New ‘Tosca’ Launch At Met Survives Sweeping Exodus

Despite cascading cancellations, David McVicar’s grandiose new ‘Tosca’ at the Metropolitan Opera came off well.
(Photos by Ken Howard)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Tosca has been pleasing audiences since 1900, when it premiered in Rome, and since 1901 at the Metropolitan Opera. New Year’s Eve marked the company’s 951st performance of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker.” There was nothing shabby or little about the grandiose new production, and the only shock was that it came off as well as it did.

High-power replacements Vittorio Grigolo and Sonya Yoncheva.

It’s no secret that this new production has been plagued with cancellations. Heading the glittery original cast were superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Kristine Opolais, whose sizzling chemistry had ignited productions of Manon Lescaut in London and in Munich. Bryn Terfel would play the villainous Scarpia, and Andris Nelsons was to conduct. But barely after the season was announced Kaufmann withdrew from the production in early March, citing a reluctance to leave his family for weeks at a time. The rising tenor Vittorio Grigolo was tapped to replace him, in a role debut.

In June, Opolais withdrew “for personal reasons,” which may or may not have included mixed reviews for Baden Baden’s poorly received Tosca production in April, where she had just sung the title role for the first time. Sonya Yoncheva was able to cancel a commitment at the Vienna State Opera to make her role debut. It came as no surprise when the conductor, Nelsons, who is married to Opolais, cancelled his own participation in July.

An experienced Scarpia, Željko Lučić juggled other Met roles to perform with Yoncheva.

Fortunately, James Levine was available to step in…until early December, when serious allegations led to the Met’s decision to sever ties with its music director emeritus. Happily, Emmanuel Villaume was available to conduct the winter run, with Bertrand de Billy deputized for the spring performances. Then, only a week later and less than three weeks before opening night, Terfel was ordered to observe several months of complete vocal rest. More luck: Željko Lučić, due to open in Cavalleria Rusticana on Jan. 8, was an experienced Scarpia and could jump into rehearsals, with only a little juggling of his Met schedule. So, over ten months the main musical cast had more than 100 percent turnover, and with Yoncheva having cancelled several recent Bohème performances because of persistent bronchitis, uncertainty remained.

Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle: marble, statuary, gold leaf.

At least the new production went forward as planned. David McVicar’s new staging replaced a widely disliked, brutalist updating by Luc Bondy, which in 2009 had replaced a lavish and much-missed traditional Franco Zeffirelli production before it. McVicar created idealized but realistic-looking versions of the three Rome locations where the opera is set. For Act I, the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle filled the Met stage with marble, statuary, and enough gold leaf to regild the Met ceiling. Scarpia’s chamber in the Palazzo Farnese (Act II) was dominated by a vast fresco of a mass abduction, its prevalent red echoing the drop curtain painting, an interpretation in crimson of the angel atop the Castel Sant’Angelo, where Act III takes place.

A notable peculiarity of the sets (by John Macfarlane, with lighting by David Finn) is their lopsided angle: raked from stage left down to the right, and angled from the back of the stage toward the left of the house. Seated somewhat to the right of the house, I lost Cavaradossi from view several times in Act I when he climbed the scaffold in front of the altar. The grand incense-fogged ecclesiastical procession at act’s end takes place entirely under the colonnade at stage right and must have been barely visible to several hundred audience members.

Yoncheva as Tosca: a mesmerizingly beautifuly voice.

With two singers making major role debuts, there was a high degree of risk leading up to opening night, but vocally it was a good evening. Yoncheva has a mesmerizingly beautiful voice, with a dark, luscious timbre and a creamy legato. She has a natural dignity, a regal, magnetic stillness, but her temperament wasn’t the best match for the volatile Floria Tosca, a character originally conceived for the legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. During the first act, when she drops by the church to pray and to set a date with her lover, her placid stage presence — or perhaps her fixation on prompter and conductor — read as petulance rather than irrational jealousy, and in her scenes with her beloved Mario she barely looked at him.

She was persuasively flirtatious for fleeting moments, and she mustered some darker emotions at the end of the second and third acts, but her characterization remains a work in progress. For the curious: she sang “Vissi d’arte” at first on a settee, then standing downstage right facing half of the audience. After dispatching Scarpia, she enacted the traditional stage business with candlesticks and crucifix.

With Yoncheva, Grigolo’s Cavarodossi projected boyishly appealing charisma.

Grigolo was more convincing as Cavaradossi. His handsome, healthy tenor has real presence and a sunny quality, and he projects a boyishly appealing charisma onstage. As the painter with revolutionary sympathies and a jealous girlfriend, he mustered vocal and dramatic energy in scale with the grandeur of the set. When he entered the church, he redirected attention from the masses of gold and marble to the human drama, and his first aria, “Recondita armonia,” felt just right. In past Met performances he has shown a tendency to hamminess and oversinging, but here his vitality filled the room.

In the second act, whether under interrogation or exulting over Napoleon’s victory, Grigolo conveyed his heightened emotional state without ignoring the singing line. By Act III, he had reverted to a hyper-verismo style, chopping up the phrases of “E lucevan le stelle” with exaggerated cries and hairpin dynamics; it sounded like an effort to hide vocal fatigue more than to express emotion. Yet this aria earned the longest ovation — partly the recognition factor, but also because, of all the artists onstage, Grigolo best conveyed his character and the drama.

Lučić, toying nastily with Tosca, came off as a thinking man’s Scarpia.

Lučić as Scarpia was the grownup in the room, but his beautiful voice sounded a couple of degrees too small to dominate, and it lacked the snarl to project the villainy of his character. It actually took me a few seconds to pick him out during his dramatic entrance in the church, a moment that Scarpia should dominate utterly. Lučić is perhaps the thinking man’s Scarpia: He toyed nastily with Tosca but never quite persuaded me of his utter ruthlessness.

In smaller roles, Christian Zaremba as the fugitive Angelotti and Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan both sounded robust and characterful. Perhaps unintentionally, Brenton Ryan as Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta bore an uncanny resemblance to Eric Trump. The chorus sang well, as always, though some of their business seemed hastily devised.

Scarpia’s chamber (Act II) in the David McVicar production. (Sets by John Mcfarlane.)

An underlying problem was conducting that lacked urgency. Villaume is music director of the Dallas Opera and has led Tosca in Dallas and at Covent Garden, but he is more associated with French repertoire: He led a successful Met run of Massenet’s Thaïs in November. At times, Villaume brought out inner orchestral voices with a clarity that enhanced Puccini’s nature-imbued sound world. At other times, he lingered over phrases with no apparent musical goal. His willingness to stretch phrase endings worked well for Grigolo, who seized every opportunity to hold a high note. Yoncheva was less inclined to stretch the rhythms, and the longer phrases forced her to take extra breaths. Lučić clearly wanted more forward thrust in his lines, but especially in the lumbering Te Deum the conductor was not to be moved.

Yet the first-night messiness didn’t seem to bother the audience. Tosca remains among the most popular operas, and a lavish production like this one will always be a crowd pleaser. The gala audience (which included Bill and Hillary Clinton) responded warmly, applauding the sets and the stars’ entrances. Ovations were long and enthusiastic, and I overheard comments like “the best Tosca I’ve ever seen.” After months of turmoil, Met general director Peter Gelb must have slept very well indeed.

Tosca continues through Jan. 27, with an HD screening in cinemas on Jan. 27. It returns on April 21 for six performances with Anna Netrebko and Marcelo Álvarez, conducted by Bertrand de Billy. The April 21 performance will be streamed live on the Met website. For tickets go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!


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