfel, here it looked, though somewhat realistic, like such a casual way of going about it, all matter-of-fact to point of being absurd. On realistic terms, for being able to effectively issue orders to anybody, this Scarpia was an unmitigated disaster – and who, though a nice guy continued playing the somewhat twisted boppo, boffo, buffoon, through intermission interview with Susan Graham.

The man of the hour here was Karita Mattila as Tosca, as seldom did anyone else in this cast seem to have any balls, in any way. At least, Mattila had her dress and other red silks, damask to protect - alongside just mildly more serious action taking place. Her deportment, in how this was staged, more than face Mattila was putting on, seemed over whether she would get her dress torn or hair mussed up - as fetished out the Scarpia also appeared - even in the bland gaze Gagnidze gave the hall from the get-go and her in Act One. Mattila looked considerably older than her forty-nine years in how she was costumed - in black wig and wearing brown contact lenses. Her voice finally entirely came around to cooperating with what her deeply considered expressive, psychological, and dramatic interests were with her part - for a fine Third Act, slightly unexpectedly. Her expression,as Tosca, tended to be severe, and even in expecting relief to what has been a most terrible situation overnight, more serious than but very seldom that of the Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi, the way Alvarez played him, always looked easy to deceive. Mattila's descent down from high B-Flat to G toward end of Vissi d’arte below skidded off at the moviecast, same way it had two weeks earlier at opener under Levine.

Most worrying now is Karita Mattila’s tendency to press down on notes for about interval of a fifth below the passaggio and on notes surrounding it as well. Such now makes her ability to maintain legato tenuous, needless to say tense, with much threat of breaking up the line and cantabile infusing it. Even so, there were moments Mattila indeed brought to life, even against what had perhaps been Luc Bondy's original intent or bet on how things should go. Affecting were moments when Tosca bewails being prisoner for the evening to the royal celebrations, similar to my making myself prisoner to watching this dreadful performance of the opera this evening, and her pleas to Scarpia that she can not go on (“non posso piu”) with her lover having to endure the pain. Some air of vulnerability could still prevail - more effectively than from Eva Marton here in 1991, as approximate in pitch and uneven in focus as Marton so easily lapsed into being as well.

Sure there is toughness there, enough to kill Scarpia, but how then can we be moved by her plight if this is it? The scene of her leap from the parapet was silly, with byplay with Jailer up and almost enough to tumble the Jailer down the stairs. A double of hers made at the end a suspended leap into dead air, a stunt that looked so inconsequential, even cartoonish, to have deserved loud booing from across the hall.

For the atmospheric prelude to Act Three, under constantly flaccid leadership by John Colaneri, we had a session of not how to necessarily do target practice, but how to stage it with rifles so long as to more resemble pointed sticks – nudge, nudge, wink, wink. The Jailer looked up his men up and down very nicely, then physically separating Cavaradossi from Tosca when Cavaradossi must be led away as though to say ‘he’s mine.’ It just so happens to be too bad Keith Miller is not quite half the comedian John Cleese was in his heyday. Marcelo Alvarez then came on for ‘E lucevan’, entirely in love with his own voice and nuance for shaping it, with no more than just casual sense of any despondency about what might happen next.

It is nice that he shapes the lines to his part with much amore. As an aside, I prefer a character out of this to emerge, a reason for Cavaradossi to be part of the action. Equally limp and indecisive was Luc Bondy’s decision to make Scarpia into a total wuss, to be crying at Tosca’s feet, as was said of opening night, at her request for safe conduct to Civitavecchia, not to mention Scarpia’s brief sputtering back to life for “Avanti a lui ….” Perhaps he could have sputtered "Avanti a me" instead. Mattila’s collapsing back on a divan to fan herself and hyperventilate was oddly effective, but camera three seconds later following her backstage - with Mattila still looking worked up by what she had just done - even ruined that - handlers and Susan Graham all at the ready to fawn over her.

Peter, I mean Peter Gelb, give your audience please and your singers for once some friggin' space! Backstage interviews are fine, but please like lets say two minutes to enjoy a minute of curtain calls, catch our breaths, take in what we have just witnessed - or there may come a day not long from now that I will cease attending Met in HD altogether. Those artists who show up on your stage, perform, conduct your operas with integrity, direct them with integrity, will still get the respect and praise they deserve.

Why was it, Peter, that Luc Bondy, who has directed such fine productions as Salome and Don Carlos not committed to something with more integrity than what came on here? This is a production almost worth mothballing more than anything else – as much as the Lucia (Zambello) and Trovatore (Vick) that your predecessor, who, yes, made some mistakes, decried, but you can not with this – or one or two other fiasco’s so far you have given the Met.

The conducting tonight of John Colaneri, with no hint from anyone to step things up a bit, was not so much slow, though most certainly slow, but flaccid, weak on color. Color, atmosphere without shape does not really exist - most certainly in Puccini it does not) – He thoroughly failed to contribute anything toward dramatic impetus. Numerous entrances were not together. Levine on opening night waddled through, wallowed over textures excessively too - and missed markings of deciso almost entirely on accents (in brass especially) during the interrogation scene; though still inconclusive, there was still some sense of shape to how he conducted this. It was only incidentally during those few moments that Mattila would turn up the temperature on stage that anything emerged from this or from Colaneri, but only passively from him. Mattila next helps push this misguided attempt at Tosca on Bavarian State in Munich. The Met, under such musical leadership, especially at Met in HD, makes the company look provincial.

All the galvanting around with whores at start of Act Two proved perfect diminution of the character of Scarpia, but here as also underneath much of the way were much of the trappings of still a traditional, not controversial production of Puccini’s Tosca. We are familiar enough already with the characterization of Cavaradossi, very conventionally misguided as it is – from telecast on of Tosca conducted by James Conlon back in 1978 – equally well sung, equally pointless from tenor cast as the painter. Stormy trio at heart of Act Two looked with no trace of irony here perfectly stand-up-and-sing.

So, what if Mario Cavaradossi, as many have read, is mildly impressionable sexually? That is all fine and well - most ideally, very tastefully caught by Carlo Bergonzi, opposite Maria Callas, but Callas unlike Marton downtown, unlike Mattila too, remained the woman. This thing here was handled purely from the text, with all subtlety Bergonzi could issue forth – and thus there was still a character with whom we could fully sympathize - even as picked up from the recording studio. Callas is heard more spontaneously especially opposite Tito Gobbi live from Convent Garden the same year. Di Stefano went about Cavaradossi, opposite Callas, and Price most heroically, most affectingly so. So did quite well Placido Domingo (compromised by a little blandness, but still very well sung) and different, Mario Del Monaco, plus numerous others.

There is recently Richard Margison quite differently again, more controversially, riskily for sure than Alvarez, and even also Fabio Armiliato. If anything, the most controversial, or provocative production of Tosca I have seen yet, damagingly effective, is the Lehnhoff, starring Margison, from Amsterdam; it really did have ideas. This one either did not or got compromised by being put through committee at the Met.

All such galavanting proved was opera as just opportunity for a social occasion or party, where all the nice, obsequious things get said, even practically on cue - Susan Graham looking the bemused social matron in making much fuss. Regardless how wretchedly things were going. For sake of contrast – read an interview of Jon Vickers some time, even if you disagree with some of his ideological views. I certainly do not. For now, just let the charade carry on. There is competition out there from other forces in the global village in which we live; it can catch on, catch up before long.

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