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.

Friday, April 30, 2010

MET: Tosca - Second (and good) attempt to produce Puccini thriller this season - Patricia Racette. c: Fabio Luisi (new Met PGC) - 24.4.10

The Met in one season has almost brought us a second new production of Puccini’s Tosca, though less identifiable than the previous. It still uses the same quasi-abstract sets by Richard Peduzzi (of Chereau Bayreuth Ring fame) employed for the Luc Bondy production last fall. Seeing the same sets is not reassuring. You would think from reading other press that this Tosca might be resurrected from the dead; one can indeed be quite sure it no longer belongs to Luc Bondy. With cast that has helped make this near-end-of-season revival happen, Puccini’s Tosca has though in fact returned to life.

One plan floated early on after first run this season of Puccini’s Tosca was for the Met to offer their patrons next season choice of both the just recently taken down grandiose Zeffirelli production and new Luc Bondy production. This was quite obviously not going to work, so how about for most of the new set designs to stay up, change back most but not quite all the stage direction to traditional and let everybody do the best they can, with committee (Gina Lapinski, Paula Williams, et al) to monitor things from there? From a conceptual point of view, it had to have made matters confusing, but given what audiences are like these days, who was watching? A good time was had by all, so we should rest content with that.

I still lack complete answers to dilemma lying beneath the surface of operations here, except to generically observe that it resembles the inmates having been left to run the asylum. Fortunately the Met has picked handful of competent inmates this go at it; in this sense, the Met has become very lucky. So much is specific to time, place, event and metaphor, with Puccini’s Tosca. It is at best tricky to come up with something innovative that really can work. One however has only to watch the Netherlands Opera dvd – also starring Bryn Terfel as Scarpia – to find it. There is also a very effective Madrid dvd (starring Daniela Dessi and Ruggiero Raimondi, produced by Nuria Espert), only mostly traditional by impetus - Scarpia cleric-inquisitor therein as much as police chief.

In quest to unearth the soul of Luc Bondy’s production of Tosca, a good place to turn is review posted at After reading off this link, one could surmise Bondy has arrived at it from world of the comic strip; mention is made of how effectively Bondy has worked for the lyric theater already. There is the Royal Opera Salome (also starring Terfel opposite Maliftano, just as for the Netherlands Tosca), but also a Don Carlo the Met would have been wise to pick up - most preferably over what they did instead.

So, given the character of last fall’s staging, how about having had Luc Bondy, if this was indeed what he had in mind, taking his concept all the way? Oddly enough, there are elements of his production that almost copy what some of us have seen elsewhere. Floria Tosca being on tough end of relationship with Cavaradossi is hardly new but hard to accept to come up with exaggeratedly interpreting their Act One scene together this way. She should be embroiled in petty matters mixed with her own religiosity with him putting his life on the line for friend of his and visionary political cause. This can sometimes happen even unwittingly in comparison of voice type, between the two leads. It did so too decisively in Houston’s1991 revival of Firenze production that had starred Jo Barstow - here placing a very weak, Russian tenor opposite Eva Marton. It surprised me how effective Jonathan Miller’s production is of Fanciulla del West (La Scala), dating from same year as Tosca here, once I watched it much later on dvd.

Playing Scarpia as smarmy demon, kind of one not to be so overtly menacing, as to be nipping at Tosca’s heels, was not new either. The Lehnhoff from Amsterdam even toys with this risk with the rather serpentine costume it handed Bryn Terfel. Ira Siff demeaned last Saturday Terfel uselessly bringing on stage with him a cat in Amsterdam to start Act Two. Does anybody remember how funny Ruggiero Raimondi’s first interpretation of Scarpia was for Herbert von Karajan? He even puts it down himself in the interview, with nudge and wink enough, on the Madrid dvd on which he is so very effective. The Karajan/Raimondi Scarpia definitely contributes to this Tosca being what I rate best ‘party cd’ of a Puccini opera for two generations. Neither is it new to ironically play Mario as acting completely unaware of possibility there could be anything wrong with Tosca’s news to him of their imminent freedom, life together as she imagines it, in Act Three.

