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October 5, 2009

New York Report (Part 1): 'Tosca' and 'Aida' at the Met, a study in contrasts

Two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season to the one sound that no one really wants to hear in such an august house -- booing. The cause was a production of Puccini's evergreen "Tosca" in a staging that took the polar opposite view of what Met audiences had seen and relished for years.

Gone was the monumental design of Franco Zeffirelli that did everything but relocate the entire audience to the opera's actual historic settings in Rome. In its place, you might say defiantly, was a darkly minimalist design by Richard Peduzzi and  direction by Luc Bondy, who didn't hesitate to ignore stage directions or traditional bits of stage business. I gather the opening night boos could be heard in New Jersey when the production team came out for a bow.

I finally got a chance to check out what the fuss was all about over the weekend, when the only disturbance I noticed was at the first intermission, when it appeared that an outraged patron was loudly complaining to an usher as he departed in disgust. "This is not good!" he shouted, before a security guard motioned him to the door. Of course, maybe he was really complaining about something else entirely. I was primed to expect trouble, after all. 

This "Tosca" is apt to have people talking longer than they do about most performances of the work encountered these days. And you can bet there will be a lot of heated discussions at the popcorn stand during intermissions on Oct. 10, when "Tosca" opens the Met's HD broadcasts season at scores of movies theaters around the country.

Perhaps because of all the fuss -- the media had a field day with the opening night protest (Alex Ross' review in the New Yorker carries the stark headline "Fiasco"), and even the tenor in the cast publicly dissed Bondy -- I was not particularly surprised and certainly not outraged by what was happening onstage. Instead, I found myself enjoying most of it immensely, and admiring Met general manager Peter Gelb all the more for his willingness to shake things up a little.

I understand the disappointment people might feel about the lack of visual opulence, especially in the opening scene, where the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle looks more like a brick prison. But by removing the typical trappings of "Tosca," Bondy has made a world where the characters seem more important, more central than ever. And in that first act, the director has encouraged a remarkable level of playful intimacy between Tosca and Cavaradossi, who sit next to each other at one point (no pews in this church, just a few chairs), looking like lovestruck high school kids. Quite charming.

Tosca is an awfully volatile woman, prone not only to jealousy, but also to conclusion-leaping (leaping, of course, is a particularly unfortunate trait for this character). The Tosca portrayed by Karita Mattila in this production reveals the full extent of that mercurialness in several telling incidents. After Scarpia plants the seeds of doubt over Cavarodossi's faithfulness, she rushes to the portrait her lover had been painting and stabs it right through (a violent impulse that will overtake her in Act 2). The way she collapses in a heap after that act says something, too. This Tosca cannot control her temper, and she is physically drained by each flare-up.

Cut to Act 2, and you've got

Tosca impulsively deciding early in the game to murder Scarpia (this premeditation has bothered some folks), but, once she carries through, she's wasted. Rather than the usual stage business of laying a cross on Scarpia's body and two candlesticks at either side, Tosca -- impulsive as ever -- climbs up on the windowsill and nearly jumps, before easing herself back down, and, in a daze, lying on a couch, slowly fanning herself as the curtain falls.

OK, I can hear you booing, but I think that Bondy -- with the help of Mattila's considerable acting skills -- makes this all quite tense and visually striking: two giant red couches on either side of the window, Scarpia's body half dangling from one, Tosca's oddly reclining on the other. To me, a very theatrical look, and a plausibly theatrical situation. Having established the heroine's traits earlier, Bondy can have her stay in place to ponder what she has done, what she should do next, rather than depart the murder scene as soon as she can.

Yes, I know that's not what Puccini called for, and not exactly what the music suggests. But I wonder if people miss the candles and crucifix because they want to believe that Tosca is a good religious, moral girl at heart, even if she's living in sin with her boyfriend, betrays his trust (the location of the escaped prisoner), and commits murder. Well, maybe she's not so pure and simple after all. Maybe her first thought is not religion and expiation, but just how to survive the whole messy business with her life and lover intact. Or maybe she can't even think straight at all about anything, and essentially zones out, as if not even really conscious. All plausible, it seems to me.

Bondy has been accused of messing up this scene or totally lacking imagination, but that's not how it came across Saturday afternoon. It seemed oddly more natural than the usual business with the candles, and just as oddly riveting. That said, Bondy should have paid greater attention to the score, and come up with more in the way of action to justify his approach and to gain musical grounding for it.

Likewise, his concept for Tosca's suicide -- a freeze-frame device involving a body double who jumps, but is stopped midair -- needs to be better timed and keyed directly into the music. (Still, on Saturday, the effect produced an audible gasp in the house, and you could easily sense how powerful this could look with a little tweaking.) Other questionable elements: Scarpia doesn't need three -- count 'em, three -- hookers to service him at the start of Act 2. (Bondy isn't the first director to give an opera character an audience during what is normally a soliloquy, but this is piling it on a bit thick.) In Act 1, the painting of Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi has been working on is revealed to be about as likely to be hung in a church as an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. And the firing squad practice is a pretty lame time-filler during the orchestral opening of Act. 3.

