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December 16, 2009

Met Opera's controversial 'Tosca' production airs Wednesday on PBS

If you didn't make it to New York for the Metropolitan Opera's heartily booed production of "Tosca" earlier this season, or catch the HD broadcast at a cineplex, you can discover what the fuss was all about when PBS airs a performance Wednesday night (the Baltimore and DC affiliates have it scheduled for 9 pm).

It was fascinating to observe all the ire generated by this unconventional staging of the Puccini war horse. To read some of the reviews or the comments on various opera-centric Web sites, you might have suspected that an actual crime had been committed at Lincoln Center.

I found myself liking a lot more about director Luc Bondy's concept than I expected to when I encountered the production at the Met in early October. The emphasis on the volatility of the

title character made particular sense in this context; the starkness of the sets had a way of focusing the attention on the human drama; several of the smaller details registered with great weight.

No question that some things don't work or don't add enough of value to justify their inclusion (the cameras go into discreet mode for the cheesy Scarpia-and-his-hookers routine in Act 2). But, ultimately, I still think this is a theatrically absorbing "Tosca" on many levels. Musically, it's OK, too, sometimes much more than that.  

But enough about me. Feel free to use this space to cheer or jeer after the broadcast.    

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:48 AM | | Comments (10)


I saw Tosca in late September at the Met. It was gloriously good. I had read beforehand that Met traditionalists did not like the set and the opening night audience had booed at the opera's end. On the night I attended, the crowd applauded enthusiastically. For those who have not seen this production, I recommend you watch and make your own decision. I recommend it on its own merits.

I just saw this production on PBS. It was spectacular. The performances were unforgetable. The starkness of the set helped by putting the focus on the performers.

Thanks for sharing your reaction. TIM

As someone who has performed in Tosca many times, and has spent hours and hours with the score and libretto...this production scares me. Stage directions, down to the most minute detail regarding how the set should look are written in the score, in the composer's hand...and by the way, you can hear it in the music. It is downright offensive for a director to disregard this. Write your own opera, Mr. Bondy. The story takes place 100 years before the opera was written, which meant that Puccini and Illica were concerned with portraying relationships in a unique historical context...why the director would feel the need to update this, to make it more relevant to the public is beyond me. A compelling piece of theater with primarily sub-par singing, perhaps. Puccini's way. Call me a traditionalist, call me what you will, but the more that directors dumb down this product to make it sexy and pretty, the more they contribute to the death of a beloved art form. Think of all of the wonderful singers from the golden age of singing that couldn't get work today, because they don't fit Mr. Bondy or Ms. Prada's visual aesthetic, and tell me that this is not a scary time for opera. Have I sufficiently used this space to cheer or jeer about the broadcast? Sorry for the rant...I guess the silver lining is that it has people talking about opera (much in the same way that the ugly statue in front of Penn Station has people talking about art).

I love rants. Free free any time. And thanks for expressing your views with such authentic, operatic passion. TIM

I saw it on PBS last night and was pleasantly surprised. I'd gladly give up the Scarpia Hookers scene and the silly ending, though.

Thanks for the feedback. TIM

Group, If one never saw a Puccini Opera (of course, if they didn't, I feel sorry for them!) this kind of production would be a wonderful introduction to his work.

To the non-purist, I can understand the "cut to the chase" perspective. For the "purist" group, I can understand the cold-water-in-the-face.

But, this is Puccini: what could sound more like heaven?

Thanks for commenting. TIM

It was rather by accident that I viewed Tosca last night on Oregon Public Broadcasting. At 58, I had never seen an opera live or on television. I found it compelling and historically interesting. The set did seem stark and curiously modern, however the costume was nicely done. Ha, I may just indulge myself again...and get this....I watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir an hour earlier. Must be getting on in years.

What a combination -- the Mormons and Puccini's "shabby little shocker" (as it was once described way back when). Glad you survived the opera experience. Next week, try the same channel, same time, for a highly touted film version of Puccini's "La Boheme" with a top-drawer cast. Many a newcomer to opera has been thoroughly converted for life by exposure to "Boheme." Thank for commenting. TIM

Thank you Tim. It was again by accident that I found your article from a search this morning based on the experience. You are on my list now. Again thanks.

My pleasure. TIM

It must be that old men like Luc Bondy and Peter Gelb think that by adding a little simulated sex, they can appeal to a younger audience. I have news for Bondy and Gelb – we have grown up with instant access to as much sex and violence as we want via the internet.

What we want when we go to an opera is something outside our everyday experience.

The singing was very good. The music was outstanding. The stageing was VERY POOR.
If I were to seen this beautiful opera on Tv again, I would turn off the picture and hear only the music

If it were not for the Scarpia/Hooker scene...I might NEVER have convinced my husband to buy SF Opera Tickets for my birthday present!
Why should the "Opera Appreciation Club" closed to...uh, hmmm...well for lack of a better word...NEANDERTHALS?

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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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