OC is back from the bloodsport opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's 2009/10 season, which unveiled Luc Bondy's new, heated production of Puccini's Tosca. A smattering of boos came from the Family Circle after the second act, which only multiplied by the final curtain call, raining down on the production team -- who knew better than to take the jeers to heart.
The evening wasn't about the Tosca lead, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila (although no one really thought the Fearless Finn would triumph, and after a lukewarm applause for Vissi d'Arte, it was clear she wouldn't be slam-dunking the role), nor was the evening about Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez (as Cavaradossi, he didn't disappoint but he didn't totally sparkle, although E lucevan le stelle was thoughtful, savored, and heartfelt). The evening was all about Luc Bondy's out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new production, pushing Franco Zefferelli's classic and patriotically adored sets into storage, the nostalgia for better times clinging viscerally to an insecure audience.
Frankly, Tosca isn't the fairytale postcard illusion that Franco Zeffirelli conceived for the Metropolitan Opera's adoring audiences years ago -- rather it's a nightmare of despair, rage, and trauma. Wrapped in Zeffirelli's Norman Rockwellian patina, that bitter pill is complacently swallowed by fans who bittersweetly remember Pavarotti limping painfully through the maze of Act III's upturned stones. We have unrelenting respect for Frengo -- we enjoyed his Aida extravaganza at Scala from a couple years ago (much more than poor Alagna, at least) -- but opera, like cinema, is banal when it goes too long unchallenged.
Zeffirelli's equilibrium-heavy direction spoon feeds every single nuance of the libretto -- no knife goes (un)brandished, no elephant goes (un)strutted, and no lace hat goes (un)tipped -- which is comforting, and makes the most aloof spectator duly enlightened. Bondy's direction asserted too much, and assumed that everyone had brushed-up on their European history (and Stendhal's Italian Chronicles).
Unfortunately, James Levine's conducting was the disappointment of the evening. We've heard his Metropolitan Opera Tosca many times live before, and it never ceased to chill us with swaths of intricate color and peppery foreshadowing, leitmotifs nailed. Tonight, however, Levine slowed-down the tempi to a tenuous, schmaltzy sentiment that lacked chiaroscuro, delicious shades, pathos, or punch. Karita Mattila's Tosca was detached, somewhat preoccupied, and lacked a certain vulnerability that makes the character's strength more powerful. Vocally, we prefer a more encompassing color, although Mattila's lower register had us reeling with its bone-chilling assertiveness. George Gagnidze's Scarpia was provocative and solid ('tho his Italian diction left some to be desired).
Richard Peduzzi's sets were deliciously well-constructed (none of that cheap material & shoddy craftsmanship that we had with Zimmerman's Lucia) and architecturally sumptuous. Act I's Chuch of Sant'Andrea della Valle was the archetype of Italy's most gorgeous, rustic and elegant churches -- you know, the ones that aren't in the guidebooks that tourists don't bother visiting because there's no stained glass or pink marble or powdery frescoes -- just soaring, harmonious brick. Instead of a flowing procession for the Te Deum masterpiece, Bondy swarmed & coagulated the priests into a suffocating and oppressive swell. Act II's Palazzo Farnese was a cruel, Fascist ode to tyrannical abusive power instead of Zeffirelli's hyper-realistic, almost comical library. Act III's ramparts of Castel Sant'Angelo brought us allusions to Manet's Execution of Maximilian. Scattered moments of Bondy's direction came across as awkward and affected, but good chemistry between the singers helped spurn the action when it hiccuped. Stripped of sentimentality, this was a thinking man's Tosca. And we were illuminated. Full review coming later...