When a critic friend invited me to the Met Tosca, I jumped at the chance. I wanted another opportunity to hear Angela Gheorghiu – my only previous live experience of her was nearly 20 years ago, singing one side of the L’amico Fritz duet at the Met Gala for James Levine. I was also curious to see director Luc Bondy’s much-discussed and often dissed Tosca production, introduced in 2009, which I had seen only on video.
I definitely saw Gheorghiu. Whether I saw Bondy’s production is, I think, an open question.
Typically, an opera production will undergo some changes each season it is reintroduced – more so when the show has been controversial. Elements are revised, softened, or disappear entirely. Some of this is deliberate, some perhaps just inevitable over time. At the Met, it’s mostly the case that revivals are directed by someone other than the original creator; new casts also bring in artists who have their own ideas about what is right for them – and what isn’t.
In the case of this Tosca, baritone Željko Lučić as Scarpia incorporated a number of Bondy’s ideas – embracing the Madonna statue at the end of Act I, for example, and playfully interacting with a group of prostitutes in Act II. Generally, I found Lučić more impressive here than I have before – a resourceful actor, with a strong, well-knit baritone of good color and substance – not a Scarpia for the ages, but a fine house standard.
From there, though, the connection to Bondy grew fainter. Tenor Roberto Aronica looks good on stage – he projects a sense of comfort and naturalness, which already puts him ahead of many opera singers. But there’s no real “acting,” to speak of – no specific choices or emotional involvement. Vocally, Aronica has an excitingly clarion upper range – the repeated cries of “Vittoria” rang out as needed – but not much lyricism or legato. His tonal muscularity was better for Acts I and II than Act III, which lacked delicacy and line.
Among the three principals, though, it was Angela Gheorghiu who really went her own way. I should say at the start that she’s an artist on a different level than the other two. Her timbre is a “star sound,” highly personal and affecting, and there’s a special sense of stage glamour. Her considerable good looks help, of course – but that’s not all of it. She inflects the words, and her phrasing is graceful. More than two decades of international stardom haven’t dimmed any of that, and her voice remains especially lustrous in the upper reaches.
If the lower register is more fragile now – and the voice is (and probably always was) small for Tosca, especially in Met-sized house – she knew precisely how to make it work. Each phrase was engineered to the last detail. Predictably, there was an air of calculation about it all – nothing seemed remotely spontaneous. Still, one admired the old fashioned professionalism.
But – literally every moment seemed conjured out of some historical Tosca playbook. It was as though she were channeling any number of previous interpreters, assembling from this her “own” Tosca. (Nowhere was this more evident than in “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” – a strangely inflected Sprechgesang audio-collage that alternated between baleful chest and whispery mixed voice, and seemed to have been taped together, word by word.)
Theatrically speaking, this was a mixed bag Tosca, re-staged rather than really directed, and played in front of the sets (by Richard Peduzzi) designed for Luc Bondy. For the record, I rather like the gray, somewhat brutal world invoked in Acts I (set in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle) and II (Castel Sant’Angelo). Act II, meant to be in the Palazzo Farnese, is just plain ugly, and suggests no actual room I can imagine.
Gheorghiu fans were clearly in attendance — the hubbub in the lobby before the opera began had a kind of electricity, and her “Vissi d’arte” – to my mind well-sung but not particularly memorable – was generously applauded. In the past, Gheorghiu has been a frequent canceller, which always lends some will-she-or-won’t-she excitement, and I think many in the audience were expecting (and hoping, and maybe even determined to turn it into) An Event.
In the end, though, it wasn’t – at least not for me. For better and worse, it was a pretty good night at the opera – some considerable musical rewards, but a theatrical grab-bag.
My take on the Palazzo Farnese set is that Scarpia, who has been called to Rome hastily to quash a possible revolt, has been assigned a disused wing of the palace to use as a provisional headquarters. Perhaps this was some sort of reception room or small council chamber that has been refitted with furniture scrounged from elsewhere, which I think explains the thrown-together look. In other words, it’s quite obviously not a room that was ever intended to be an office.
The fourth act of the Sardou play (more or less the equivalent of the second act of the opera) takes place in a similar improvised “office” inside the Castel Sant’Angelo. The room includes a public space as well as a sort of private apartment with a bed off to one side. The implication is that Scarpia is so dedicated to his work that he works and sleeps there in the prison.
I actually sort of like the impersonality and sheer ugliness of that second act set; it feels like a police station, albeit one in a place that has not much respect for civil liberties.
I also don’t mind necessarily mind ugly, and it was Act II that I was most interested in — it’s time for some rethinking of the iconic Tosca stagings. But here, it really pointed up the disconnect between Bondy (what’s left of it) and what this cast actually does. I picked up on the idea of this room as thrown together — but then it needs a plan of dramatic action that actually makes use of that (those “given circumstances” that actors and directors love). I should watch the video again, to see if there’s more there with Mattila and co…