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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Opera Review: She's a Brick House

The Luc Bondy Tosca returns to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Corruptis in extremis: George Gagnidze as Baron Scarpia in the Met's Tosca.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera presented a strong cast in the company's fourth revival run of Tosca. This is the ill-received 2009 Luc Bondy production. Despite the Zeffirelli pipe-dreams of those who remember the old staging, Mr. Bondy's version of the opera is apparently here to stay. This performance marked the Met debut of Mikko Franck on the podium. The energetic Finnish conductor led a stirring performance, with the right amount of rubato to let the singers stretch out and work the material.


This cast featured the return of soprano Patricia Racette to the title role, which she sang in 2010 opposite Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel. Ms. Racette remains a potent, committed force as Puccini's fiery opera singer. She can act too, riding the gamut from jealous lover to harried diva to bloody avenger with the right touch of madness. 

Her singing was even better, climaxing in a nuanced "Vissi d'arte" that had the right mix of pain and passion. She was magnificently over the top in the final act, soaring through "Trionfal!" and acting with glorious dementia in the final scene. It's too bad that this staging still hasn't solved the diva's plummet off the ugly "prison tower" set--the ending doesn't quite come off.

Roberto Alagna first sang Cavaradossi in this production last January, when he was called in by Met general manager Peter Gelb as an 11th-hour replacement for an ill Marcelo Àlvarez. Tuesday's prima was the day after the singer came out of the bullpen to sing Monday night's Faust, subbing in for an ill Joseph Calleja.

Taking two heavy roles on consecutive nights may have taken a toll on Mr. Alagna's instrument. Although he produced a pleasing tone for "Recondita armonia", there was a definite widening of his vibrato on the last note. The singer fired off a vibrant "Vittoria!" and sang a clear, noble "E Lucevan le Stelle." The only sticking point: the short phrasing in the a capella part of "Trionfal!". He simply did not have the breath to match Ms. Racette's longer notes.

Despite the problems of Mr. Bondy's drab production, this evening had some welcome directorial alterations. Ms. Racette had some refreshing comic business: a reference to Act I of Figaro when she searched for Cavaradossi's hidden (and non-existent) lover.The chess game between Cavaradossi and his jailer (which doesn't make much dramatic sense) was a match worthy of the speed players in Union Square, but more violent.

Aside from the reliable Sacristan of 45-year Met veteran Paul Plishka (he is retiring Jan. 28) the best thing about this Tosca has been its run of strong baritones in the role of Scarpia, the villainous chief of the Roman police. In his leather uniform and boots, with hair slicked back, George Gagnidze was a forceful presence as the corrupt commish, who manages to break all seven deadly sins in the course of two acts.

Mr. Gagnidze's performance drew fire at the Sept. 2009 premiere of this production, and he continues to offer a strong, red-blooded interpretation of the venal police chief. He still groped the statue of the Madonna. And nobody's sure why he sings the opening of Act II on a couch pressed down by three extras from Carmen, though he didn't seem to mind.

Never mind. In crawling after Tosca, brutalizing Cavaradossi, and even singing occasionally, Mr. Gagnidze clearly relished the role of the villain. There was even a moment of pathos when he confessed his obsession to Tosca herself. He used a soft, pleading delivery, recalling his other signature role: Rigoletto.
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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.