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Met Opera Live - Puccini, Tosca: Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission ive to the Barbican Cinema, London. 10.10.2009 (MMB)

Puccini’s Tosca, engulfed in controversy, opened the 2009-10 season, on 21st September, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was also the first of this year’s series of live in High Definition transmissions to cinemas worldwide, which took place on Saturday, 10th October. The controversy surrounded Swiss director Luc Bondy’s new production which replaced Franco Zeffirelli's much loved version, a favourite with Met audiences, which had reigned supreme for twenty-four years, since its creation in 1985. Having read the story of the booing to which Bondy was submitted on opening night, I was curious and eager to watch his interpretation and judge for myself. To be  honest, I think it was probably “Much Ado About Nothing”.

Although Puccini began composing Tosca in 1895- it was  premiered in 1900 -  there  is evidence in some of his correspondence from approximately ten years earlier that he was interested in the story even then. The libretto, based on Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca (1887), was written by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, though it was first suggested by Ferdinando Fontana who had been Puccini’s librettist to Le villi and Edgar, two of the composer’s earlier works. Sardou’s play is a period story set against the Napoleonic wars, specifically the middle of June 1800 when the battle of Marengo, between Bonaparte’s French army and the Austrian forces, took place near the city of Alessandria, in the region of Piedmont, Italy. The play was made famous by Sarah Bernhardt who starred as Floria Tosca at its premiere in 1887 in Paris and who revived it in 1900 in New York. It is a powerfully dramatic story, exploring people’s darkest emotions and the evil actions they may lead to. The libretto is faithful to the original play and Puccini’s music effectively complements and enhances both plot and characters. Along with La bohème, Tosca is Puccini’s most performed opera and arguably his masterpiece. Even though I am not a great fan of Puccini, Tosca is the one opera that I  like and one in which his music is most accomplished, demonstrating not only his capacity for moving melodic lines but also a marked talent for dramatic narrative, with powerful emotions and poignant moments.

Luc Bondy’s vision of Tosca is very different from that of Zeffirelli’s. The Italian director is known for his trademark lavish, spectacular productions, which are meant to dazzle and amaze; occasionally criticised for dwarfing the singers and overwhelming the music, though he always remains faithful to libretto and composer. Bondy is known for his realism and ability to bring out truer, more honest and intense performances from his singers. This is what he tried to do with Tosca and to my mind managed to achieve most of the time.

The vast majority of people are resistant to change, particularly if this impacts something they love, care for and feel comfortable with, which was exactly what happened as Bondy’s production of Tosca replaced Zeffirelli’s idolised interpretation. In Bondy’s vision, the church in Act I is stripped bare but the gigantic walls have numerous cavities and windows, which enhance  the dark, sombre mood of the whole piece to great effect. In Act III, the Castle of Sant’Angelo is recreated in a powerful and threatening manner, with its stairs, thick, high walls and menacing tower dwarfing the humans and almost hovering over the water below. The sky is dark, nearly black, and there are no stars shining when Cavaradossi sings E lucevan le stelle. Yet for all his realism, Bondy allows in details that have nothing to do with the historical period and that did not quite work for me: why does the portrait of Mary Magdalene have a bare breast? While the picture is effective in highlighting Tosca's character, as it enhances her mad, sick fits of jealousy,  from the historical period point of view, it would not have been allowed by the church so I was not quite convinced by its effectiveness. And why do the characters use modern looking pencils or pens when they need to write? This might work in a comedy but not in a period drama. Then again,  is the fact that Scarpia’s thugs wear rather dark sunglasses when they first enter the church there because a modern audience needs to see the bad guys with shades and the almost compulsory long, black leather coats to grasp that they are really bad but see themselves as cool? Since the story is still set in June 1800, the question remains whether such anachronisms actually help.

Possibly the most controversial in the whole production occurs in Act II. In the original libretto, Act II begins with Scarpia, dining alone in his palace, thinking of how he is will bend Tosca to his will. Dramatically, this  is a very powerful, sinister moment and through the music Puccini unleashes all the evil and menace that exude from Scarpia; intimidating the audience, making one feel anxious and appalled. Bondy has decided to introduce three non-speaking characters who are not in the libretto at this point. Three women, presumably prostitutes and snake-like, caress Scarpia and entangle their bodies with his. It's easy to see  why Bondy did this to show Scarpia’s immoral, lecherous personality, but it seemed to me that it took the most of  the threat away and made Scarpia look ridiculous; a serious mismatch with he excellent singing and exceptional acting of Georgian baritone George Gagnidze. The settings in the second act were also stripped to the minimum but the  disproportionate size of the window and the rather large maps of Italy  hanging on the walls, had the opposite effect to what Bondy was intending to achieve: the settings became intrusive, the singers were dwarfed and the set distracted from the drama, except when we had camera close-ups; a benefit that the live Met audience could obviously not enjoy. On the other hand, what we could see of the torture chamber is particularly disturbing and Bondy’s idea worked perfectly there. As the door opens and Cavaradossi is dragged inside by Scarpia’s thugs, we see that the interior, including the door, ispadded with a thick white material, sound proof, so that the cries of the victims cannot be heard outside. Glimpses of the blood stains are visible on the white walls and it is impossible not to shudder at the sight.

