Friday, April 16, 2010

Mia Tosca idolatrata

At the risk of losing all credibility by enthusing effusively for two successive operas, I have to say that Wednesday's "Tosca" was an extraordinary experience. I am firmly and passionately in the camp that argues for "Tosca" as intelligent, effective drama. There are so many moments in it which leave me in awe of Puccini--how did he know to do that?--and I am a happy believer in Tosca and Mario and Scarpia as complex, passionate people. So, my susceptibility (but also the choosiness that is based on love!) having been established, onwards.

To be honest, I can't quite say "ogni cosa in te mi piace" about the Met's current production, but let me try to follow the King's advice from Alice and begin at the beginning (and, when I come to the end, stop.) Luc Bondy's stark new production, and the Met audience's reaction to it, have both achieved notoriety by this point. But having seen it twice now (in standing room for the glamor--and, as it turns out, for the boos--of the season premiere) I think I can honestly say that... it's hit and miss. In Act I, the image of the Virgin at which Tosca prays is invisible to the audience. The space in which the action of Act I takes place is simply a stark, slightly untidy work space. Act II is... well, I still think it's ugly. Scarpia's walls are mustard-yellow and chocolate brown; he has aggressively magenta sofas, large maps on the walls, a writing desk (of course!) and a tiny table with one straight chair and one armchair for his "povera cena." And a throw rug which looks like something from IKEA gone wrong, which I was mercifully spared this time by standing in the orchestra instead of at the top. Act III is, again, stark, monumental. No angel, but a sheer staircase leading up to the battlements on the right, and a hatch in the center for the soldiers' entrances and exits. It's a comfortless, exposed place; the production as a whole does not seek to distract from the bleak realities of the plot. The approach is mostly naturalistic, with a few exceptions in lighting (stark spotlights on Angelotti's entrance, an ominous, hospital-bright glow from the off-stage room in Act II) and blocking (there's no plausible reason for Scarpia to enter the church and climb a staircase so that he overlooks the entire set... but it sure does make an entrance!) I think the first and third acts work well; I don't think a sensualist like Scarpia would have an ugly study! but there. More images from the whole thing here.

There were some changes made for this performance from when I saw it the first time. Scarpia no longer lustfully embraces the statue of the Virgin (!) although he stops just short. I still think that the infamous three whores are not quite in keeping with Scarpia's particular type of scrupulously hypocritical debauchery. However, vocally and dramatically, Bryn Terfel was commanding enough to toy with them, or let them dally with him, in a way that aptly combined emotional detachment with sensual gratification. I hate to say it, but I felt Gagnidze lacked the vocal power and charisma to carry it off credibly. Other things I noticed this time around I think must have been there all along, but these performers brought them out beautifully. The things the characters do with others' clothes, for instance: Mario, after a just-long-enough-for-a-prayer hesitation, whips the veil from Tosca's hair and spins her into his arms; Scarpia fingers the painter's coat in his absence in a dismissive way which Bodes No Good; Tosca refuses to let Scarpia take her cloak in Act II; Mario pulls off his lover's gloves to kiss the "dolci mani."

What about the actual performance? It gets a separate post. I'm still recovering. In brief, Racette's Tosca was good; her voice was warm and secure and she had fine chemistry with both the men. Terfel was magnificently, utterly commanding. Kaufmann's Cavaradossi was of a vocal quality and theatrical intensity which made me suddenly understand why reviewers of his performances tend to bandy about words like "electrifying." Luisi led the orchestra which gave the music its lushness without depriving it of precision, drama without sacrificing subtlety. And the cumulative effect was devastating. So, more when I can write about it coherently: a testimony of uncontrollable trembling and furiously-bitten handkerchief does not a musical judgment make!

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