Reviews and Commentary from Last Night’s Met Opener: Anna Bolena

Here is Anthony Tommassini’s article in today’s New York Times

A Queen’s Delusion and Defiance Opens the Met

Published: September 27, 2011

Since arriving at the Metropolitan Opera as general manager in 2006, Peter Gelb has been angling to make the soprano Anna Netrebko a house prima donna in the old-world sense: a first among equals. On Monday night Mr. Gelb must have felt that the plan was working.

Ms. Netrebko sang the punishing title role of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” to open the Met’s season, the company’s first production of this breakthrough Donizetti work from 1830. The extended last scene was the high point of Ms. Netrebko’s performance as the distraught British queen (based on the historic Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII). Having been falsely condemned for betraying her husband, Anna drifts in and out of sanity.

Ms. Netrebko sang an elegantly sad aria with lustrous warmth, aching vulnerability and floating high notes. When the audience broke into prolonged applause and bravos, Ms. Netrebko seemed to break character and smiled a couple of times, though her look could have been taken as appropriate to the dramatic moment, since the delusional Anna is lost in reverie about happy days with her former lover.

Then at the end of this “Mad Scene,” when Anna, restored to horrific reality, curses the king and his new queen, Giovanna (Jane Seymour), and stalks off to her execution, Ms. Netrebko dispatched Donizetti’s cabaletta, all brilliant coloratura runs and vehement phrases, with a defiance that brought down the house.

Yet Ms. Netrebko’s Anna and the overall performance of “Anna Bolena” were not what they could have been. The production, by the director David McVicar, is uninventive and safe. The sets, by Robert Jones (in his Met debut), are handsome and efficient but tamely traditional, using a matrix of rotating white brick walls and sliding wood panels to evoke the interiors and environs of Henry’s palaces. In Act I, when the king’s hunting party gathers, complete with two impressively large dogs, a bit of abstraction is introduced into the look of the production through some sculptural gray trees. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are colorful, detailed and true to the period. Too true. This Henry could have come from the set of almost any of the innumerable films and television shows that have been made about the Tudors.

But the bigger problem was Marco Armiliato’s routine conducting. Mr. Armiliato has been valuable to the Met’s Italian repertory wing since his 1998 house debut. In “Anna Bolena” he conveyed an understanding of bel canto style, in which arching lines must be given room to spin and cast their spell and accompaniment patterns have to be flexible.

The singers seemed to feel supported by Mr. Armiliato, who was always there when they took expressive liberties. That was the problem. This performance needed a conductor to instill some intensity into the music, to keep the cast more on edge, especially in the early scenes. Much of the action occurs in highly charged bursts of dramatic recitative. But too often here the orchestra chords that buttress the vocal lines were listless. And the orchestra’s playing lacked character.

Previously, Ms. Netrebko had sung the role of Anna only at the Vienna State Opera this spring. She started tentatively on Monday, perhaps settling in for the long, hard night of singing that awaited her. She looked regal and splendid. And in a nice directorial touch, Anna first appeared with a little red-haired girl, clearly her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth.

At 40, Ms. Netrebko may be in her vocal prime. Her sound is meltingly rich yet focused. Sustained tones have body and depth. Her contained vibrato exposed every slight slip from the center of a pitch, especially in midrange, but I’m not complaining. This remains a major voice, with resplendent colorings and built-in expressivity.

Bel canto purists have long debated whether Ms. Netrebko is a natural to the style, especially in her execution of coloratura passagework. She may not have the nimble precision exemplified by Beverly Sills (who was criticized in some circles for that very accuracy). Ms. Netrebko’s approach is to sing coloratura as an expressive elaboration of the vocal line, as she did affectingly as Anna. And she exudes vocal charisma.

Still, at moments throughout the evening her singing seemed cautious. She was at her best when sparring with other singers, especially the mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, who was Giovanna (the queen’s lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour, though it’s best to stick to the Italian names, since “Anna Bolena,” with a libretto by Felice Romani, plays very loose with history). Ms. Gubanova has an ample, dark voice with a slightly hard-edged quality that takes some adjusting to. She sang Giovanna with incisive delivery, folding embellishments and runs into impassioned vocal lines.

Her character was a bundle of nerves in Donizetti’s inspired Act II scene in which Giovanna finally confesses to the queen that she has been the king’s mistress and will become his new wife. Again the orchestra under Mr. Armiliato seemed to hold back, rather than empower, the intensity these two artists were trying to summon on stage.

