Don't shoot the messenger. Lash out at Swiss director Luc Bondy for retooling Zeffirelli's nonthreatening, stately Tosca. Go ahead, he doesn't mind. Hard times call for stripped-down flamboyance, although hard times make one crave familiar creature comforts. Hence, it's impossible to please everyone, and the traditionalist audience was already sharpening their claws at the thought alone of a new Tosca. And thus the new Luc Bondy (in his Metropolitan debut, about 35 years after he debuted everywhere else -- he's old news even at dusty la Scala) production of Puccini’s Tosca opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2009-10 season to what can diplomatically be described as "mixed" reviews where no production team member was free from criticism (and the singers mostly got away with it, in the usual NYC fashion).
The first season planned entirely by the team of General Manager Peter Gelb and Music Director James Levine, there's no one left to blame. No worries, as the opera is a co-production of Teatro alla Scala and the Bayerische Staatsoper, where it will show to Europe's blasé crowds (Daniele Gatti will conduct the Scala outing).
Too many cultural barometers for Bondy's visceral vision of Tosca, which thrusts itself on an audience yearning for nostalgia in a year fraught with crisis. Remember, it was Franco Zeffirelli's 1985 Tosca that premiered in a very different time: Ronald Reagan, yuppies with silly slicked back hair paving through big Wall Street profits, and really, our biggest foreign responsibility was famine relief in Ethiopia and trying not blow the Russians up if at all possible. Minimal, stark, intellectual stagings are nothing new for Bondy, nor is insisting upon the audience the intricacies of the libretto. Frengo's comforting, romanticized versions of Italy euthanized audiences: no Under the Tuscan Suns found here, this time, Bondy's Tosca will not do wonders for tourism -- no frozen, packaged fish already de-boned, deodorized, and de-headed.
Michael Bay or Michael Haneke? You can't have both.
Act I and a black curtain rises on the interior of Sant'Andrea della Valle. Tosca in the Napoleonic era. Cavaradossi finishes his portrait of Mary Magdalene, left breast exposed. Levine's conducting lovely and acceptable, but again, gutted of the storm and tempestuous foreshadowing that Puccini had flitted through his manuscript. A bit too maudlin and no new ideas to match Bondy's crystalline vision. We wanted a sound more harmonious with the cruel and abusive plot, more chiaroscuro, less pretty modeling. Separately, both leads showed weaknesses.
Karita Mattila sang the title role for the first time (outside of Finland -- she sang Tosca at Helsinki's Finnish National Opera in 2006) and although she poured herself into Tosca's shoes heroically, it was misplaced, and she was unable to pull the character through the full dimension. The underlying vulnerability that's overtly squandered as the opera unfolds was never there. Matilla was too haughty and severe from the beginning (stabbily destroying Cavaradossi's Mary Magdalene painting in an uncontrollable fit of jealousy, which was effective foreshadowing) focusing rather obtusely on the strengths of the character. She played a mature Tosca, contemplative and exacting. At times detached, casting Matilla in this role is like walking into Le Bernardin and ordering a hamburger: she's banked decades of successful reviews in German, Czech, and Russian (superbly singing in Salome, Eugene Onegin, Jenůfa & Kát’a Kabanová) but her Italian repertoire is too much of a stretch for the demanding soprano. And while the top of her vocal range wasn't entirely pleasant, her bottom notes were expressive without being too dark or muddled.
Marcelo Álvarez as Mario Cavaradossi at times showed-off gorgeous high notes, while his acting was convincing and thoughtful. A fine, if slightly unexciting Cavaradossi. Music Director James Levine (who made his Met debut conducting Tosca in 1971) ducked his head and forged forward with his orchestra, slowing down tempi at times that left the action on stage too static. Vissi d'arte was slowed-down to a point of nonrecognition, almost bringing the aria to a grinding halt.
George Gagnidze replaced last-minute Finnish bass-bariton, Juha Uusitalo, who pulled out as Scarpia due to illness (shame, as his Scarpia played opposite Mattila in the 2006 Finnish National Opera's Tosca). He played the menacing, cruel aristocrat without all the comedic flashings of a villain (thankfully). The one sore spot was his fateful death, a bit too hammy, all that upside-down floundering that was supposed to be gritty and visceral, but came across as drawn-out, a fish floundering for air (nor was it aided by Mattila's slightly glazed-over indifference). Bondy's big ideas were all there, but executed in a rushed, half-baked blocking. His ideas lacked full fruition, but the foundation was solid. With a different cast and different conductor, this production could be stellar: Stick around for a swapped-out (and frankly, upgraded) roster in April 2010, starring Daniela Dessì as Tosca, Jonas Kaufmann and Marcello Giordani splitting Cavaradossi, Bryn Terfel and Gagnidze sharing Scarpia, and Joseph Colaneri and Philippe Auguin with the conducting duties.
Act II's soaring assembly room of mustards and browns hearkened to Fascist Italy, with the three whores of Scarpia lounging on the red velvet couches. Shortcomings? We wish there had been more whores! As opposed to the uber-sexual Robert Carsen that always puts the thunder in our Yamamotos and trills in our panties, Bondy had difficulties with staging the eroticism of the opera, and rather, fell back on unimaginative representations of sex to provoke the lust. The excellent costumes of Milena Canonero, the Turin-born costumière and Otto Schenk co-conspirator, helped smooth over the bumps effectively as a three time Academy Award winner (for Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire, and Marie Antoinette, tho she also did the costumes for A Clockwork Orange, The Cotton Club, and Out of Africa).
Sets were well-constructed and elegant, designed by French set designer Richard Peduzzi (long-time collaborator with Patrice Chéreau, to which you'll see his work later this Fall in Janáček’s From the House of the Dead with Esa-Pekk) who was also making his Metropolitan Opera debut. Act III, the prison and ramparts of Castel Sant'Angelo were laid bare, elegant and understated, the perfect backdrop for such tragedy.
The traditionalists had been fearing this opening night for ages, another push that the old, craggy singers of their glory days go buried along with Zeffirelli's sets, irrelevant and mute. But Zeffirelli's going-thru-the-motions Tosca is what the Metropolitan audiences want anyway (listen, the MET is an American opera house for patriots only and it's cool and all that you like drinking tea and eating dumplings or whatever the hell they do in your third-world country for fun, but this is America and we don't have to cater to you). Europe's best intellects get filleted by the MET (Graham Vick). No (obvious) knife, no candles rolled through by the prop department -- is this what really makes a theatrically artistic vision so detestable?
Props can be left to the imagination if one is willing to stretch their comfort zones so far. Opening night at the MET, it was apparently too much to ask.