New York’s classical music press is waging war on Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb again, and for the usual reasons. Gelb has dared to commission a production that is marred by . . . too much beauty, and too much fidelity to the composer’s intent.
The target of the critic’s bile this time is a gorgeous new setting of Puccini’s Tosca, directed by Sir David McVicar. The McVicar production was a deliberate course correction. In 2009, Gelb triggered an audience revolt by junking the regnant Franco Zeffirelli Tosca and replacing it with a dreary, brick-heavy, and rather sordid mounting by Luc Bondy. Compared with the travesties that now dominate European opera stages, the Bondy Tosca was tame. But sheltered New York operagoers thought they were seeing the devil’s work. Some subscribers cancelled their subscriptions. Gelb swallowed his pride and admitted a blunder. “I’ve learned my lesson,” he said in an interview. “When it comes to a classic piece of repertoire, beauty counts—and that’s what the audience wants.”
And beauty, in the service of dramatic intensity, is what the McVicar production delivers. Tosca is a site-specific work, set in actual landmarks of Rome at a particular moment: June 14, 1800, the day Napoleon beat the Austrians in the Battle of Morengo in Northern Italy, a victory which loosed Austria’s grip over most of Italy. Ever since Tosca’s debut 100 years later, set designers have relished recreating for each of its three acts Rome’s Church of Sant-Andrea della Valle, an interior of the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant-Angelo fortress, against which plays out the deadly pursuit by Rome’s police chief Baron Scarpia of the singer Floria Tosca and her lover, the painter and political radical Mario Cavaradossi. The Bondy Tosca had largely overridden Puccini’s scenic directions; McVicar follows them. The basilica is a monumental explosion of Baroque grandeur with towering pilasters and arches, pink marble, and a sunburst altar recalling Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel. More fluid and less fussy in its wall decorations than the Zeffirelli church, the soaring interior is raked on a diagonal axis so that exterior sunlight can flood down a side aisle at the back of the stage. Scarpia’s apartment is covered with a surrealistically massive, fleshy fresco in red and saffron daubs, inspired by Tiepolo’s Rape of the Sabine Women. A charcoal gray dawn envelops the upper platform of the Castel Sant-Angelo in the third act; the statue of the Archangel Michael at the top of the battlement had been anticipated by the opera’s arresting stage curtain, a tornado of red and pink brushstrokes suggesting the angel’s downward-thrusting sword. (Set designer John McFarlane produced a similarly kinetic stage curtain, featuring a deep-red lion and gryphon in battle, for McVicar’ s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Met.)
When the Met audience applauded the Act One set, the production was doomed from a critical perspective. Such a naive audience reaction is a sure sign that the director and set designer have failed in their duty to provoke and challenge. (In fact, applause for stage sets simply reflects the indelible human fascination with mimesis.) The New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini lamented that Gelb had learned the wrong lesson from the audience revolt over the Bondy Tosca and was likely taking the company in the wrong direction. “The discouraging implication of the new Tosca,” he wrote morosely, “is that when it comes to staging standard repertory works, modern is bad.” If “beauty” is going to be the criterion for classic repertoire, Tommasini warned, Gelb should make sure that his definition of beauty “remains expansive, encompassing more than just Mr. McVicar’s traditional-looking, scrupulously inoffensive Tosca.” What more should that definition encompass? Tommasini longs for a “gritty, dark take” on the opera, but leaves the details to the reader’s imagination. And Tommasini wants a “concept,” not just an imaginative rendition of the work’s roiling passions: “almost admitting that he has nothing particularly new to say about the work, Mr. McVicar fills his staging with dozens of details, actorly touches that help the performers bring freshness and subtlety to characters every opera fan knows intimately.” Remarkably, that description is intended as an indictment, since it shows that the production is “aimed at the Met’s conservative core.”
Here is what Tommasini and his colleagues miss: beauty is what is so scandalous about Tosca. Scarpia’s sadism and the Papal States’ abuse of authority are all the more shocking played off against the splendor of Baroque Rome. That splendor is both a counterpoint to the story’s human evil and a counterpart to it—those exquisitely designed tributes to temporal and religious authority were themselves likely erected through remorseless power. Pace Tommasini, Tosca is already “gritty” and “dark.” The offstage torture of Cavaradossi is agonizing. Scarpia exploits Cavardossi’s impending execution to force Tosca to prostitute herself with him. His expressions of lust are explicit and feral. “Spasms of wrath, spasms of love, what difference does it make?” (“Che importa? Spasimi d’ira, spasimi d’amore!”), he says to Tosca as she repulses his advances. Corpses pile up over the course of the opera. If by “grittiness” and “darkness,” Tommasini means a less sublime setting, Verismo conventions were already prevalent in 1900; Puccini himself used them in Il Tabarro. Here, however, he chose grandeur. To reject that choice is to reject the opera itself.