The bass Ildar Abdrazakov brought his earthy, muscular voice to the role of Enrico (Henry VIII). Though his passagework was muffled by his gravelly tones at times, he was an imposing presence, and he did not overplay the king’s brutishness. The tenor Stephen Costello won a hearty ovation for his Riccardo (Lord Richard Percy, Anna’s former lover). This was a big assignment for the gifted and game young tenor. Mr. Costello captured the character’s consuming adoration for Anna through his impetuous and anguished singing.

The role includes a touchstone tenor aria, “Vivi tu,” in which the condemned Riccardo implores his friend Lord Rocheford (Anna’s brother, here the solid bass-baritone Keith Miller) to evade the king’s wrath and go on living. Mr. Costello mostly navigated the music’s demanding passagework and exposed high notes. To hear this rising artist stretching himself was part of the excitement.

The mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford took on the trouser role of Mark Smeaton, a court musician with a fatal crush on Anna. Her singing was sometimes shaky but always honest and ardent. The able tenor Eduardo Valdes as the court official Hervey rounded out the cast. Every role is significant in an opera so rich with ensembles, including a climactic Act I sextet almost as memorable as the enduring sextet from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” and more contrapuntally intricate.

Mr. Gelb has said that ideally the Met should make an artistic statement by presenting an ambitious new production every opening night. Two years ago he took a chance on Luc Bondy’s ill-conceived staging of Puccini’s “Tosca.” Last season came the premiere of Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s “Rheingold,” which is still being argued over, as audiences await the last two installments of the complete “Ring” cycle this season.

“Anna Bolena” represented a different sort of risk. To make a case for this great, overlooked opera a company must have a stellar soprano in the title role. Ms. Netrebko is that artist. If only she and her colleagues on stage had received more help from Mr. McVicar and Mr. Armiliato.

The gala evening performance was relayed to Times Square and to Lincoln Center Plaza, where there was seating for some 3,000 people who had scooped up free tickets earlier. After the curtain calls on stage, the “Anna Bolena” cast appeared on the Met’s outdoor balcony to the cheers of the crowd. This is becoming a welcome tradition under Mr. Gelb.

“Anna Bolena” runs through Oct. 28, with additional performances in February, at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center; (212) 362-6000,

As ever, in the history of music, the “critics” are the ones who write and in many cases enhanced or destroyed a singer/musician’s career.  This has been the constant case from the inception of musical criticism with Schumann and Berlioz in the mid-nineteenth century.  This is not to say that Tommassini has any power to ruin Netrebko’s career, but he does have a huge audience by being the critic of one of the most powerful and well-read newspapers in the world.  So, NOW, now he chooses to talk about Bel Canto, about Italian singing when the last year brought absolutely horrifying presentations of Puccini and Verdi?  I absolutely agree with Mr. Tommassini, that Netrebko’s voice is one of the most beautiful voices cast at the Met this year, but let’s not discuss pitch or wavering from it, shall we, or we ought to have a new society for it.  Forgive me but Netrebko is the LEAST off pitch and her tone is unparalleled by her colleagues singing at the Met.  It seems that nothing was said about the extravagant flatness, sharpness, and completely disgusting Italian diction that was presented last season, was it?  In all, her singing is always expressive and she carries some of the mystique that singers of old carried with them, that implausible something that elevates them to the level of artists.  I agree that Armiliato was probably not the best choice to conduct Bolena and it is certainly too bad that Maestro Levine was not able to conduct this opening.  However, Bel Canto as the opening opera is not a choice made just to appease the rowdy public after that disastrous Tosca premiere last year (truly abominable), as Tommassini writes.  Bel Canto is the heart’s blood of the operatic machine that has withstood centuries.  More Bel Canto should be performed so that young singers will approach it without fear and with a more familiar ear.  I applaud the Met for presenting this difficult opera and to those who stretched their limits in trying to do the only thing they could in an age when those who truly understand Bel Canto are few and far between.

More Reviews:

Review by Mike Silverman of the Associated Press

“A Philadelphia Son Storms The Met” (Wall Street Journal)


2010/2011 Season announced at the Metropolitan Opera

February 22, 2010

The following was announced this morning.  Some interesting productions, and some even more interesting (or should I say, awkward) casting choices.  We’ll see what pans out because nothing ever goes as planned in the world of opera.  Here’s to the MET for 2010/2011.  In Bocca al Lupo!