But back to the good stuff. Many deft little strokes occur, from the Sacristan dumping a pail into the holy water font to Cavaradossi crumpling up the letter he tries to write Tosca while awaiting execution. The Te Deum scene is quite potent, and not just because Scarpia gets carried away with a statue at the end of it. There is something wonderfully spooky about the advancing crowd of clerics.

In the end, this is not the wildest, strangest, silliest "Tosca" you could conjure up. Costuming is basically normal (I rather liked the vampirish get-up for Scarpia's goons), and nothing critical to the opera is removed or rendered entirely senseless. It's simply a different telling of a familiar tale. Bondy's "Tosca" may not be one for the ages, but, as Alex Ross and others have noted, the production could probably be finessed in the future by other directors to smooth out or refocus some things.

Musically, I suspect better performances will come along, but Mattila makes a valid stab not only at portraying the title role, but giving it vocal power to match. She did some beautiful singing on Saturday, and some not so beautiful (a note that went astray at the end of Vissi d'arte was nonetheless so intensely dramatic that it somehow worked to her advantage). Marcelo Alvarez belted more than he needed to, but there was enough poetry mixed in to make his effort effective. George Gagnidze was a little low on vocal wattage as Scarpia, yet still sufficiently commanding. Joseph Colaneri (subbing for James Levine) led a sure and sensitive account of the score, generating a lush response form the justly hailed Met Orchestra.

For a complete contrast, I attended the company's revival of "Aida" Friday night and found myself thinking that it could use a daring directorial flourish or two. Sonja Frisell's grandly scaled production -- massive sets (Gianni Quaranta), brilliant costumes (Dada Saligeri), several horses -- is everything that Bondy's "Tosca" isn't. It also seemed ever so slightly dull, since all that visual splendor didn't translate easily into human drama. The principals rarely interacted with each other in any involving manner; the millions of excellent choristers stood oratorio-style through their big numbers.

The star of the evening was Daniele Gatti, whose warm, artfully nuanced conducting had Verdi's music sounding richer than ever. (I didn't hang around for all the bows, but I learned from Jim Oestreich's review in the Times that Gatti was booed when he took his Friday night. Is this some stupid new fad in New York, or an honest reaction by genuine opera fans?)

As Radames, Johan Botha produced clarion tone and some notable nuances, including a welcome diminuendo on the B-flat at the end of Celeste Aida and gentle phrasing in the final duet. A rough top note or two aside, Violeta Urmana sang nobly as Aida. Dolora Zajick, as Amneris, caught fire in the third act. Carlo Guelfi was a sturdy Amonasro. The Met ballet excuted Alexei Ratmansky's stylish choreography with flair.

Even before I saw the "Tosca," this "Aida" seemed a bit too square for its own good, for all of it's musical values. Still, it was a hearty reminder that the Met can still deliver old-fashioned opera values in abundance one day, and provocative departures the next. Isn't that a good thing?


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:05 AM | | Comments (6)


Well, thank goodness, a critic who actually watched and thought about what the director was trying to do! Thanks for a thoughtful review — let's see how the production plays in the theatre.

Thanks. I'm the first to admit that this won't be for everybody, and I do share some of the concerns raised by my colleagues. But what I saw was very different from what I expected, based on the reports. Certainly nothing like the totally off-the-wall stuff routinely seen in some European houses. TIM

I was actually at the Met on Friday for Aida and had more mixed impressions about Gatti. No questions about "warm, artfully nuanced conducting." But, pace James Oestreich, I didn't think that he was too comfortable for the singers. The orchestra frequently covered them and some of his fast tempi, while both exciting and dramatic, clearly taxed the soloists and chorus. Mostly agree about the singers; indeed, Botha seemed to me better this time than as Don Carlo a few years ago. Too bad it took so long for Dolora Zajick to warm up, because she was indeed magnificent in the third act.

I willingly confess to loving both very fast and very slow tempi, as well as very soft and very loud. To that extent, I am an extremist. So I loved the ebb and flow of Gatti's approach. The opening of the prelude, for example, was exquisitely molded, it seemed to my ears. Same for the closing duet. And when he drove things along, I was happy to go for the ride. At the very least he was a real presence on the podium, and I guess that's what won me over. I've admired his symphonic conducting, too, for the same reason -- lots of personality. I hadn't heard Botha live in quite a while. Very impressed with his control and the overall quality of the tone. TIM

Tim, you can't have liked the decision to have Scarpia go on his knees crying when he's rejected by Tosda. And, of course, Tosca is a moral person of conscience who feels the gravity of what she has done and the consequent remorse and places the candles, etc., around the dead
Scarpia. You can't make her out as some immoral or amoral person.

