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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Opera Review: Give the People What They Want

The Met unleashes its new Tosca.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Knives for dinner: the second act of Tosca with Sonya Yoncheva and Željko Lučić (prone.)
Photo by Ken Howard © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca was the most eagerly awaited event of the current season. And on New Year's Eve, the storied New York opera company did not drop the ball.

A lot has been written about the problems with this Tosca. It underwent casting changes in all three principal roles, with Sonya Yoncheva, Vittorio Grigolo and Željko Lučić replacing (respectively) Kristine Opalais, Jonas Kaufmann and Sir Bryn Terfel. The conductor was also replaced twice: Andris Nelsons pulled out when his wife (Ms. Opalais) did and currently disgraced music director emeritus James Levine was removed in November. In the pit for opening night: the stylish French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, a lucky and late replacement for this all-important show.

The production, by Sir David McVicar, is also a replacement. It is a throwback designed to make the finicky Met audiences forget and forgive the disastrous 2009 staging by Luc Bondy. The sets look like the opera's Rome locales, redesigned for the perspective of the peering Live in HD cameras. Warm applause greeted each rise of the curtain. Everything in the McVicar version of Rome is on a gently tilted rake, as if the city planners were slightly tipsy. The hollow clatter of boots on the wooden acting surface damaged the illusion of antique grandeur.  The costumes aim for historic realism, although Scarpia does not wear a powdered wig in public and Tosca's gowns are immodest by the standard of the year 1800. Both sets and costumes are by John Macfarlane.

Ms. Yoncheva does a good if slightly too diligent job in the leading role. She copies Maria Callas' spitfire approach to the part, right down to the "Mario, Mario, Maaaaario" at her Act I entrance to the sprechstimme outbursts at Scarpia in the second act. She brought the necessary passion to "Vissi d'arte" (helped by a glacial tempo and sense of drama from the baton of Mr. Villaume. Her adding a slight breaking tremolo to the last note was not vocal fatigue but the sound of a woman overwhelmed.

The murder scene was welcome release of the tension established by the first part of Act II. Ms. Yoncheva's nutty, off-the-rails approach to the opera's slam-bang finale stayed true to the show's intent. (The "Trionfal" was spectacular.)  The best thing about her performance (aside from some well-sung big notes) was the fact that her presence helped her fellow cast members, ramping up the energy level of the show every time she appeared. This proved to be the salvation of her two co-stars.

The cast member most in need of her help was Vittorio Grigolo. The tenor was game but punching above his weight as Cavaradossi, the cavalier painter who finds himself in very deep merda in the second act. Mr. Grigolo sounded less than confident in "Recondita armonia", singing as if in a recital without opening his voice to the fullest. He only unpacked his instrument once Ms. Yoncheva entered, feeding off and drawing from her performance as the two lovers did their little pas de deux of love and jealousy. His "Vittoria!" in Act II was much better, as was "E lucevan la stelle" by which time he was in full command of his resources.

Mr. Lučić's Scarpia sounded pallid and underpowered in the first act, a barely noticeable presence against the backdrop of the Te Deum. He conveyed an arch fussiness instead of burning, sacrilegious lust, as if Frasier Crane had been promoted to chief of police. In the second act, a different character appeared: a Scarpia who led Cavaradossi and Tosca to their doom in his chamber of horrors. Only in that smarmy, final series of exchanges with Ms. Yoncheva did the singer outdo himself. Their dialogue and the subsequent, brutal murder provided an ironic counterweight to the Tosca-Cavaradossi love music in Act I.

The Met chorus were at their best in the Te Deum despite some awkward blocking on the tilted, wedge-shaped set. The orchestra responded to Mr. Villaume's long-limbed, lyric approach to the score, which emphasized melody over melodrama, though the tensions of the opera exploded at appropriate points. In the minor but essential roles of Angelotti and Spoletta, baritone Christian Zaremba and tenor Brenton Ryan made characterful appearances. Patrick Carfizzi fussed with too many props as the Sacristan, and Richard Bernstein proved a bland Jailor. The only jarring casting bit was in the silent role of Scarpia's torturer Roberti: he seemed to be played by the same bald, hulking brute as in the Bondy production. Some things never change.

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