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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Opera Review: A Stubborn Kind of Faith

The Met still believes in Luc Bondy's Tosca.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Scarpia (George Gagnidze, right) puts the moves on Tosca (Patricia Racette) in
the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Puccini's Tosca. 
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
With the tedious inevitability of an unloved season, the Metropolitan Opera's current Luc Bondy production of Tosca, received its third revival (in four years) on Tuesday night. This production, which transports Puccini's Roman melodrama into a grim industrial setting better suited to Wozzeck, was roundly booed on opening night in 2009. Despite tweaks, adjustments and (a performance of quality from its leading and supporting cast) it remains a production best seen from the score desks in the Family Circle.

At least the bare brick walls and cheerless, cheap furniture of this post-industrial landscape were populated by decent singers. Patricia Racette (Tosca), Roberto Alagna (Cavaradossi) and George Gagnidze (Scarpia) have done this show together so many times that the character's motivations have become second nature. But instead of going on operatic autopilot, all three artists dug up with moments dramatic interest that shone brightly through the gloom. Ms. Racette and Mr. Alagna managed to ignore the peculiarities of their environment and deliver a rip-roaring evening of passion, mayhem and murder.

The soprano was in fine fettle last night, her clear, slightly steely soprano melting at appropriate moments and delivering belts of bright sound when needed. Right after "Recondita armonia" (when Tosca confronts Mario regarding his painting of the blonde, blue-eyed Marchesa)  Ms. Racette actually picked up a paintbrush and moved toward the canvas, a steely intent in her eyes. This became the focal point of the lovers' duet, played with good humor and easy familiarity.

Ms. Racette put herself into every line of "Vissi d'arte", singing this famous aria with passion and meaning. In the last act, the palpable connection between these singers continued, with surreal moments (like when Tosca demonstrates how to be "killed" by a fake firing squad) having a dreamy, delusional quality. Protected by their mutual love of high art and belting out their unison "Trionfal," Cavaradossi and Tosca seemed to no longer  believe the harsh reality around them.

Mr. Alagna is now 50, but he still plays Cavaradossi as an energetic, youthful figure who is brought down by his own idealism. There is evidence of wear on the handsome tenor's voice. In the first act, he forced himself up into an over-bright and sometimes sharp register with little evidence of a smooth transition between chest and head voice. Yet the singer improved as the evening went on, with a ringing "Vittoria!" and a moving "E lucevan le stelle" that might have been the best part of the night. "O dolci mani" was sweet and moving--one last duet for these two artists in the grip of their own delusions.

There is nothing delusional (or subtle) about George Gagnidze's Scarpia. He portrays the corrupt police chief as a bestial, amoral sadist. And while Scarpia should be all of those things, Mr. Gagnidze plays the role without a hint of civility, growling his way through the first act and (in this production's most controversial moment) sexually assaulting an effigy of the Madonna in the middle of the Te Deum. This bit of business debases Scarpia into an ordinary villain without the intended mask of humanity that would make the character all the more terrifying. It's an insult to the Madonna, to the composer, and ultimately to the audience.

The same could be said for the opening of Act II. Scarpia's "poor supper" still consists of three tawdry hookers, somehow recalling the "working girl" Rhinemaidens in Patrice Chereau's 1976 production of the Ring. The availability of this easy sexual gratification (played with much pawing and drooling from Mr. Gagnidze) makes the Chief's obsession with Tosca all the more baffling. Happily, the entrance of Mr. Alagna and Ms. Racette allowed singers and audience to get back to the business of opera appreciation, as the bloody events of this famous act were played to the absolute hilt.

The problems continued in the third act, which now puts the ugly battlements and industrial chimney set against a background of near-total darkness. No sun rises in this Rome. (Cavaradossi is supposed to be executed at dawn.) Also, this revival retained Mr. Bondy's final insult to its audience.Replacing Tosca's traditional upstage plummet with the fall of a dummy from said tower is still a bad idea. Relying on a fast curtain and staging the action in a way that renders it invisible to the whole right side of the auditorium is worse.
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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.