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

By Anne Midgette
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.

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