Opinion: Tosca, Seen Through Different Eyes

Email a Friend

It is no secret that the production of Puccini’s Tosca now in the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera (staging and concept by Luc Bondy; set design by Richard Peduzzi; costumes by Milena Canonero; lighting by Max Keller) came in for some negative reviews after its opening in 2009. While I think the production is flawed, particularly in the third act, I also think it is not nearly as bad as some critics have said. With the right singers who can give themselves to the music and engage with a production, controversial directorial choices become far more secondary. Stay with me before hurling flames.

I am someone who never thought the previous Tosca (staging and concept by Franco Zeffirelli; costumes by Peter J. Hall; lighting by Gil Wechsler) was anywhere near as good as the prevailing nostalgic memory would dictate. To me it only caught fire when certain performers (especially Eva Marton, a young Maria Guleghina, and Plácido Domingo) were so vivid that they were not overwhelmed by the scenery.

Donal Henahan, who reviewed the Zeffirelli production for The New York Times in March 1985, seemed to share my feelings, although I was much more taken with Hildegard Behrens’s admittedly imperfect but thrilling Tosca. He spoke of the “unimaginative and often clumsy direction,” including the distraction caused by “a stage full of extraneous bodies” in the first act and scenery that was "remarkable chiefly for its monumentality and almost photographic realism.”

But what good were they if you could not properly stage an opera in their midst? 

In an essay a couple of weeks later, Henahan observed, “Overinflated, overconceptualized, overproduced opera has reached the point in its evolution where it may be considered a new theatrical form, a genre that is satisfied with filling the eye because the artist mistrusts the power of music to fill the mind and heart.”

My problem with the Zeffirelli was, in a way, the one I had with the Bondy: The directors did not trust the original material. Puccini was a supreme dramatist and he knew what he was doing. Zeffirelli’s sets for acts one and two were so cluttered with furniture and impediments that the performers had little playing space to properly engage and interact. The advantage of the Bondy production is that the first two acts have perfectly designed spaces to play in and, with the right performers, that can happen.

Andrea Gruber in the title role of the Franco Zeffirelli production of Tosca in 2006 (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

When the current production had its premiere (on opening night), the stars—Karita Mattila, Marcelo Alvarez, George Gagnidze—were undone by some of Bondy’s ideas, most of which were drawn from the libretto and background material rather than the powerful drama that Puccini created in his music. 

To give but one example, some audience members have complained to me that the second act starts with Scarpia cavorting with three prostitutes. He shows a remarkably quick recovery time from the fellatio that is performed on him before turning his attention to Tosca. (Needless to say, Puccini did not put this in his original creation). I found this detail objectionable not because of prudery—there is fellatio in Thomas Adé’s Powder Her Face that is entirely congruent with the story—but because it is stupid and entirely distracts from what this opera is about. 

I should point out that the Met co-produced this Tosca with two of the other best opera companies in the world: the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and La Scala in Milan. Make of that what you will.

If you had the good fortune to see Patricia Racette, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel in one of the four performances they gave in April 2010, you will recall that they kept much of the directorial silliness at arm’s length and relied on instinct and talent to create a fabulous night at the opera. They used the playing spaces to their advantage. These singers were followed by Daniela Dessì, Marcello Giordani and Gagnidze, and only the latter seemed caught in the trap of the original staging. But the Tosca and Mario were quite compelling.

This season, I went to three performances, each with a different Tosca—Racette, Elisabete Matos, Sondra Radvanovsky—and with Roberto Alagna and Giordani as Mario, and Gagnidze stuck in neutral as Scarpia. All the sopranos and tenors sang and acted persuasively and, for the first two acts at least, the show worked when they were performing. I was happy to see all three sopranos because each gave herself to the music first and each, in her own way, engaged with Gagnidze in the monumental act two encounter and found her own moments in the music and acting. And my impression of the staging changed dramatically.

Rudolf Bing, who was the Met's general manager from 1950-1972, loved to boast that the company was a “singer’s house” and he had the most enviable roster of artists in the world. The Tosca productions from the 1960s were nothing special but Bing could cast one thrilling soprano after the next each season and audience members went several times to compare them. Among these were Licia Albanese, Lucine Amara, Grace Bumbry, Maria Callas, Régine Crespin, Dorothy Kirsten, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek and Renata Tebaldi. Fine tenors (including Franco Corelli, Sandor Konya and Richard Tucker) and baritones (including Tito Gobbi and Cornel MacNeil) were on hand to enrich these performances.

I would love to see the Met do an opera each year in which several great artists with valid things to communicate in a role each gives two or three performances while in the house for another opera. My proposal for the first of these would be Strauss’s Ariadne. Among those I would happily hear are Christine Brewer, Christine Goerke, Karita Mattila, Anne Schwanewilms, Martina Serafin and Nina Stemme.

Goerke is now getting the attention she merits and Schwanewilms had a successful debut recently in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Serafin is echt-Viennese with many appealing qualities. Brewer, Mattila and Stemme have been scarce at the Met at a time when sopranos of this caliber are few and far between. Another excellent artist I would like to hear is Adrianne Pieczonka, the Canadian soprano who has a big career in Europe but whom we do not see often in New York. Let’s have all seven and make it a true event, artistically and in terms of generating interest in New York’s leading opera company as a singer’s house. The Met has an excellent production of Ariadne auf Naxos and James Levine loves to conduct it.

Photo: Jonas Kaufmann and Patricia Racette in the Met's Tosca (Corey Weaver/Met)