New York, NY (February 22, 2010)—Seven new productions, including two company premieres and the first two parts of a new Ring cycle, featuring many of the world’s greatest singers and conductors, will highlight the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010-11 season. General Manager Peter Gelb and Music Director James Levine announced plans for the Met premieres of John Adams’s Nixon in China and Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, the first two installments of Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, with stagings of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, and new productions of three repertory classics by debuting directors—Boris Godunov by Peter SteinDon Carlo byNicholas Hytner, and La Traviata by Willy Decker. With Nixon in ChinaPeter Sellars will also make his Met directorial debut, and Bartlett Sher, director of Le Comte Ory, will return for his third production here following his recent successful stagings of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

In his 40th anniversary season, Maestro Levine, who has conducted nearly 2,500 performances at the Met, more than any conductor in the company’s 126-year history, will conduct six operas across a range of repertory. The Met will celebrate the music director’s extraordinary, record-breaking Met career with historical DVD and CD releases of his performances, as well as a new documentary film about the maestro by award-winning director Susan Froemke. Levine will launch the 2010-11 season on Monday, September 27, 2010, with a gala performance of Das Rheingold. The first installment of the new Ring cycle by Robert Lepage, the opera will star Bryn Terfel in his first appearance as Wotan in the U.S. and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka. The new staging of Die Walküre will open on April 22, 2011, with Levine conducting a cast that includes Deborah Voigt in her first Met Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek in her company debut as Sieglinde, Blythe as Fricka,Jonas Kaufmann in his first Siegmund at the Met, and Terfel as Wotan. Levine will also lead revivals of Don PasqualeIl TrovatoreSimon Boccanegra, and Wozzeck. On the actual date of his anniversary, June 5, he will conduct Don Carlo with the company on tour in Japan.

Acclaimed German director Peter Stein will make his Met debut with a new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, opening October 11, conducted by Valery GergievRené Pape will sing the monumental title role for the first time at the Met. Verdi’s Don Carlo will premiere on November 22 in a new production by Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of London’s National Theatre, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The co-production, which opened at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 2008, will star Roberto Alagna in the title role, Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth de Valois, Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo, andFerruccio Furlanetto as King Philip. The new La Traviata will premiere at a New Year’s Eve gala performance of Willy Decker’s hit production from the 2005 Salzburg Festival that has been modified and rebuilt for the Met, with Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta andMatthew Polenzani as Alfredo; Gianandrea Noseda conducts.

Celebrated composer John Adams will make his Met debut on the podium on February 2, conducting the Met premiere of his 1987 opera Nixon in China, in a production by Peter Sellars from the English National Opera. Rossini’s rarely heard comic opera Le Comte Orywill have its Met premiere on March 24, featuring Juan Diego Flórez in the title role, Diana Damrau as Countess Adèle, and Joyce DiDonato as Isolier, in Bartlett Sher’s new production.

Gelb said, “Maestro Levine’s 40th anniversary and the beginning of a new Ring cycle, both extraordinary events in the life of this great company, will inspire us to artistic heights and hopefully stimulate the public to fill our seats.”

Levine said, “After forty years of working with this great company, I am still excited by the prospect of a new season that introduces new repertory, new artists, and new challenges. And I couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate my anniversary than beginning a new Ringcycle.”

The Met’s conducting roster will feature a number of notable debut artists in the 2010-11 season, including Simon Rattle, who leads Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and William Christie, who conducts Mozart’s Così fan tutteRoberto Rizzi BrignoliEdward GardnerPatrick FournillierErik Nielsen, and Paolo Arrivabeni also make their Met debuts leading important revivals during the season. Maestros returning to conduct revivals will include: Marco ArmiliatoAndrew DavisPlácido DomingoRiccardo FrizzaFabio LuisiNicola LuisottiAndris Nelsons, and Patrick Summers.

Highly acclaimed recent portrayals by some of the Met’s most popular stars will be reprised this season. Star soprano Renée Fleming performs the virtuoso title role of Rossini’sArmida, then switches gears to sing the Countess in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio (her first complete account of the role, though she sang the final scene at the Opening Night Gala in 2008). Susan Graham returns to the title role of Iphigénie en Tauride with Plácido Domingo repeating his noble Oreste. Natalie Dessay once again offers her brilliant portrayal of the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor, and Elīna Garanča gives the audience another chance to witness her magnetic CarmenAnna Netrebko reprises her tour-de-force Norina in Don Pasquale, and Karita Mattila takes the stage as Lisa in The Queen of Spades, a role she has not sung here since 1995. Angela Gheorghiu comes back for Gounod’s Juliette for the first time since 1998, and Marcelo Álvarez again sings the title role in Il Trovatore.

