Luc Bondy’s ‘Tosca’ Still Tawdry After All These Years

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Tosca (Anja Harteros) watches what she thinks is the mock execution of Cavaradossi in the Munich staging of Luc Bondy’s production. (Photos courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera)

MUNICH – Bad productions never die, or so it seems; like pesticides, even if they’re banned in the U.S., they continue to do their damage abroad. Thus does Luc Bondy’s production of Tosca, which was finally rooted out from the Met after multiple dismaying runs, continue to desecrate Puccini and Illica’s three-act melodrama Tosca at Bayerische Staatsoper “in Kooperation mit der Metropolitan Opera New York und dem Teatro alla Scala, Mailand.”

Anja Harteros as Tosca: ‘A rather schizophrenic interpretation.’

Seen May 7, on a night that included one major star, soprano Anja Harteros, Bondy’s battering contained many of the same violations that earned it boos and pans in New York. The interior of the church looks so much like a drab, anti-Zeffirelli prison that it’s impossible to tell if the choice was motivated by social commentary or budgetary concerns. Our diva Tosca (Harteros) slashes a painting so poorly executed that only aesthetic distaste could have motivated her action. Act One ends with Scarpia (John Lundgren), in view of the boys choir and everyone else, grabbing the statue of the Madonna and pulling it over in full embrace. Act Two begins with Scarpia (thankfully clothed) cavorting with three young women whose dress commingles the Goddess Diana with Fonda’s Barbarella, and ends with murderess Tosca taking an unfathomable snooze on one of Scarpia’s many divans.

Most vexing was that in Act Three (here presented with only a few minutes’ break after the long second act), when Tosca’s recounting of her near rape finally snaps Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) from the mesmeric trance induced by reading their letter of safe passage, he crumples it up and throws it on the prison floor. Once he comes to his senses, does either he or Tosca pick up the letter, smooth it out, and ensure that they can use it for their escape? No. It lies there conspicuously, the only obvious sign of litter in an otherwise immaculate hell-hole, just waiting for some soldier to put it in his pocket. Simply unthinkable.

Alas, Harteros and her co-stars failed to save the show. Harteros’ pronounced grand-diva vibrato in her upper middle range, as well as her regal beauty, proclaimed her every inch the Tosca, but the voice conveyed far more flutter than emotion. While she had no problem with her high Cs, which were quite strong once she stopped husbanding her resources for the last two acts, her vibrato ceded to straight tones more suitable for Mozart than Puccini.

Which perhaps went along with a rather schizophrenic interpretation that had her flirting with Scarpia at the start of their two acts together, and then clinging to him like an abused daughter who equates daddy’s violence with love. In Act Two, her “Vissi d’arte” faltered for lack of forward momentum, and her revulsion came too late. In the last act, when she displayed unconditional love for Cavaradossi, her portrayal finally seemed of one piece.

Harteros attempted to underplay Tosca’s penchant for melodrama and look cool most of the time. Only when music and libretto gave her no choice did she allow herself to fly off the handle. If her painting slashing came as something of a shock, it was because so much that had preceded it seemed so tepid. That she was saving her voice for the two acts to come, with La Colla often singing louder than she in Act I, did not help matters.

Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) woos Tosca (Anja Harteros).

La Colla got off to a slow start. Throughout Act One, and especially in the great aria “Recondita armonia,” he pushed out his high notes rather than spinning them. The final act’s “E lucevan le stelle” fared best, with beautiful, empathetic singing that garnered deserved applause. But the passion that must propel Cavaradossi’s every note beyond the stage — the passion essential to transforming melodrama into high art — was mostly absent. His two love scenes with Tosca passed as little more than opportunities for Andrea Battistoni to conduct some unquestionably lovely tunes with strength and passion. La Colla’s most convincing moment was his collapse at death.

Which left Lundgren’s Scarpia to carry the show. Alas, his strong voice was simply too beautiful to depict a sadistic murderer. When Lundgren warmed his instrument to feign friendliness or seduction, his legato was so smooth and impeccably produced as to defy credulity. As for his acting, he who traded the Madonna for three gauzily dressed playthings came across as neither a man of taste nor an aristocratic sadist.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera NowListen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications.