The new production of Tosca that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2009-2010 season—the first season fully planned by General Manager Peter Gelb—has generated heated discussion. In his Met debut, Swiss director Luc Bondy replaces the 1985 Zefferelli production with this Tosca, and much has been made of the Met audience’s dislike of the new production. The controversy highlights some of the important trends in opera today, and raises questions about how the Met’s decisions will influence other opera companies.
While the singers were applauded on opening night, the production team was roundly booed, and most press accounts assumed that the audience was scandalized by certain sexualized elements introduced by Bondy and disappointed in the drab, spare sets. While I think the audience was displeased with some of Bondy’s additions to the plot, I don’t believe New York opera audiences are as provincial as the press or the Met administration would make them out to be. Rather than being scandalized by an overly-sexualized or avant-garde approach to a familiar opera, I found the production strangely disjointed and even amateurish at times. Most of Bondy’s additions felt more like weak attempts than radical re-imaginings of the story. The production was not a disaster and the singing was quite good at times, but a new production this expensive and prestigious should have been much more inventive and impressive.
The controversy underlines a cultural divide in opera. For many years, European opera production has been under the influence of Regie opera, in which directors are given carte blanche to impose an unrelated artistic vision on an opera (for example Erfurt, Germany’s storied production of Verdi’s Ballo set in the ruins of the World Trade Center, sung by naked choristers wearing Mickey Mouse masks—representing the victims of capitalism). However, American opera has maintained more traditional, or at least plot-influenced, productions. European opera companies are subsidized by the government, so they are not dependent upon ticket sales for their primary income, unlike American companies. Some assume this means that European companies are able to push the envelope with sophisticated new approaches to opera, while American productions are hidebound and traditional to appeal to provincial tastes of less sophisticated, but increasingly elderly, audiences. Others would say that Regie opera allows non-musicians to run rampant without concern for musical quality or artistic continuity, while American opera preserves higher standards of singing and artistic integrity.
The Met’s new Tosca does not go to either extreme, but neither does it meet the qualifications of an exciting new production: to do something fresh and revealing, perhaps even provocative, within the format of a familiar story and characters. Richard Peduzzi‘s set design for Tosca may be attempting to avoid the typical Zeffirelli opulence, but it ends up feeling generic, with a few modern anachronisms in a traditional period setting: Scarpia’s palace looks like a 1970s public school rec room; the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle has dirt floors and modern staircases; and Angelotti is pursued by a spotlight in the opening scene. It is all too vague to render the audience anything but annoyed.
Plenty of recent productions have succeeded in bringing fresh eyes to a traditional setting (i.e. Anthony Minghella’s Butterfly, with its moving screens and inventive use of Kabuki puppetry), and others have updated a familiar story in a brilliant way (Mark Morris’s Orfeo, with its modern dance staging and celebrity Greek chorus), but these productions speak with a clear voice and vision that bring the story, through the music, to life.
Puccini’s music was not slighted by the Met’s Tosca cast. Karita Mattila portrayed a strong Tosca, singing with power and warmth particularly in the middle and low voice. She struggled, though, with her highest notes, which sounded thinner and strained. Though some critics question whether her “cool Nordic sound” is appropriate for Tosca, I found her voice warm and rich enough for the role. Her acting, on the other hand, seemed oddly static at times and did not always convey the passion or intensity that Tosca should; here, after all, is a woman and an artist who is genuinely emotional, dramatic and tempestuous, but also has a diva reputation to uphold. The opening scene with Cavaradossi was the most warm and believable, but the intense scenes with Scarpia and the final scenes of the opera seemed strangely staid or muddled at times (an awkward moment as Scarpia is dying even evoked giggles in the audience). Some of this lack of clarity may have been due to directing rather than acting choices. After Cavarodossi is shot, for example, Tosca stood centre stage looking after the retreating soldiers, singing to her Mario that he must stay still and pretend to be dead, until she is sure that they are not watching. If anyone did look, however, they would find her actions suspicious, since she is not pretending he has died, but rather acting as a lookout. Though this is a small example in a production with much good acting, it was one of a number of incongruous choices that did not seem to support a unified directorial vision.
Marcelo Ãlvarez was an impassioned Cavaradossi, singing in a warm, Italianate style. The voice was strong, only thinning out at times in the upper range, although this sounded like it was caused by a lack of support that could be corrected.
Scarpia was sung for this performance and several others by Carlo Guelfi, stepping in for an ill George Gagnidze. While Guelfi did an admirable job stepping in to sing a role at short notice (he was in town rehearsing for Aida), his voice does not have the richness and resonance necessary for Scarpia, something that was particularly obvious in the famous Te Deum when Scarpia sings of his lustful passions over the rising prayers of the church. Guelfi makes a physically imposing Scarpia, but he was the unfortunate recipient of several of Bondy’s strangest directorial choices. It is clear from Puccini’s score that the character of Scarpia is a great contradiction—outwardly overbearingly pious and aloof, while inwardly consumed by lusts and ambition. His struggle to mask his true nature is part of the tension of the opera, but Bondy seemed only concerned that everyone understand how bad he really is, even though Puccini gives ample opportunity for this. As a result, at the end of the Te Deum, Scarpia molests the statue of the Virgin in full view of the church. In the opening of Act II, rather than eating his solitary meal while he salivates over his plans for Tosca, he is fully occupied by three prostitutes. These choices must have been intended to more fully realize Scarpia’s evil, but they weakened the more interesting characterization of a man so driven by a lust for power that he is only titillated by unwilling partners such as the proud Tosca.
The choice of Guelfi as a replacement for Gagnidze highlights a disturbing trend that Gelb has been pursuing at the Met. There is an excellent, if unknown, cover singer already cast for the role of Scarpia. This baritone knows the role, has rehearsed the staging, has a costume that fits him and is prepared to step in for the principal singer at any time. When Gagnidze first fell ill, rather than turn to the well-prepared cover, the Met chose to have Guelfi (a more well-known singer) sing the role from a music stand on stage, while Gagnidze walked through the blocking. It is difficult to imagine this being done at a regional opera house, much less the Met, and it seems to indicate that the current administration is more concerned with famous names then they are with good singing and good theater.
A Met cover faces much competition in getting the job, and therefore must be an excellent singer; many covers lack only the visibility of their more well-known compatriots. Many a famous singer of a past decade first found great acclaim when, as an unknown, he or she stepped on to cover for another singer. If these opportunities are not given to singers who deserve them, both the singers and audiences will suffer. A famous singer does not always have the best voice for a role, and the Met calls its whole cover system into question when a cover is passed over for another singer pulled out of a rehearsal to sing from a score during a performance. Gelb may be concerned that audiences will be disappointed not to hear a famous singer, but Met audiences recognize good singing and acting, and hearing the debut of an unknown star-to-be can be thrilling.
Everyone knows that opera needs to attract new and younger audiences in order to survive. Most opera fans would agree that opera needs fresh and exciting productions that fall somewhere between the two extremes of Regie opera and the old static style of “park-and-bark.” Many American and European directors do exciting new opera productions that encourage audiences to see an opera in a new way without compromising the art form. The Met’s new Tosca is not an example of any extreme, but unfortunately it is too half-hearted and muddled to achieve any happy medium either.