A new Tosca at the Met

Safe bet that Sir David McVicar’s new production of Tosca, which premiered New Year’s Eve, will be remembered and cherished long after it’s been replaced by yet another new Tosca, set next time perhaps in an airplane hanger or backstage in a theater with lots of chairs or in a cardboard box for a church, as did the Met’s previous production, my god was that ever awful! Or, who knows, maybe in a submarine or on a newly discovered planet. I mean, hey, why not?

The answer to why not is obvious when Tosca is done right, as is this current new one. Sir David’s production of Tosca doesn’t hold back on the brutality or sexual aggressiveness of the drama but, unlike the previous production, it does not overwhelm or offend one with egregious lewdness or graphic body parts. John Macfarlane’s sets and costumes create reasonably realistic settings, fine in the overall creation of the actual locations in Rome, if taking a bit of artistic license here and there; David Finn’s lighting is atmospheric; Leah Hausman’s direction of the larger movements is mostly fine.

Sant'Andrea della Valle, Act I of Sir David McVicar's new  Tosca

Sant'Andrea della Valle, Act I of Sir David McVicar's new Tosca

Sonya Yoncheva is, overall, a convincing Tosca. As in my two previous encounters with her performance art (Verdi’s Desdemona and Violetta), she seems to get to the core of her character at times and is very much in the moment of the drama, but at other times the core seems to slip away or she is taking a short break or the direction doesn’t adequately cover these moments.* Yoncheva’s luxurious voice is always ample and pleasing, consistently so, ideal for the role actually. From a purely vocal standpoint all is well. Brava!

Vittorio Grigolo and Sonya Yoncheva in  Tosca

Vittorio Grigolo and Sonya Yoncheva in Tosca

Vittorio Grigolo brought on his customary dramatic sincerity and passion. I so admire this singer. Bravo! He is in every moment of the role on stage, vocally, dramatically, and emotionally. One feels the man’s many states, as for instance in Act III on the upper platform of Castel Sant’Angelo, overlooking Rome at dawn. Cavaradossi is flooded with memories of Tosca’s passion and laments his impending execution. When she informs him of her ordeal to get the mock execution order and safe passage from Rome he kisses her and kisses her with such passion as if to say a hundred times over thank you for saving my life. How could he know that, unfortunately, these will be his last moments on earth?

Look, though the plight of Floria Tosca is obviously central to the story, let us not forget that Cavaradossi is also a victim: in less than 24 hours (the time span of the plot) he goes from a cheery portrait painter with admittedly liberal leanings to arrest, interrogation under torture, imprisonment, ending up by the final curtain a cadaver full of bullet holes. There are no winners in this opera, but Tosca is not the only loser.

Tosca closes the deal in a manner different from Scarpia's expectations

Tosca closes the deal in a manner different from Scarpia's expectations

Though his first Scarpia at the Met, Željko Lučić is apparently no stranger to the role. Yet on this chilly night, or perhaps because of it, Lučić was not warm vocally at his entrance and he seemed at other times to let drop the intensity of the dramatic moment both in voice and in body language. It might be the pacing of the stage direction. More on this below.

Christian Zaremba was an anxious Angelotti; Patrick Carfizzi was a nervous Sacristan; Brenton Ryan was a stolid Spoletta; Christopher Job was Sciarrone. The Shepherd Boy was Jesse Schopflocher and the Jailer was Richard Bernstein.

Summary statement: Tosca is a great opera, newly and nicely executed at the Met. Don’t miss it!

Now for nit picking details: my performance, only the second in the run, was not perfect, but not for reasons that cannot be fixed. Or, without the negatives, it’ll sure work better with a few tweaks.

As the gentle reader is aware, this new Tosca had been cursed with cancelations and withdrawals, enough to drive a director, the costume shop, even the photographers and the printers of the programs nuts. High praise to those principals and staff who stepped up their game, rearranged their performance schedules, and put in the extra effort to make it work.

Sonya Yoncheva was on board for the title role early enough to make the cover of the Met’s 2017-2018 Season Book, as were Vittorio Grigolo, Sir Bryn Terfel, and James Levine. But Baron Scarpia and the Conductor in the pit, two very prime movers in the total drama played out in the theater, more recently departed and had to be replaced. There were bound to be glitches.

Particularly in Act I for starters: conductor Emmanuel Villaume, whose work I greatly admire, seemed here to unduly accentuate the boundaries between the lush lyric moments, the wonderful arias and duets, and the more everyday give-and-take play-like dialogue. With the latter the singers sometimes seemed unsure of their timing, like wait, who goes next, I or the orchestra? It’s all about the forward momentum of score, it should flow, not be halting. Villaume’s orchestral articulation is certainly enlightening; the bigger moments, especially the Te Deum at the end of Act I, were built well and quite effective.

Cavaradossi is executed

Cavaradossi is executed

The stage direction has thoughtful little touches, such as the fumblings of the Sacristan or Spoletta’s wariness of Scarpia’s wrath or the coup de grace for the first prisoner executed in Act III, withheld for Cavaradossi. But in Act II, Scarpia’s headquarters in Palazzo Farnese is a large space. It is fine for the comings and goings of the players, but Scarpia and Tosca, left alone, seem either miles apart or more or less one on top of the other. The distance diffuses much of the tension built by the dramatic situation, though, on the other hand, the close proximity of the two for the entire act would be equally damaging. Then at the end of Act III: after Cavaradossi’s execution, Spoletta, Sciarrone, the guards rush from below to arrest Tosca for the murder of Scarpia, but rather than dash to escape their clutches she seems to meander to the parapet. Tosca’s frantic desperation for immolation rather than fall into the hands of her captors, so graphically voiced by the orchestra, seems less desperate.

Hopefully in this run they’ll tidy up the above.

* Tosca is a complex character with mercurial changes of emotional states. For perspective, check out the Diva display down left below Orchestra level in the hallway leading to List Hall, you know, the auditorium used for intermission broadcast features. Called Diva Moments in Tosca it has photos of great sopranos who have essayed the role at the Met. If you know the opera well you can most likely recite, maybe even sing the lines of the Diva Moments verbatim. To name a few of the greats: Olive Fremstad, Claudia Muzio, Maria Jeritza (who notoriously sang Vissi d’arte lying on her stomach on the stage floor), but more recently Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas (of course), Leontyne Price, Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Hildegard Behrens and others. Seen a bunch of ‘em, I have. Each was special in her own way, yet few have it all. Do you really think Price would think of singing Vissi d'arte on her stomach? Or that Caballé dashed to the parapet? Point is: Yoncheva is special in her own way too. Cherish the past, but be in the moment today.

Reviewed performance: January 3, 2018, the evening before the bomb cyclone.

Photos: Ken Howard

Happy winter! Post another soon!