New York City — The miracle of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca is that it made it to the stage at all. The story of all the cancelations and last-minute cast changes, even the conductor, has given opera buffs around the world scandalized conversation fodder for months. But all of that “who replaced whom most recently” gossip faded into the background as the results first fascinated then impressed and lastly wowed the audience on Jan. 15, when I was able to see it.
This production replaces the dreadful one by Luc Bondy, a frozen turkey brought in by the newly appointed general director Peter Gelb. He was roundly scorned for replacing Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent recreation of the actual sites when the opera take place with meaninglessly barren and cold mono-sets. (Tosca takes place at real and well-known sites. You can visit these places, so it is not like operas set in imagined locations.)
As with the Zeffirelli, David McVicar’s sets got appreciative applause, tinged with a sigh of relief, when the curtain opened. While the sets are reminiscent of the actual locations, they are a German Expressionist version featuring sharp angles, a severely raked stage, and trapezoidal walls. It is like Zeffirelli on LSD. Costumes are traditional for 1800, when the opera is set, although there are some outrageous interpretations of that era in the end of the first act. But the characterizations are vivid as is the dramatic impact of what musicologist Joseph Kerman called a "shabby little shocker."
Shocker? Yes. Shabby? No.
Tosca is a three-legged stool, completely dependent on three singers with the vocal heft to get through it and the acting chops to pull it off. And today, they have to look like whom they are portraying. For better or worse, the era of two middle-aged singers portraying young lovers is over.
Leg one is the fiery performance of Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. Like today’s singers, there is little of the mythical diva, imperious to a fault. She portrays Tosca as a singer, no doubt, but she is also real young woman in love. In fact, Tosca’s fateful flaw that brings such destruction, jealousy, appears to be out of insecurity as opposed to the more usual possessiveness. Her vocal performance blazes when provoked yet coos romantically in Caveradossi’s ear.
As Caveradossi, the second leg, Vittorio Grigolo certainly has the required Italianate voice and glorious high notes. His Caveradossi is obviously suffering from testosterone poisoning and exudes a bubbling concoction of sex and youth. His high notes appear to possess him as his body stiffens, his shoulders rise and he opens his mouth to cavernous dimensions, as if the notes require all possible space to get out of his throat. Musically, he is like a rambunctious child straining at parental, here conductorial, restraints. At the curtain call, he completely released his bambino cattivo, leaping in the air and even tried to duck under the "get the hook" closing curtain for one more exuberant bow.
In the last acted, he demonstrated that in addition to the ringing high notes, he also has a lovely sotto voce, perfectly floating focused soft notes. (Too bad he didn’t use them sooner in the opera.) But all the above certainly allowed him to vividly create the character.
Both singers are singing the roles for the first time.
The third leg of the opera is the malevolent Baron Scarpia portrayed by Zeljko Lučić. He made his Met debut in 2006 and is best known for singing the Verdi baritone roles. His Scarpia is one of tightly controlled rage that he only occasionally flashes out. He is like a coiled snake that you need to tiptoe around carefully so as not to provoke it to strike with poisonous intent. Vocally, he treads a fine line between baritone and bass-baritone, always producing a legato line, while adding an unctuous overtone to his patrician demeanor.
But the real story of the success of this production lies with Emmanuel Villaume on the podium. He has a musical concept of the opera and followed a carefully prepared road map from beginning to end. He deftly keeps Grigolo from coloring outside the lines while allowing all three singers plenty of room for personal expression. The non-aria parts of the opera move right along, letting the arias stand out from the texture like an aside, sung through the fourth wall. In an opera notorious for constant rubato, Villaume keeps the ensemble between the stages and pit almost exactly precise. Quite remarkable.
Tempi were terrific, but the “Te Deum” at the end of the first act and the famous soprano aria “Vissi d’arte” were slowed down from performance norms. Villaume never does anything that isn’t carefully thought out, so perhaps a second hearing, without the element of surprise, would win me over.
This is a spectacular Tosca, intensely sung and passionately acted, as the spontaneous ovation at the end amply demonstrated. Villaume’s well-deserved ovations also came as he entered before the second and third acts.