“Vergogna!” The Latest from the New Yorker

FIASCO

“Tosca” at the Met.

by Alex RossOCTOBER 5, 2008

Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano, was miscast in the title role.

Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano, was miscast in the title role.

It takes a certain effort to suck the life out of “Tosca.” No other opera in the repertory is so immaculately crafted to deliver its thrills on cue. Revolutionary sentiment seethes in royalist Rome; a famed diva, in love with a rebel artist, confronts a Te Deum-singing, sexually slobbering chief of police; the villain is stabbed with a dinner knife, the lover falls to a firing squad, the diva leaps to her death while screaming about God. Each act unfolds in real time, in precisely mapped locales, with no major improbabilities impeding the flow of events. The music is both refined and brutal, late-Romantic opulence pinned to raw action. If a director purchases sufficient quantities of papier-mâché to suggest the settings specified in the libretto, and if singers and orchestral players merely approximate the notes in the score, you are assured of a passable evening’s entertainment. If you happen to have Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi on hand to play the diva and the heavy, you get high-low bliss, like a B movie directed by Rembrandt.

“Tosca” has played at the Metropolitan Opera almost nine hundred times, and until last week, when a new staging by the Swiss director Luc Bondy was unveiled, the company pretty much stuck to the script. For more than twenty years, audiences swooned over a Franco Zeffirelli production, in which the Roman settings—the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle, the interior of the Palazzo Farnese, and the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo—were re-created in fanatically ornate detail. Like most Zeffirelli stagings of the eighties and nineties, it was a Cecil B. De Mille affair, with supernumeraries running amok. Nonetheless, it was handsome to behold, at times magnificently chilling. I was one of thousands mesmerized by a “Live from the Met” telecast in 1985, starring Plácido Domingo and the late Hildegard Behrens. I last saw the show in 2005, with Aprile Millo, one of the few working Toscas who have the right verismo bite in their voice, chewing up as much of the scenery as she could stomach.

When Peter Gelb took over as the general manager of the Met, in 2006, he made it clear that he wanted a more agile sensibility—opera as live theatre rather than diorama. Inevitably, he has begun to discard the Zeffirelli spectaculars that have long ruled the house. I might have started by getting rid of the chintzy “Traviata” or the cutesy “Bohème,” but Gelb was within his rights to go after “Tosca.” No production is sacrosanct, and connoisseurs have long complained that Zeffirelli isn’t nearly as faithful to the composers’ intentions as he likes to claim. We can be sure that Verdi would have loathed the idea of an extended pause for a scenery change in the middle of Act II of “Traviata.” Puccini almost certainly would have rejected a split-level approach to Act III of “Tosca,” with Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, singing about the stars in a dungeon. (Zeffirelli in his younger days was another matter: his direction of Callas and Gobbi in Act II of “Tosca,” as seen on a 1964 telecast from Covent Garden, is remarkable both for its attention to detail and for its ferocious formal control.)

By all means, then, let’s have a new “Tosca.” But it needs to be good. And this is not. Although Bondy has conceived potent stagings of “Salome,” “Don Carlos,” and Handel’s “Hercules,” among other operas, he has failed to find a clear angle on “Tosca,” and instead delivered an uneven, muddled, weirdly dull production that interferes fatally with the working of Puccini’s perfect contraption. Karita Mattila was miscast in the title role. No one else sang with particular distinction. By the end of opening night, Gelb had on his hands a full-blown fiasco, with boos resounding from the orchestra seats, the upper galleries, and even the plaza outside, where people had watched on a screen for free. You could almost hear Zeffirelli laughing from his villa.

The sets are by Richard Peduzzi. The church in Act I consists mainly of featureless gray brick walls, as if a gut renovation were under way. Historical cues are vague: Cavaradossi wears a modern-seeming raincoat, Scarpia’s henchmen are outfitted with what might be called Victorian psychedelia (top hats, dark granny glasses, canes), and Tosca enters in an eccentric thrift-shop assemblage of no obvious provenance. The lighting is dim without being atmospheric. All the same, the set serves the action, and an impressively sinister Te Deum procession closes the act: priests and altar boys advance in a thick crowd behind Scarpia—a chorus line of malignant power.

