Puccini's Hitchcockian masterpiece, Il Tabarro, remains a vastly underrated work but at least it didn't suffer Tosca's sad fate -- the fetishization of a minor, if scarily effective work by an angry posse of self-appointed custodians of operatic correctness. A Tosca that does not conform to a certain dramatic -- not to mention musical -- template won't go down well -- tamper with at your own risk, if you're a director of conductor. Scala's new Tosca -- directed by Luc Bondy and conducted by Omer Meir Wellber -- does not conform, neither dramatically nor musically, to anything, sentenced to a difficult life in conservative houses -- like previously The Metropolitan Opera, and now, La Scala.
Flashback to September 2009 season opener for The Metropolitan Opera, when New Yorkers politely freaked the f**k out as Bondy's controversial Tosca premiered to replace the benedicted, Zeffirelli-anointed Tosca of seasons past where shouts of ~eurotrash~ unfairly rose to hysterical volumes (OC's editorial here). Now, Luc Bondy's production heard around the world opened a few weeks ago in Milan and is rounding third base of its run.
In the tenuous light of early January, rumors buzzed that Bondy's conception for Puccini's opera noir would be eviscerated by Scala's traditional audience, notably the blood-lusty loggione, starved of fresh meat and cranky from crappy christmas stockings full of coal -- and Tosca's opening night was appropriately full of drama.
Last minute cancellations of its four principals was blamed on a nasty, opportunistic virus, which prompted Scala Intendant Stephane Lissner to make a rare, pre-show stage appearance to placate the foaming masses. Among the sick was Jonas Kaufmann (Cavaradossi #1), Oksana Dyka (Tosca #1), Marco Berti (Cavaradossi #2) and Davide Pellissero (Sciarrone). At la prima's final curtain call, young Israeli conductor and Barenboim pupil Omer Meir Wellber took the most heat, viscerally booed by both the audience (and apparently the orchestra) in a passionate brawl between the younger and older generations of loggione.
For La Scala's replications, Bondy's production had been changed, slightly however, down to mere details. Richard Peduzzi's sets still feel solid, especially Act I's rustic Chuch of Sant'Andrea della Valle (and yes, Cavaradossi's portrait of Mary Magdalene still has an exposed tit). Scarpia's apartment in Act II's Palazzo Farnese still has the three whores, although less whorey in diaphanous gowns with lap dancing and oral sexing left on the cutting room floor. Little changes peppered stage direction, but the minutiae converged into a more linear, less clumsy narrative, and the changes brought Tosca closer to Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's melodrama, although still far enough to leave the Tosca fetishists annoyed.
Star of the night was Sondra Radvanovsky's Tosca, who had earlier subbed on opening night for the stricken Dyka. Earlier tonight she sang her last Tosca of the run and then she's off to Teatro Regio Torino to star as the lead in Verdi's enormous I Vespri siciliani with Gianandrea Noseda conducting a special run in commemoration of Italy's 150th anniversary of unification (it falls on March 17). As lead Tosca, Radvanovsky hit her stride immediately, giving a stellar performance -- spinning an effortless, stunning, confident Tosca that anchored the cast. She was the full package vocally, dramatically, and physically, a winning trifecta of ticket-to-budget ratio. She adapted the full spectrum of Tosca's pop-dimensional character expression -- vulnerable, courageous, contrite, jealous -- with elegant ease. Rock solid, she balanced old-school preparation and musicianship with modern presence. Her immense voice, honeyed at its top and chilling in the middle showed gorgeous color all around. From Act I's duet with Cavaradossi "Ah Quegli occhi" to Act II's hook, Vissi d'arte, she was on point.
Marco Berti as Cavaradossi was strongly delineated and had a solid presence, his "E lucevan le stelle" sensitive and moving. Zeljko Lucic's Scarpia was fine, and the role was sung with the understanding that Scarpia's not just the scary bad dude, but a man of intelligence and poise.
As for Omer Meir Wellber's musical interpretation that left him roasted by the audience on opening night? For traditionalists, we understand the dissatisfaction with Wellber's perfectly un-Puccini interpretation. We're more accustomed to De Sabata's (mind you: masterful, as it is always the case with DeSabata) Tosca: moody chiaroscuro with juicy foreshadowing and leitmotifs. A poem on man's evil, manipulative, bloody nature.
Wellber's disjointed Tosca lacked all of that in a subdued, delineated wash. It was an optimist's Tosca full of melodic outbursts in brilliantly-bright color -- although never brassy -- it was exaggerated and experimental. At its worst, it was too muted, too subdued for Puccini's darkly profound score, and when moments of clairty beckoned, Wellber was too jubilant and too celebratory. At even worse moments, Wellber skimmed the surface of the score, and the result was an aloofness and flaky detachment.
So it's down to two theories: Wellber understood early on that he wouldn't be able to keep Puccini's monster afloat and resorted to Plan B by marking the composition with enough idiosyncrasies that it became something else. Or he was trying to balance the severity of Puccini's thunder with overlays of light. In teh end, Wellber's Puccini makes you think -- and rethink your preconceived notions of how Puccini sounded on your parent's dusty CDs. And that's the attitude we like for a 2011 Tosca.