Let us then throw in Met staff and attendant panel of expert witnesses. I speculate here – with their mysteriously to nefariously achieved poll data as to what audience reaction might be to an avant-garde, progressive or even simply irreverent take on Puccini’s Tosca. Luc Bondy’s Opera News interview last October was muted in tone to extent of appearing muzzled; it told us nothing. Other recent new productions at the Met, Jurgen Flimm’s Salome (2004) included, have looked confused enough gesturally to also possibly have been arrived at by committee. With new game plan, according to what I heard in nuance Saturday – much but not completely different than before – path of least resistance is to review again mostly a traditional production replacing Zeffirelli's.

Patricia Racette gave us the major up-stage of the season, suddenly to take Karita Mattila's place after making her role debut as Tosca in Houston last January. Mattila still has the greater amplitude, Racette’s voice is still one size too small, but almost on nuance alone Racette suggested toppling who now still might rank higher as Tosca – as though possible with a feather-weight. Those passages in which Racette passionately threw her all into it – though at expense of vocal capital - made for exciting theater.

Racette made Tosca unequivocal in her love for Mario, which in context of this production, made forgivable some unsteadiness around the break (remindful of her 1998 Antonia at the Met) and several unsupported high notes. She prudently let things grow only so agitated at Cavaradossi early on – to be more solicitous of his love than anything else. It took a short while for Racette to match Jonas Kaufmann in tone quality, but find a meeting place that way, they eventually did. With Scarpia, her sorrow for Cavaradossi’s supposed infidelity was heartfelt but defiance toward situation slightly weak.

Racette’s acting poise caved somewhat for first half of Act Two. A few lines, right into resuming conversation with Scarpia attempting to re-ignite her suspicions, still came off right. She then tended to coast through the interrogation scene, thus making something coy out of Tosca’s reactions. Coyness was still an issue through early phase of being finally alone on stage with Scarpia. It shows still a little inexperience, but also insipid type of acting to be putting on to Scarpia as just barely hiding much toughness underneath – i.e. the contriving or generic putting on of ravaged female of sorts,. Due to lack on Kaufmann’s part, all the way through rest of the time he was active in Act Two, neither he nor Racette made it seem either character was near end of his or her tether. This and all of the above was due in part both to priority in saving voice for Racette, plus some inroads original stage directions still made into some of their interaction.. “Voglio vederlo” still came off too tough, - but vis-à-vis Mattila, Racette made purposeful show of how to get lines off exactly right during critical later decision-making with Scarpia,

After stormy Act Two trio, Racette hardly looked the inexperienced diva anymore. “Vissi d’arte” had the right catch in the throat to indicate desperation. It was here that Racette’s voice, while still lyrical, beautifully filled out with fine color what she was singing – with fervor, secure line, femininity and poise, hardly compromised by minor pitch problems at very end. Acting, in the traditional sense was just about perfectly ideal for the rest of Act Two, with fine command of low notes too. Racette’s hyperventilating made having her remain on stage until very end of Act Two very effective.

Just as in ‘Vissi d’arte’, in vividly suggesting involvement and also great vulnerability concerning latest news for Cavaradossi, Racette kept voice lyrical and beautifully focused. The power she needed for solo acuti and several matching Kaufmann was then reassured for the asking. A little confusion showed with directed insipid intrusion of Tosca’s assurance of Mario being gone before asking him to get up (after being shot), but with adrenaline pumping, Racette capped off “Ah Scarpia, avanti a Dio” with a blazing high B-Flat all anyone could have given it; The gentle, solicitous ardor earlier for badly injured doomed Cavaradossi ideally said all the rest.

Jonas Kaufmann replaced the vocally smoother Marcelo Alvarez - all suavity before having come at too heavy a cost to the character of Mario Cavaradossi, at least under anything resembling conventional circumstances. Alvarez did not quite take things to tasteless extent of Pavarotti, but proved that ‘lucky Luciano’ means of going about it had not yet met the death it has richly deserved since Pavarotti himself passed away. Kaufmann, still following some post-modernist impetus from Luc Bondy, sounded confused occasionally – i.e. weakness in staring down Scarpia during Act Two and then well before his ringing Vittoria’s sounding slightly stronger, healthier than he should right after being carried back on from behind stage. He tailored his dark, baritonal timbre, just at first close to being able to mistake for that of Hans Hopf, to suit Puccini’s music well.