Things get goofy when we arrive at the Palazzo Farnese. At the start of Act II, Scarpia is attended by no fewer than three prostitutes. Such neon-sign direction condescends to singers and audience alike: are we too stupid to recognize that Scarpia is a lecher? (Gobbi said it all with his eyes.) Tosca’s struggle with Scarpia has a gutsy violence to it, but an awkwardly elongated stage layout saps the tension. The major gaffe of the night comes after Tosca kills Scarpia, when, according to the libretto, she places candles by his side and a crucifix on his chest. This business predates the opera, having been invented for Sarah Bernhardt in “La Tosca,” the play by Victorien Sardou, and it need not be retained. Yet something should happen during the thirty-bar postlude that Puccini composed for the ritual. And it should involve Scarpia, whose signature chords echo in the orchestra. Here Tosca climbs onto the windowsill, apparently with the thought of ending the opera an hour early; turns back to utter the line “Before him trembled all of Rome”; returns to the window; and then picks up the Marchesa Attavanti’s fan and retires to the couch. Tosca murders, then dithers.

Act III is recession-era Zeffirelli, with a few soldiers marching about and a plain tower rising to the right. Cavaradossi is shot without suspense. Tosca runs up a flight of stairs into the tower, and then a stunt double leaps from a window and, thanks to a wire, stops in midair. At first, this looked like a comic malfunction, but a freeze-frame effect was apparently intended, as at the end of “Thelma and Louise.” While there is nobility in an ambitious failure, there is no glory in ineptitude.

attila, the Finnish soprano who has given the Met many blazing performances over the past decade or so, threw herself into the melee with her customary fervor. Yet she ran into vocal trouble on opening night. Although she had no difficulty making herself heard above the orchestra, her tone sounded frayed at the top of the range, and a wobble intruded at the end of “Vissi d’arte.” She is not an Italian singer born. Certain Tosca-isms that should explode from the mouth—“Assassino!” “Quanto?” “Presto, su! Mario!”—were obscured in the Nordic dusk of the voice. Still, her unflagging commitment kept alive hope that the evening would redeem itself, even if that moment never came.

Marcelo Álvarez, as Cavaradossi, placated the crowd with prolonged high notes. He lacked lustre in quieter passages and extracted little poetry from “E lucevan le stelle.” George Gagnidze, a Georgian baritone who stepped in as Scarpia on short notice, acted with snaky vigor and etched some of his lines effectively, but lost power in the Te Deum sequence. The bass-baritone David Pittsinger, singing strongly as the political prisoner Angelotti, might have done better as Scarpia. James Levine drew rich colors from the orchestra, yet his slow tempos contributed to the grimness of the night.

Opera being a delightfully paradoxical medium, this whole debacle left me in an upbeat mood. The Met is refusing to repeat itself and is seeking, by trial and error, a new theatrical identity. One or two meetings might be in order to determine how things went awry, and once Bondy is safely on the plane back home it should be relatively easy to devise new stage business to replace his lamer notions. The audience was, at least, paying attention. If I’m not mistaken, someone shouted “Vergogna!”—“Shame!”—when the production team shuffled onstage to face the firing squad. I doubt that mass revulsion is part of Gelb’s marketing plan, but a scandal has its uses: the Met made the evening news. 

Review of Opening night of the 2009/2010 season at the MET: Puccini’s “Tosca”: Washington Post

OPERA

The Met’s Twist on ‘Tosca’? It’s the Audience That Gets the Knife.

By Anne Midgette

Karita Mattila as Tosca and Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi in the Metropolitan Opera's season opener.

Karita Mattila as Tosca and Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi in the Metropolitan Opera’s season opener. (By Ken Howard — Metropolitan Opera

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 21 — If art is a secular religion, opera can be a particularly orthodox sect of it. Certain rituals have become codified with time. In “La Bohème,” Rodolfo always clutches Mimi the same way when she dies. In “The Barber of Seville,” the maid, Berta, always sneezes loudly after taking snuff. And in Act 2 of “Tosca,” Tosca always spots the knife with which she is going to kill Baron Scarpia at a particular chord in the music; and she always sets lighted candles around his dead body before she leaves the room. It’s in the score; it’s in the music; it must be so.