The New York Observer’s James Jorden, New York’s shrillest advocate for revisionist opera productions, was so enraged by what he astonishingly calls “this shambles of a Tosca” that he saw only “metaphorical and literal murk,” a drama-less “diorama of a production, which mostly left the principals to wander about in front of John Macfarlane’s heavily photorealistic sets.” He claims the dramaturgy was “inert” and the production “listless.” Translation: McVicar did not import incest or explicit S & M sex into the staging.
The reality is that McVicar provided a crystalline presentation of the opera’s dramatic themes, carried along by passionately committed singing and ravishing orchestral playing. The production acutely limned the tragic intersection between the male world of political intrigue and heroic rebellion and the female world of love and jealousy. Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo inhabited the role of Cavaradossi with almost alarming intensity, at moments throwing both his arms and mouth wide open as if the turbulence of his emotions would otherwise have insufficient outlet. Cavaradossi’s consuming zeal for freedom reminded one of what real oppression—not the imaginary variety of today’s identity politics—was about. Grigolo’s sound spanned hooded darkness and bright ringing tones, inflected by the sobbing grace notes characteristic of late nineteenth-century melodrama. Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva (like Grigolo, making her role debut here) has an appealing metallic burr in her voice that gives it substance, but which does not interfere with a flowing legato. Tosca’s childish piety can be cloying, but Yoncheva gave particular poignancy to her character’s ultimately failed effort to master the male game of political manipulation. Serbian baritone Željko Lučić played Scarpia with understated malevolence, his libido as tightly wound as his brocaded black vest and jackets. Whereas Ruggiero Raimondi grabbed Catherine Malfitano in a long, hungry kiss in a 1992 live TV performance shot on site in Rome, Lučić’s Scarpia simply licks the finger with which he has wiped away one of Tosca’s tears. Scarpia’s toadies, the inevitable entourage of despots, slither around him with obsequiousness. Though a suave singer, Lučić provided the only vocal disappointment of the evening, however: during the Te Deum, perhaps the most overpowering ensemble in the operatic repertoire, his “Va, Tosca’s,” those percussive eruptions of malice and desire, failed to carry over the orchestra.
Light, designed by David Finn, plays an ironic role in this production, flooding out of Scarpia’s torture cellar along with Cavaradossi’ s screams, and illuminating the Te Deum procession that celebrates the (falsely) reported triumph of the royalist forces over Napoleon, at that moment in history still perceived as the bearer of Enlightenment against the forces of darkness.
For all its famous arias, Tosca’s greatness lies in its orchestral writing. Each act ends with a marvel of orchestral composition, expressing feelings that lie beyond words. To be sure, soloist and chorus are an essential component of the Act One Te Deum, but they ride on waves and explosive clashes of instrumental sound. At the end of Act Two, as Tosca credulously negotiates with Scarpia for her and Cavaradossi’ s safe passage from Rome, a melody of sorrow, yearning, and foreboding, harmonized in melancholy thirds and fourths, wells up from the strings. In the final scene, Tosca coaches Cavaradossi for his “fake” execution against the backdrop of a bittersweet waltz, Mahlerian in its emotional complexity, that grows in majesty until its pathos becomes unbearable. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume captured the sweep and nuance of these moments with suppleness and sensitivity.
The Met’s artistic achievement here was all the more notable given the casting chaos that had preceded it. The originally scheduled principal singers and conductor all cancelled over the previous year; the latter’s first replacement, James Levine, was suspended from the Met in December under accusations of long-ago sexual harassment. Yet despite a recently assembled cast and conductor, the musical and dramatic values remained superlative, a testament to the caliber of artistry in the classical music world today.
Within a decade or two, someone will likely compose an opera set in Trump Tower on election night 2016, exposing the unprepared but malignant forces that would engulf the U.S. over the ensuing four years. If a director transplanted that Trump election opera to the Cotswolds in 1785, say, and recast it as a rivalry among neighboring landowners, the music press would assail the interference with the composer and librettist’s dramatic intent that prevented audiences from understanding the work's searing social critique. Just because a piece is old and (sadly) overly familiar does not mean that such rewriting is any more justified. Works of art allow us to enter a different world and a different mind than our own. It is narcissism to demand that they ape our own sensibilities.
The McVicar Tosca will be broadcast live in movie theaters on January 27 and will return to the opera house in April and May 2018 with Anna Netrebko in the title role.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera