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.
OC reported early this morning (see post below) on the cancellations that were rumoured to plague tomorrow night's Tosca (in Luc Bondy's controversial new direction) is now made official by La Scala. Italian news agency ANSA reports that La Scala's currently under attack of a nasty virus that's culled half of Tosca's opening night cast.
Among the sick are Jonas Kaufmann (Cavaradossi #1), Oksana Dyka (Tosca), Marco Berti (Cavaradossi #2) and Davide Pellissero (Sciarrone), all who have contracted a fast-spreading virus.
Kaufmann's to be replaced by Aleksandrs Antonenko in the role of Cavaradossi, Sondra Radvanovsky saves the day as lead Tosca, and Alessandro Calamai will sing Sciarrone.
(Above: Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia in LOC's current new production of Un Ballo in Maschera. Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago)
Sondra Radvanovsky a.k.a. ~The Rad~ is coming to Milan. She's stepping in a lead role at Teatro alla Scala for the February 2011 Puccini Tosca. The American soprano is filling-in for the originally-cast Austrian soprano Martina Serafin (we wrote about it here). Win/win yay/yay since young conductor Omer Meir Wellber will be leading the Luc Bondy production. The Rad splits lead duties with Oksana Dyka; Cavaradossi is Jonas Kaufmann and Marco Berti; and Scarpia is Zeljko Lucic and Bryn Terfel. The Rad will be singing Tosca at Scala for only her second time** her third time on stage (the first time was Opera Colorado last season) which made for XdoubleX [c-o-l-o] R-A-D [o]. Rad-O.
Images from Puccini's Tosca that opened last night at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. Svetla Vassileva is Tosca, Marcello Giordani is Cavaradossi, and Juan Pons is Scarpia in the late Mauro Bolognini's classic production. Photos: Falsini.
Only in New York City would an essentially conventional, prudent opera director such as Luc Bondy be considered some sort of insane, incendiary bomb-thrower, the Piero Manzoni (link mildly NSFW) of the opera world. It's New York at its most unfavorable; the city where at the opera house, blessed are the meek because new things and new ideas make the audiences nervous and desperate, where singers get standing ovations, karaoke-style, just for showing up -- the Tosca premiere no exception -- and directors don't even have to be faithful to the libretto (a highly debatable definition to begin with) but they simply should be as Zeffirelli-like as they can.
"What would Franco do?", the director is supposed to think, then act accordingly: when in doubt, over-decorate, cram mind-numbing detail into every corner to show the audience that they really got their money's worth. Oh, and sex is also a very bad, scary thing -- and anyway, some big paper critics want the rape victims to be as hot as they can be -- "She was also remarkably unsexy, which made one wonder what Scarpia was so excited about", wrote the Wall Street Journal about poor Karita Mattila, that the financial newspaper, always pragmatic, simply didn't find rape-able -- not hot enough to be attacked by Scarpia, Tosca must not have asked for it badly enough.
One is therefore worried and a bit saddened by New York that as of late, gleefully collects opera directors heads like wildlife mounts in Teddy Roosevelt's study -- first Graham Vick then Mary Zimmerman and now Luc Bondy, the latest stag sacrificed on the altar of the city's opera-going mediocrity. Only in New York, seriously, a half-a$$ed minimalist like Bondy could be depicted as some sort of deranged Calixto Bieito by an audience eager to preserve (in amber) Franco Zeffirelli's stagings for all eternity (and obviously Frengo, for all his by0tchyness, does well what he does -- his old Bohème and Tosca and Aida and more than a few other stagings are indeed well thought out and worth seeing -- but, really, how many times? Like, forever?).
"To me, Eurotrash is Zeffirelli", Graham Vick once said, and it's hard not to think of his prophecy in the middle of all this Tosca chatter.
Bondy unsurprisingly and predictably got on the nerves of opera-goers that consider stark sets an insult to the art form -- they want opera as Moulin Rouge, as a Disneyland version of a romanticized, European past that might or might not have existed in the first place. Zeffirelli obviously delivers their goods, with more taste and talent than most of his contemporaries -- he is and will always remain a 1950s man, with the happy exception of his Busseto pocket-size "Aida". An audience that essentially knows what it wants -- traditional stagings, big stars (even in the sad twilights of their careers, see Pavarotti's last hurrah), big voices, designer costumes, expensive-looking sets -- is pretty hard to deal with, especially in a time of financial crisis. And for all the "Broadway Pete" talk, once the Met audience roughs up a couple more new directors -- one can only imagine what David McVicar's Pasolini-style Salome or his orgiastic Rigoletto would ignite among the Metropolitan opera-goers -- poor Peter Gelb will basically have to hire back Zeffirelli and have him rehash his old stuff, or raise poor Jean-Pierre Ponnelle from the dead, and then Luchino, too, and usher in the glorious new age of the zombie opera directors -- zombies who, famously, like to eat brains, and in their Metropolitan opera outings would probably end up skipping dinner, if last night's reaction is anything to go by.