So when Luc Bondy, the director of the new “Tosca” that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season Monday night, had Tosca fail to do those things, he was virtually guaranteed a lusty chorus of boos.

Opening night at the Met is something of an international observance, particularly since the accession of Peter Gelb as general manager in 2006. Gelb’s first opening night featured a “Madame Butterfly” from the English National Opera by the film director Anthony Minghella, whose presence drew considerable star wattage, with the likes of Sean Connery and Jude Law in attendance. None of the subsequent opening nights of Gelb’s tenure has been quite as lustrous, and with reason: None, including this “Tosca” (which will be broadcast live to movie theaters around the world on Oct. 10) has been artistically as good.

Redoing “Tosca” was going to be sacrilege to some people, no matter what Bondy came up with. The Met’s previous “Tosca,” by Franco Zeffirelli, which dated from 1985, was seemingly set in stone: It faithfully reproduced each of the Rome locations specified in the score, so that you got a veritable postcard of the Palazzo Farnese in Act 2, which plays out in Scarpia’s study, and a faithful reproduction of the last-act Castel Sant’Angelo, from whose parapet Tosca leaps to her death. Zeffirelli, a local hero at the Met, did not go gently into the good night; in an interview with the New York Times before the performance, he dismissed Bondy as “third-rate.”
Bondy certainly tried to clear away the layers of encrustation from the opera, rather like a restorer trying to clear the varnish from a painting. The problem was that he didn’t always seem to have a vision of the strong underlying image he was trying to reveal. His modus operandi seemed to be to get rid of all of the Tosca traditions and start afresh, but “afresh” often involved gestures every bit as gratuitous as the ones he was trying to replace. For instance: Tosca doesn’t place the candles around Scarpia’s body, and place the cross on his breast, after she kills him in Act 2; instead, she runs to the window and contemplates a suicide leap, forecasting her demise at the end of Act 3. Like so many of this production’s gestures, it’s contrived and a little odd without being particularly effective.

Bondy also loosely disconnects the action from its historical time and place without altogether updating it. The costumes, by Milena Canonero (a three-time Oscar winner for films including “Marie Antoinette”), stay in the early 19th century, but the sets by Richard Peduzzi waver in an uncomfortable ahistoricalness. The Romanesque brick church of the first act looks almost like a postwar reconstruction of an ancient cathedral, while Scarpia’s study, with hideous yellow and brown walls hung with big maps of Italy, evokes dreary institutions circa 1960. It is perhaps a perfect setting for Scarpia: so unpleasant it is difficult to be in, for the characters and for the audience.

The star of the evening — her face, chosen as the icon of this season, has been plastering New York buses and billboards for some weeks — was the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. Mattila isn’t the most Italianate of singers, but she won my admiration by clearly grasping the challenges of the role and throwing herself into it wholeheartedly, even when it didn’t play to her natural strengths. Her voice may not have the iron the role might demand, and she was a little flat on her high notes, but she held nothing back, took abundant risks, and bit into a gravelly chest voice time and again to show the character’s despair.

Her Cavaradossi, Marcelo Alvarez, was just the opposite: His voice naturally fits the role, but he sang it almost carelessly, worrying a lot more about making big sounds than about singing through to the ends of his phrases. You might say he was in a time-honored Italian tradition, and he sounded pretty good.

George Gagnidze was a late replacement when the scheduled Scarpia, Juha Uusitalo, had to withdraw because of illness. Initially small-voiced and dry, he ultimately acquitted himself honorably in a role that was hampered by Bondy’s conception of the character as a weak bully, surrounded by ladies of leisure in his study who try to pleasure him as he sings of his love for Tosca, and then sobbing on his hands and knees when she tells him she wants to leave Rome after sleeping with him to free Cavaradossi.

