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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Opera Review: The Redemption of Tosca

A strong cast saves the Met's new production...for now.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bryn Terfel as Baron Scarpia in Tosca.
Photo by Corey Weaver © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera revived the ill-received Luc Bondy production of Tosca on Wednesday night. Armed with an exceptional cast and expert conducting by Fabio Luisi, the company may yet succeed in changing the public's perception of this production.

Helping matters was the decision to excise the most objectionable moments from this staging. Scarpia humping the sacred statues during the "Te Deum"? Gone. The close-in firing squad aiming in an arc? Bye-bye. Finally, the "dummy leap" that left Tosca floating in space (which effectively killed the opera's climax) has been mercifully cut.

With the twin cancellations of conductor James Levine and soprano Karita Mattila, this Tosca saw the influx of fresh creative blood. Fabio Luisi led a spacious, lyric reading of the score, but was not afraid to press firmly down on the accelarator to bring the big moments of the opera forth with thunderous power. He also conducted an expert Te Deum, bringing off one of the most difficult crowd scenes in opera and making the whole thing sound flawless.

The star of this revival was Bryn Terfel, a perfect picture of villainy as Scarpia. The Welsh bass-baritone reveled in the character's debauched nature without ever seeming contrived or cartoon-like. The one Luc Bondy touch remaining--the hookers in Scarpia's quarters at the start of Act II--works if that Scarpia is an experienced Don Giovanni with an overheated sex drive. (When Scarpia commented to Tosca that she interrupted his "poor supper" he was clearly not talking about food!) It was also wonderful to hear the piano notes written for the character--Terfel actually sounds scarier when he sings softly. The finest moment though was non-vocal: a fusillade of ironic applause at the end of "Vissi d'arte" that served as ironic comment on Tosca's plight.

Patricia Racette shone as Tosca. This is a new role for this underrated American diva, one that fits her spinto voice and fiery temperament. From her jealousies in Act I to a moving "Vissi d'arte", Racette found the soul of this complex character, taking the audience on Tosca's journey into death. Ms. Racette does not have the international reputation or outsize personality of some sopranos, she is a reliable singer who was the right choice to replace Ms. Mattila in the role. And she's a much better fit for Puccini.

The loudest cheers of the evening were for German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who was a fine Cavaradossi. Kaufmann demonstrated that Puccini can be sung with subtlety as well as raw power. He floated the gorgeous top notess in "E lucevan la stelle" before opening up the chest and rising to the aria's climax. This was a thrilling performance, and hopefully the first of many engagements for this stellar young talent.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.