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...
Luc Bondy (in his Metropolitan Opera premiere) unveils his new production of Puccini's Tosca to open the 2009/10 season, tonight at 6:30pm. Filling Bondy's on-stage vision is Karita Mattila as Tosca (singing the role for the first time outside of her native Finland), Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi, George Gagnidze as Scarpia, and James Levine on the podium.
If you won't be in the Metropolitan Opera audience tonight, the Met makes it super easy to be part of the Tosca opening night festivities, even without a ticket. The performance will be transmitted live from the opera house to multiple jumbotrons in both Times Square and Lincoln Center's Robertson Plaza. Both events are free, but tickets are required for the Lincoln Center broadcast (which were handed out yesterday...sucks for you if you missed it)! If you missed the crush for Lincoln Center tickets, you can head down to Times Square, where 2,000 free seats await crowds on a first-come, first-serve basis (there'll also be standing room provisions).
Housebound fans can also listen to the performance by going to the Metropolitan Opera's website, which will offer a live audio stream on their website (albeit via Real Player's cumbersome software). You can also listen on Metropolitan Opera Radio on SIRIUS channel 78 and XM Channel 79.
Bondy's Tosca will have eight performances total, starting tonight and ending on Saturday, October 17 -- plus a revival in April & May with Philippe Auguin conducting Daniela Dessi's Tosca (*unf unf unf*) with Jonas Kaufmann and Marcello Giordani splitting the role of Cavaradossi, and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia.
Here are a few photos from the dress rehearsal of Luc Bondy's new production of Tosca, which will premiere and open the 2009/10 season of The Metropolitan Opera on Monday, September 21, 2009. James Levine conducts Karita Mattila in the title role with Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi, George Gagnidze as Scarpia, and Paul Plishka as Sacristan.
(Above: ~Hampson is like the fire to our earth, wind & water~. photo: Simon Fowler)
American baritone Thomas Hampson embraces the dark side of ~The Force~ as he prepares to make his career debut as the villainous Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca at the Opernhaus Zürich on March 29, 2009. The shiny-new Robert Carsen production will be conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, and stars Emily Magee as Tosca & Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi.
Puccini's ~Go Big or Go Home~ opera interpreted by Carsen should be awesome for all the right reasons: the rape scene extra rapey, the stab scene extra stabby, and somehow, he'll manage to incorporate an orgy (we're thinking for the Te Deum). And if anyone can get Hampson to show off his arsenal for art's sake, it's Carsen.
Last night, at teatro Comunale di Firenze, the audience's reaction to Daniela Dessì's Tosca has been so off the hook that the soprano has been requested to give an encore of "Vissi d'Arte", and she -- together with conductor Antonio Pirolli -- obliged.
The last time an encore had been performed at glorious Teatro Comunale in Florence? 1956. When another Italian soprano, la signorina Renata Tebaldi, as Violetta, offered an encore of Amami Alfredo.
Dessì's Tosca is part of a special Maggio Musicale Fiorentino program, "Recondita armonia", a pre-season, two-week "rassegna" of popular operas (Tosca, Boheme, Cavalleria Rusticana) that has already sold more than 30,000 tickets -- 5,000 of which to opera lovers under 26.
Tinkering only slightly with his trademark production of Tosca (aka the oldskool-y one with Callas) , and with a lot changes in the singers stage directions, Franco Zeffirelli's new Tosca has won raves by the Roman audience and very flattering reviews in the Italian press.
Now he's sometimes cranky and his 2006 Aida at la Scala was an example of how, given a big budget, Frengo can totally lose his marbles and give free rein to his crazy-potato instincts.
But the recent butchery of Orphéeperpetrated by the Alagna brothers has given us a bit of perspective. Because it's easy to sometimes forget that at this point of krazy direktor antiks in opera, well, Cranky Franco's respect for the main thrust of the libretto, the historical framework of the action, and for the dramatic sense of what's happening on stage, is very well deserving of our respect.
For all his crankiness, his wrongheaded premptive contempt for directors who try new things, and other peculiarities we're not very fond of, we hereby admit our girl crush for Frengo. Who'd never delude himself to the point of thinking that he knows more than Da Ponte or Piave about the meaning of what's supposed to take place on that stage.