Kaufmann quickly recovered heroic stance for “Qual occhio al mondo” - after making too much light of banter with Tosca right before - yet with one G-Flat slightly caught in the throat. He started both “E lucevan’ and ‘O dolci mani’ completely mezza voce, brought, though affected, t a lieder artist’s intensity to the words and to moulding a legato enriched by real pathos. High notes, bolstered by fine temperament in characterizing the accompanying action, had fine ring and body to them. For both such vocal splendor and restoring so much definition to Cavaradossi, Kaufmann accomplished much.

Bryn Terfel brought experience as Scarpia elsewhere to bear in his depicting here the sadistic police chief. His mastery of acting Scarpia’s manipulation in doing business with Tosca, Cavaradossi, his officers proved complete – such perfect calibration numerous times of how to threaten, pull back, accommodate, etc. This was so, as long as Terfel did not concede to a few silly ideas that lingered on and to which he did cave several times – i.e. the oily demon interpretation that Gagnidze used as his model last fall. It is odd to hear Terfel attempt such lightly incisive stuff, since Terfel has so often naturally been inclined to go for so much the opposite. Terfel is good at affecting the Latin machismo and romantic ardor for Scarpia, much as Tito Gobbi had down complete Terfel is not yet quite the complete natural at this. Some hoarseness on several top notes during Act Two betrayed too some signs of aging.

This is however still an important accomplishment. Terfel’s voice is still in handsome shape, and he made himself clearly heard over so much bombast, to effectively close the Te Deum. He was prudent in gradually building up the grand line for his part in the Te Deum, while leaving it palpable the frustration and impatience that Scarpia suffers all the way through opening scene of Act Two. Whores on stage with Terfel most definitely sounded much more out of place than they did with Gagnidze.

Improved supporting cast was again led by David Pittsinger (Angelotti). His Emile LeBecque credentials should soon qualify Pittsinger for Michele in the Met Il Tabarro, given what ‘visually (non-)monotonous’ insights Jack O’Brien provided us. John Del Carlo replaced Paul Plishka as the Sacristan. He wisely opted for playing much of this straight, while lending his sound a little crustiness - also, exaggerated, going over the top on ‘Fuori, Satana, fuori.’ He elicited very well the attitude in face of Scarpia of just insipidly cooperating best he can, without responsible thought at all of what consequences. Eduardo Valdes, with it fine to keep intact the ironic attitude of ‘another day at the office’ with Scarpia, was definite improvement over a wheedling Joel Sorensen. Richard Bernstein was the dignified Jailer, Jeffrey Wells a good Sciarrone - and once more Jonathan Makepeace the wistful, very articulate Shepherd.

For attempting to do Tosca intent on turning the meaning of it on its head, James Levine’s and Joseph Colaneri’s tempos last fall were certainly too slow, flaccid overall. .The only way either one saw Tosca as being detached in the least was to make, late Bertolucci style, a picture postcard out of it all. Such a quality was instead a tempered virtue of Fabio Luisi’s leadership, as Luisi also proved a guiding light (back to Puccini) for his singers dramatically as well. His was the much better line in which the story could find context - with which to accentuate its drama, frisson, and also pathos. The only place he allowed too much slack was during the interrogation scene; brief trio to follow came off too careful by half. By time for ‘Vissi d’arte and Spoletta’s entrance to happen, all returned to being tight. With warm resonance evoking Rome at different times of day, the Met orchestra has not sounded better this year than on this occasion.

What made for a veritably Ozzie-and-Harriet level Meg and Ira show was for the emcees to affect that most (conscientiously not all) of the Luc Bondy staging was intact, when anyone who has heard Tosca even at most ten times could hear this second cast often giving us very different information indeed. Did, contrary to Tommasini in the Times, the freeze frame for Tosca’s leap get restored, just so Ira Saturday would not see Racette, late-career-Olivero-style, merely walk off at the very end?

If Luc Bondy’s take on Puccini’s Tosca was entirely indeed of the polo, ironic variety, perhaps the Met could have last fall allowed him unfettered access to what were his genuine preferences. Cavaradossi might then laugh back at Scarpia during interrogation and Tosca gasp ‘Ohime’ - and later give Scarpia a peck on the cheek right after her ‘Muori’s.’ Scarpia, while momentarily sputtering back to life, might then usurp Tosca with ‘Avanti a me …’ … or perhaps an ‘Avanti a lei' …

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