Many of the world’s most prominent singers will be taking on roles they have never sung at the Met before, including Piotr Beczała as Roméo, Joseph Calleja as Edgardo in Lucia di LammermoorDanielle de Niese as Despina in Così fan tutte, Joyce DiDonato as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, and Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, opposite Olga Borodina as Giulietta and Ildar Abdrazakov as the Four Villains. Also in Met role debuts, Dmitri Hvorostovsky will sing the title role and Barbara Frittoli is Amelia in Simon BoccanegraMagdalena Kožená is Mélisande, Peter Mattei is Yeletsky and Dolora Zajick is the Countess in The Queen of SpadesPatricia Racettesings Leonora in Il TrovatoreSondra Radvanovsky and Violeta Urmana share the title role of Tosca, Deborah Voigt sings the title role and Marcello Giordani is Dick Johnson inLa Fanciulla del West, and Waltraud Meier is Marie and Matthias Goerne is the title role in Wozzeck.

Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 12:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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Zeffirelli’s indispensable “Boheme” returns to the Met

Il Maestro

After the outright scandalous “new” production of Tosca that opened the 2009/2010 season at the Metropolitan Opera with booing and catcalls, audiences are thankful that Mr. Gelb didn’t also dispense with Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s well-loved masterpiece, “La Boheme.”  Imbued with grandeur, scenic realism, and a broad colour palate; not to mention, a significant spacial quality, Mr. Zeffirelli’s productions have been staples at the Met and are strongly linked to Puccini’s operas on an international level.

The cast has soprano, Anna Netrebko in her second stint as Mimi at the Met, the polish tenor, Piotr Beczala, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Marcello, and Nicole Cabell as Musetta.  There will be nine performances into March.

A recent review:  Netrebko, Beczala a Winning Couple in  ‘La Boheme’ (The Associated Press)

Franco Zeffirelli’s magnificent production of “La Boheme”

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?”

Guleghina cancels and Lise Lindstrom makes Met debut as “Turandot”

Lise LindstromSoprano, Lise Lindstrom

The old proverbial concept of “being in the right place at the right time” is still working wonders for singers.  On October 28th, the Met’s resident soprano, Maria Guleghina unexpectedly cancelled due to illness, leaving B-Cast soprano Lise Lindstrom to make her debut several days earlier. In this interesting turn of events, Lindstrom solidified her place at the Met and likely caused some uneasiness for Guleghina’s future performances.

Lindstrom’s voice is a sharp, crystalline laser at the top, evoking memories of Nilsson, even if her middle and lower voice leave something to be desired.  She was accurate in Puccinian aesthetics if not a little stilted in her Italian pronunciation.  Some reviewers seem to be more concerned about the size of Lindstrom’s voice, but I say, size doesn’t really matter…it’s whether or not you can evoke something that slaps the audience emotionally in the face.  While the role of Turandot seems to me to be the wrong direction for Guleghina to take at this point in her career, she is going to have to pull out all of the stops in order to compete with Lindstrom’s new found adoring public.

Also giving an acceptable performance was Russian soprano, Marina Poplovskaya, as Liù.  The voice has a lovely, warm tone to it and pronounced beauty, however, Poplovskaya didn’t use her innately beautiful voice to its potential.  Although the audience responded graciously to her singing, Liù’s arias, which are authentic examples of Puccini’s “povera faccia melody” were lacking in emotional depth.

For me, the success of the night was resident tenor, Marcello Giordani, who sang with true Italianante impetus and remained true to Puccini’s aesthetic.  His understanding of the “punto di linea” was evident in every nuance.  Although his voice often displays its most beautiful colore bruciato in the higher tessitura, Mr. Giordani was expressive and authentic in his approach.  The Nessun Dorma, which is the key portal to Puccini’s grandeur, was sung eloquently, passionately, and with an exquisite penultimate note, held as Puccini intended it.  Many tenors extend the note when, in fact, Puccini shunned any lengthening of these notes at the end of the aria. Had he wanted to write a long note, he would have. This shows that Mr. Giordani is more devoted to accuracy than he is centered on showing off his abilities. Bravo Marcello!!!

Marcello Giordani

All in all, this performance of Turandot was much more successful than opening night’s “Tosca.”  What was more interesting was Peter Gelb’s interview during the intermission in which he suggested that they were “simply trying to give the audience something they could relate to.”  I’m all for anachronistic presentation, but bringing the past into the present doesn’t always mean that the audience wants something different, or that they can’t relate to something from the past.  After all, if opera isn’t a historical art, then what is it?  The very vocal audience at the Met, with someone even yelling out “Viva Puccini” after Giordani’s Nessun Dorma, are telling directors and producers exactly what they want.  VIVA IL POPOLO!!!!

“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.