Another feature that did not quite work for me was Bondy’s idea for the final moment when Tosca shouts “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” (O Scarpia, we’ll meet before God) and leaps to her death. Bondy decided to freeze the leaping woman in mid-air. We see her jump and then her body stops as if suspended. It is a striking image for the cinema but in a live production it works less effectively. The curtain falls with Tosca’s body hanging in that leaping position, leaving open the question of whether Tosca actually dies. Many in the cinema audience seemed stunned by it.

All this said, I actually liked Bondy’s production very much. Apart from the topics just mentioned much of his idea works effectively and the sombre, dark, sinister passion is palpable; one can smell the evil and tremble at the violent end that will ultimately be met by each character. Puccini’s music was supremely performed by the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, excellently conducted by Joseph Colaneri. His interpretation was vividly dramatic but he gave space to the singers, allowing for their voices to flourish, hovering above the orchestra without intrusion. Finnish soprano Karita Mattila made an excellent if somehow unlikely Tosca, demonstrating her great acting skills which fully matched her dramatically expressive singing. She was perhaps a little stretched initially, particularly in the first act when on one or two occasions, her voice sounded a little shrill in its highest range.  But she got better and better as the opera progressed; her rendition of the celebrated Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore was superb, one of the best I have witnessed and as poignant as it was beautiful. Argentinian tenor Marcelo Álvarez was a powerful, passionate, romantic Cavaradossi. His voice has great warmth and range, with a dramatic edge which is perfectly tailored for Puccini. Although he does not look the part, once he began singing Recondita armonia, the beauty of his voice was such that one instantly forgets everything else and grasps why Tosca has fallen in love with him and the reasons for her extreme jealousy. For me  however, the star of the evening was George Gagnidze, a native of the Republic of Georgia, who is not yet so very well known despite his  critically acclaimed and very successful debuts at Milan’s La Scala as Giorgio Germont in Traviata, and at the Met in  Rigoletto. His voice is full of dark colours, particularly in its lowest range but the middle and the top are also intensely dramatic and powerful. He has acting skills to match and his Scarpia was brilliant: menacing, despicable and evil in every instance, maliciously smooth and seductive in the scenes with Tosca, and terribly sinister during the Act I Te Deum while  sensually kissing the statue of the Madonna, after crying out “Tosca, you make me forget God”.

The Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, prepared by its chorus master, Donald Palumbo, were majestic and impressive during the performance of the Te Deum, even if slightly dwarfed by the religious costumes, to my mind a little too exuberant and exaggerated.  Maestro Colaneri led the orchestra into a memorable performance of one of the most brilliant moments of Puccini’s music, greatly enhancing the power of the chorus and Scarpia’s presence amidst them. All other parts were effectively sung and the production is really excellent, after  accepting that Bondy is not Zefferilli. The settings by Richard Peduzzi do not always work but are generally well suited to the dramatic action of the opera, most particularly in Acts I and III, and the lighting by Max Keller greatly contributes to their impact. The costumes were designed by no less than Milena Canonero, who has been nominated for countless Oscars and who won the coveted academy award Oscar three times,or Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire and Marie Antoinette. Her designs were period based, rather beautiful in terms of Tosca’s gowns, dark and effective for Scarpia and his thugs but perhaps a little too elaborate in the church scenes and Te Deum.

The opera live transmission, expertly directed for film by Gary Halvorson, was wonderfully introduced by American mezzo Susan Graham who also conducted interviews with members of the cast, chorus master, costume designer and production director, during the two intervals. Ms Graham did a very good job. Of all the star-singers that have presented the Met live transmissions, she was one of the best to my mind, managing to sound unrehearsed, spontaneous and sincere. She maintained a natural smile and kept her composure even when some of the non-English speaking interviewees, in their enthusiasm, let out some words that would have been “bleeped” on television but which brought amused laughs to the audience in the Barbican cinema.

Despite Bondi's liberties with the text, I thoroughly enjoyed this production of Puccini’s Tosca. Luc Bondy's  variations were minor in the end and did not matter so much. The singing was exceptional; the quality and care for detail was patent throughout. Most important of all, Puccini’s music and its dramatic meaning were never forgotten and so, director, cast, orchestra, conductor and designers created a production that made full justice to the composer and his opera. The Met audience on the day seemed to agree with me: there was no booing and they offered all artists a standing ovation at the end.

Margarida Mota-Bull

The next Met Opera Live broadcast is on 24th October of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.

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