The strongest guiding hand of the evening was James Levine in the pit, who generally offered a reminder that this opera’s music can indeed still be fresh, vital and (in a couple of solo spots in particular) absolutely ravishing.

For most of the audience, though, the decent-to-good musicmaking will not outweigh the sacrilege of Bondy’s production. Tosca’s stabbing of Scarpia — hiding the knife behind the sofa cushions, then driving it into him when he leaps upon her for the sex she has promised him — was actually quite effective. It wasn’t orthodox, though, and it infuriated the audience still more. Opera, sung in a foreign language with subtitles and shown in movie theaters, has come to resemble a foreign film in the minds of some American audiences: People assume that it needs to be exactly the same each time you see it, without realizing that in live theater, this isn’t at all the point of the exercise.

A more fashionable Indiana Jones, who’s a lady?


Indiana Jones

Throughout this blog, I have decided to ask questions that maybe you opera lovers want to ask but are afraid to.  Since a large part of my life is devoted to opera history, why not talk about opera history!?  And NO!!!…just because something has the word “history” attached to it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s boring, dry, lame, and not exciting.  Frankly, I find history one of the most fascinating and stimulating areas of study; if someone knows how to approach it in a welcoming and user-friendly way, that is.  Over the past several years, books like The DaVinci Code have brought historical novels back into fashion.  And so, I’m really excited since the text I’m working on reads like a treasure trove.  The only difference is, it’s not fiction…it’s the truth, which makes it all the more exciting.

Now that I’m on it….several years ago I really developed a fascination with opera.  I loved languages and literature and was studying piano almost obsessively, so I had no interest in singing (although I was a closet singer…I would sing when I was by myself).  My high school music teacher had organized a trip to the Canadian Opera Company to see Rigoletto.  So, like everyone else in the department, I put my little self on the bus and had no idea what I was going to see.  I had heard operas on recording and owned several but had never seen a live one.  To make a long story short…I couldn’t get out of my seat that night and the tears didn’t stop even into the night.  Afterwards, it suffices to say I had found my life’s obsession.

Fast forward….after years of studying voice, singing in Europe and North America, and completing a Masters that specialized in Puccini’s Turandot, I’m on a plane to Milan to scrounge through three libraries in search of some documents that I know are there, but I have no idea where.  Imagine, risking a research grant for which you wrote, “I know these documents exist and are located in one of three libraries.”  The grant committees must have realized my passion and since the background is absolutely compelling, they put their faith in me.  But where?  Where in the heck would I find these documents from the 1860s?  After completing my PhD coursework, I began to focus on my dissertation, focusing on a period of opera between Verdi and Verismo called, “Scapigliatura,” which loosely translates to “dishevelledness.”  Not only did I immerse in this period of art and music, I too had become “dishevelled” like these artists. So, like a more fashionable Indiana Jones, I arrived at the libraries where I was greeted by a number of respectful people who thought it very strange that a Canadian girl had come all this way to look for Italian historical documents.

And you think history is boring?  I will never forget how it felt when the librarian gave me a pair of white gloves and wheeled out a cart that was piled high with chronicles that I had seemingly been looking for in every major library database in the world and come up with, “search not found,” or “no items were found.”  I knew that these documents existed, but I just didn’t know where.  The journey was long, difficult, sometimes draining, and I am so glad that I went with my gut and kept going.  Result:  the grant paid for over 1800 Euros worth of micro filming because I wanted these documents back with me in Canada.  What I have compiled out of these and my own very long 8 years of research, is a story of music, opera, politics, two major composers and a publisher, and what I consider A SCANDAL!  A great historical novel wouldn’t be complete without scandal now, would it?

So, how will the academic populace take my information?…Stay tuned!

Not sure, but then…who ever believed Indiana Jones, and he was always right!


Published in: on September 19, 2009 at 4:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mary-Lou will be featured on Saturday Afternoon at the Opera with Bill Richardson on October 17th.

metropolitan-opera1

On October 17th, 2009 CBC Radio II will be hosting Saturday Afternoon at the Opera (hosted by Bill Richardson).  Mary-Lou Vetere will be a guest on the Broadcast of Verdi’s opera, “Simon Boccanegra” with libretto by Arrigo Boito.  She will be discussing opera, her research, and accordions.  Tune in to 94.1 or get the widget for CBC RADIO at http://www.widgetbox.com/widget/podcasts-cbc-radio and listen live.

Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera

Some thoughts on today’s mish-mash and Anja Silja’s commentary about Karita Mattila

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca.  Glamour abounds.

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca. Glamour abounds.

While I have my own doubts about Mattila singing perhaps the most veristic of Puccini’s heroines, it is not because I don’t think she can sing it but rather because I recall artists of the past who didn’t belong to the current mish-mash of having to sing everything  Just because one’s voice is capable of singing Tosca, doesn’t mean that any voice is well-suited to singing Italianante repertoire.  Last season, Mattila’s performance in Manon Lescaut was successful albeit fragmented.  I felt that the first two acts were not performed at all well, and I don’t blame Mattila as much as those who cast her in this role. Part of the issue was that the meat of Mattila’s voice lies higher than what is available to her in those first two acts.  Therefore, there were pronounced difficulties. But then, who would recognize them other than those of us who have spent most of our lives learning about aesthetics.  In the last two acts, however, Mattila’s voice shone more brilliantly even if her voice is not one that I think is well suited to Italian repertoire.

In the past, singers like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Renata Tebaldi, Enrico Caruso, Claudio Muzio, and even more recent singers like the late Hildegard Behrens, and Luciano Pavarotti tended to specialize in a specific area of the repertory because it was more conducive to singing and to the art from altogether.  Perhaps it was with Callas, whom I have always adored, with her penchant for glamour and public image, that the current state of opera was induced.  It is not a secret that she delved into repertoire that was beyond her realm.  And for what?  For fame and glamour or to simply be indispensable.  To me she was indispensable anyway.  Why am I bringing this up?  Young singers today are being forced into constraints because they are expected to sing every type of repertoire.  “If one is a good singer, they should be able to sing anything.”  While this is true about technical ability, it’s not really a great way to forge a career.  I think this is one of the major problems with opera today.  One example on which we might reflect is when Madame Hildegard Behrens sang Tosca years ago, but well understood that her voice wasn’t really suited to the role.  She sang it well, but aesthetically her voice wasn’t appropriate for this aesthetic platform.  An art form is only an art-form by way of its aesthetic components.

The late Hildegard Behrens

The late Hildegard Behrens

In a recent publication of Opera News, the great Anja Silja, who is one of the remaining singers to stick to her voice’s actual innate qualities, comments on Mattila and offers a few interesting points about opera in North America. “Anja Silja, who last performed at the Met as Kostelnička to Mattila’s Jenůfa in 2007, has some insight into Mattila’s essence. “She is not a showgirl, which I hate in opera,” Silja says. “She is still kind of a diva-like thing, but this is a little touch of America. I think this is maybe necessary for those houses. It’s a little glamorous, and one has to have a beautiful picture, and these kinds of things, and interviews and things like that. That’s more of what the Americans like. It has nothing to do with her personality onstage.” It’s hard to argue with the idea that stateside audiences have been trained to consume their celebrities and performing artists on sheer glam factor. But in truth, Mattila adores her subscription to Martha Stewart Living and wasn’t interested in wearing designer labels for her photo shoot.” (Oussama Zahr, “Opera News”, September 2009, 74/3).

Even if Mattila doesn’t really fit into the glamour world of North American opera, Silja’s comments should make us take note.  What ever happened to art for art’s sake?

Anja Silja

Anja Silja

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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La Commedia è Finita

Ridi Pagliaccio!

Happy Face

As Canio hurls out the last notes of his “Vesti la giubba” he effects one of the most poignant and vividly human moments in all of opera. Similarly, Tosca’s “Muore! Muore,” meant to invoke Scarpia’s imminent death, stretches the dramatic platform to unparalleled heights.  These are seminal moments of realism, of veritas, of existential fate, realized in aesthetic perfection .  But what happens when these moments fail to affect us as they once did?  This couldn’t be possible now…could it?

