Hey…ey…ey..ey…What’s goin’ on?

Franco Zeffirelli’s productions have been staples at the Met and worldwide

The new year has opened with a number of well-loved favourites at various opera houses around North America and overseas.  Tickets continue to sell, but not without controversy, perhaps the most bothersome at the Metropolitan Opera.  As of late, Mr. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met has been dealing with some much deserved flack for the failed production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” a failure that was secured by the modern and inauthentic direction of Luc Bondy, but also by the continued problem of inappropriately casting non-Italianante voices in Italian repertoire and vice-versa in the Germanic repertoire.  Many patrons have been bothered by Gelb’s failure to admit that the Bondy production failed.  He has only publicly stated that beloved Franco Zeffirelli’s production of “Tosca” would be remounted.  In what seems like a bit of retaliation, Gelb has now decided to withdraw Zeffirelli’s “Boheme” production for a new one.

At a time when podcasts, internet streaming, and digital cable are at an all-time peak of interest, the artistic genres that have maintained verisimilitude seem to be suffering. Why now, after a century of excellence, is it necessary to “modernize” even those things that do not need to be modernized?  I’m all for new ideas, but when those new ideas interfere with the composer’s indications or with aesthetic truths, then I raise my hand in defiance.  We are in a crucial period where the maintenance of opera as a valuable art-form relies heavily on authenticity, but in these times the authentic voice of opera is facing the possibility of becoming mute, a prospect I will fight tirelessly to prevent.  It is why the value of the productions are lesser and why the wrong voice types are constantly being cast in repertoire that not only affects the singers’ vocal health, but mars the essential quality that these styles are meant to promote.

What’s goin’ on?

Peter Gelb

Of course there are those who think this is fine and dandy, and that opera needs to be multimedia-ized in order to retain a voice.  Certainly, it is great to promote it to the younger generation who really have no means of knowing it otherwise, but do we need to inject every production with an alternative antibiotic, usually some blatant and unnecessary sexuality that was not intended by the composer?  Might I be so bold as to say that Opera is sexy on its own and so are its characters, so is the music.  Is it possible that most operas, if presented authentically, are expressive enough solely in the combination of their text and music to deliver the same punch that directors are trying so hard to achieve?  It’s already there, in the mix, so why add more ingredients?  Overlooking what is innate in the art for the sake of making opera suit the times seems like a waste of time to me.

Food for thought at the dawn of a new decade.

“What’s Goin’On?”

“Vergogna!” The Latest from the New Yorker


“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


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.