Thanks for commenting. To tell the truth, I remember thinking that crying bit was not quite right, though it struck me as a possible put-on by Scarpia. As for Tosca, I'm not trying to suggest that she is immoral or amoral, just that she isn't a saint. And, above all, I think it is credible, given the libretto, to see her as extremely impulsive and just a little selfish. If you accept that interpretation, it's likely that her behavior would be less predictable, and that means she might even do some of the things shown in this version -- including thinking more about herself (and her boyfriend) after the murder than about performing a little religious ceremony. I understand I'm most likely in a minority about the production, but I did find it theatrically engrossing and often arresting. The fact that a lot of folks are still thinking about it and debating its merits isn't such a bad result. TIM

Dear Mr. Smith,

Nice try. While you can pat yourself on the back for trying to come up with a review contrary to what others have put forth, the effort is half-hearted at best.
You are not being very objective to start with. It is clear that you wanted to come up with something different, but simpering is more like it. Tosca is bad, bad. Being the only person out in the dark still means you are in the dark.

I think the NY Times got it right recently when they pointed out that new productions of operas is not a bad thing.
HOW it is done seems to be the issue and the current manager seems to get it all wrong. The classics require a certain finesse and there are surely great directors out there that could do it. However, experimental takes of the non- war horses does allow for an opportunity for revision and interpretation.
Gelb has it all wrong, though his experience and personal temperament shows that the Met audiences will pay the price for his egotism. Instead of taking it in stride, he barks about the audience. PR? Help!
Bankrupting Sony Classical prior to the Met, he shows a contempt for audiences as well as a lack of respect for his donor base.
It is a pity that the score only matters to some when it is convenient. What is the fuss you say?

The fuss isn't the Zefferelli's version is thrown out the door. It is that a ton of money goes to something that sucks. Simple. Critics like you trying to say otherwise is funny, if youa re in Baltimore. What is your opera doing?
That is what I thought.
L. Hamilton

Gee, and I thought opera lovers were nice, decent people at heart. Not much point in my trying to discuss this with someone who thinks I'm just a provincial hack from (shudder) Baltimore. Never mind that, having witnessed how some operas were treated during Mortier's era at Salzburg, I think I know a little something about productions that totally disregard the music and text. Never mind that a more thorough search of opinions about this particular Met offering would demonstrate that I am not actually out on a limb all by myself (as if that would matter anyway -- I thought we were all allowed to have our own opinions in a free world). And never mind that contemptuously accusing Gelb of having contempt for audiences may not be the best way to win an argument. But, hey, thanks for venting. TS

I saw Tosca last night (live from the Met in a cinema in Devon, England) and loved it. The plain brick church, Scarpia's rooms, the castle battlements - all a foil for the sumptuous clothes (though I did think the priests looked a little more Greek Orthodox than Catholic). But most importantly everyone on stage could act. Tosca's inherent emotional instability was quite clear from the start and I had always thought the candles and crucifix was a Zeffirelli invention? I must be wrong. Does no-one remember opera of 30 years ago when singers just stood and sang - and tenors went up on their tiptoes when sopranos sang? I am going to see Aida in two weeks and look forward to that too, though I do hope the sun spots which caused the transmission to flicker occasionally, will have finished.

Thanks so much for the report from the UK. (And sorry it took so long for your comments to get posted.) I'm glad to hear that the production translated well to HD. And you're right about the acting. This was no tepid performance. Cheers, TIM

Thank you for a very thoughtful review. I also agree wholeheartedly with Emma Grainger’s comments. I, too, saw the opera live at the cinema, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and thought it was extremely enjoyable. I have only been watching opera for a few years, have not seen Tosca before, and my first notion of a Zeffirelli production was Bondy’s humorous “who?” response when Susan Graham referred to it during one of her interviews. However, as a seasoned theatregoer of 30 years, I’m very aware that we hold our favourite productions in our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives and nothing will shift our preference (and why should it?). However, this does create a stronger resistance when something different comes along, because our ideal is locked away. I have also learned that my response to the classics changes over the years, because I have simply grown older (and wiser, I hope! ) and it is often my perspective that is new, or changed, as much as the production’s.

What I noticed most in this production of Tosca was how much of the singing was emotionally true from all the soloists, but in particular Karita Matila, who was often deeply moving. Tosca seemed more than a little psychotic from the beginning and everything she did later was consistent with this. The lovers’ feelings changed from lust to a recognition of real love for each other by the end. The set was neither intrusive nor irritating, although I’m not sure it could be described as beautiful (which I do not confuse with opulence). The final moment was predictable but stunning all the same, with an audible gasp from the audience in my cinema also. I defer to the expertise of others about the musical timing of the moment.
Isn’t opera wonderful?

Thanks so much for writing and for your wonderful insights. I agree wholeheartedly that, once the characters were established (and vividly so) at the start, their subsequent actions followed naturally. That's one of the things I think the angriest folks have missed in all of this controversry. This wasn't a capricious, insane concept on Bondy's part, but a serious attempt to create a meaningful theatrical experience. It's not that his every idea was brilliant or priceless, but I think he has been greatly abused in some corners for reasons that don't quite hold up on closer scrutiny. Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to share your reactions. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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