And then, there is the singing.  What of the singing?  What of the real meaning behind Bel Canto (yes, it is actually a technique) and the use of legato….do we even know what legato is?  Is it simply singing nicely from note to note, or is there something more to it.  And, by the way, who developed this technique?  Why the heck should we follow it?  It’s so “old-school,” right?  Well, since the 1970s the art-philosophical movement that called itself “modernism” and later evolved into “post-modernism” seems to have thrust itself against Old-Man Opera and toppled him over.  He’s still there, but a little roughed up.  And what’s more, the representation of language, the foremost part of the operatic vehicle, got knocked over with him. Well, ok, let’s be rash here.  Essentially, opera is an anachronistic art form, right?  That means it’s something from the past that is being brought into the present, so should we bring it into the 21st century as it was or should we shake things up?   Should we give in to the so-called, “new school” and abandon traditional values and everything that defines the art-form simply because we can?

In the mid-1860s a group of artists in Italy joined forces to evoke a change in their artistic climate.  Perhaps we should do the same because opera today has become “una vera commedia,” a real comedy.  Monteverdi wrote “Prima le parole e dopo la musica” (First come the words, then comes music) but what happens when both the words and the music lose face because singers have begun to sing in whatever way they want, because conductors are not getting paid enough to inspire the musicians in the orchestra to create a palate of unending colour, because it seems more important to have a waif like figure and a beautiful face at the behest of a voice that rips our souls out, makes us lustful and passionate, invokes our tears, and yet remains true to the aesthetic that opera demands.

Today the overall understanding of the operatic art has shifted from its original intention into a FARCE!!!!!  And, I will not apologize for my candor. LA COMMEDIA DEVE FINIRE!!!  Who said it was alright to abandon the need for aesthetic singing, that style that singers of old worked so diligently to effect, and simply focus on how pretty we are or how great we look on stage.  It doesn’t matter if we appear like a gaggle of movie stars with half-cocked voices. A singing teacher once said to me, “Well, at least if you sound like a cow you won’t look like one.”   NO MORE; at least, not here.  I scream in defense of the art we hold dear.  I raise my hand defiantly in the face of the so-called “new school.”  And who died and created this new school anyway!?

Opera is a combinatory art, an art that is absolutely anachronistic, but bringing something of the past into the present does not mean that it’s an open invitation to outwardly ignore aesthetic practices.  This blog is a place for those who believe as such to gather and defend the art as it was intended to be, and by that I don’t mean we don’t like “modern” productions or interpretations.  I’m talking about the nitty-gritty, down and dirty components that make opera, opera.

This is not to say that everything today sucks.  Obviously it doesn’t, and the fact that we are still presenting opera after five centuries is a coup in and of itself.  There are many artists who retain their devotion to the art, who make it their business to learn, who wish to bring the art as it was intended to be presented, and who remain devoted to artistic truths.  Since opera is now being brought to a larger audience via HD broadcast, perhaps we need to look at what we’re doing and ask ourselves if this art belongs on the big screen, the same big screen that shows us films like “Brüno”, or if it should remain as it was intended: a live art without amplification, larger than life and presented by individuals like you and me, but with bestowed gifts from the stratosphere?  I’m not at all against reaching out to larger audiences but the content in the performances is up for discussion in my opinion.

In this blog, I’ll present historical materials, articles, and videos/music clips that might remind us, singers, students, historians, fans, and afficionados, what opera was and what it fails to be.  I encourage you to comment as you wish, toopen your minds, hearts, and ears to what those composers to whom we pay the greatest debt wrote:  Monteverdi, Gluck, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, and let’s not forget the usually forgotten Boito, to whom I have a special connection.

Raise our voices in unison, in harmony, or in thunderous raucous defiance and stand up for the art that has fallen into the hands of those who have no right to call poignant operas like “La Sonnambula” a “silly little tale,” or others who profess that “Verismo means truth.”  It does not.

Reality does not require truth in order to be reality, but opera….OPERA REQUIRES TRUTH.

Callas as Tosca

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 3:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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