Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
Review by Diana, Snorrlax, FengShui, PakIrish, DarkLaddy, Tien, BunchBox

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Giuseppe Fiacosa and Luigi Illica, based on the play
Tosca by Victorien Sardou

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Conductor: Fabio Luisi

Production: Luc Bondy

Set Design: Richard Peduzzi

Costume Design: Milena Canonero

Lighting: Max Keller

Cast: Fall 2010 — Floria Tosca: Karita Mattila; Mario Caravadossi: Marcello Alvarez; Baron Scarpia: Georges Gagnidze; Sacristan: Paul Plishka
Spring 2010 — Floria Tosca: Patrica Racette; Mario Caravadossi: Jonas Kaufmann; Baron Scarpia: Bryn Terfel; Sacristan: John Del Carlo
Fall 20110 — Floria Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky; Mario Caravadossi: Roberto Alagna; Baron Scarpia: Falk Struckmann; Sacristan: Paul Plishka

Rating: Super Star Destroyer — intimidates and pleases!

This is Puccini's great opera within an opera — about a diva who is both a sensual woman and a devoted churchgoer, and a painter who is a politcal revolutionary, and a corrupt police chief who is after the revolutions, but lusts for the diva. The two men both desire the woman, and both lose their lives to and for her.

Victorien Sardou's play was such a success that Puccini suggested it for an opera immediately, but was denied the opportunity to write it till the original composer selected failed. He then (apparently) had a hissy fit and refused the commission, and Giuseppe Verdi had to go slap some sense into the man. Don't know how true the telling is, but it's a fun story, and only adds to the legend of this opera.

Puccini is a realist, and wrote many notes about what should happen during the actions of his opera. That's why so many productions portray Tosca preparing Scarpia's body for a funeral after she kills him, even though to our eyes, that is kind of weird; and you'd think that with so many productions, there were be many ways of dealing with the aftermath of the heinous act. Why doesn't she just leave the room? Try to escape? More contemporary stagings of the famous opera deal with the time allocated for the ghoulish decoratsion in other ways.

There are people who decry any revisions to the classics, and in the case of the Metropolitan Opera's audience, they whined about taking away the 20-year old set designed by Franco Zeffirelli with it's very ornate literalism — some say, a lack of imagination. After all, where is the imagination in reproducing what already exists, other than figuring out how to do it in a theatre? The singers had to only stand and sing with minimal acting, because the set ws so grandiose, you couldn't see them anyway. One wonders, isn't it better to go see Rome, rather than keep an old set that may or may not depict Rome? Fortunately, the current director of the opera house, Peter Gelb, is committed to keeping opera fresh and current, which means he doesn't want to pander to aging, dying audiences who want to see the same thing over and over, because the sameness would keep people from exploring the opera because it's the "same old, same old." Staying the same would also rob some people of a positive experience, because entrenched viewpoints breeds staleness and contempt.

Several of us are guilty of the latter sentiment, and one of us hated opera in general for what she described as the genre of "big set and tiny screaming people at the very bottom of it." That all changed when we first saw Eugene Onegin the decade before with a beautiful concept in staging that had nothing to do with drawing rooms and stuffy furniture and glitz. It was far more focused on the singers and performances, and the impression was impactful and refreshing — like everything was new, and thus the music was refreshed, too.

Luc Bondy and Co. were "boo'd" on opening night of this production, and the opera blogosphere chattered with opinions about desecrations. The show was filmed and simulcast to the plaza in Lincoln Center outside of the opera house and in New York's Times Square on the jumbotron on opening night. True, the set is dark and ominous and there were new interpretations of what was going on. But it's a dark opera, and this staging is certainly not the first to deviate from the overly ornamental and traditional sets and staging. We saw the staging in person, and on HD, and we didn't find anything offensive about it. In fact, we liked it ... a lot!

The audience cheered loudly for the singers. What we saw (because we couldn't get tickets to the sold-out opening cast performances — seems Peter Gelb is pretty samrt, eh?) was the second set of performances later in the season, with a slightly different cast. We are also big fans of Bryn Terfel, so it was a no brainer to choose this one to see; and we didn't care what the set looked like, just to see and hear Terfel.

What did we see and hear? It was, frankly, overwhelming in all the best ways. The performances were really great, and the set emphasized the mood of the era — a state under a form of marshall law, with the threat of Napoleon's invasion at the front of everyone's minds. Wedged between the church and the war, people had little latitude to express themselves, or to speak out against local atrocities and corruption.

There is no real overture in this opera, and as soon as the first ominous chords strike, you see a man (Angelotti) escaping by rope out of a tower window, then showing up inside a church to hide. The sacristan goes about his duties, which include cleaning the brushes for a painter (Mario Caravadossi), who has been commissioned to create a mural of the Virgin Mary. His model is a woman who'd come to pray fervently at the altar daily, and she is recognized by Floria Tosca, the girlfriend of the painter, who jealously demands that he change the Madonna's eye color from blue to brown, like her own. These brief scenes are the set-up for the meat of the story.

The head of the police force (Scarpia) is after the escaped prisoner, and also after the painter for his "Voltarian" beliefs. But he also lusts for Tosca, and he sees a convenient way to get all of his birds caught by manipulating the passionate diva's love for Mario.

All of the characters have leitmotifs, making it kind of Wagnerian in treatment, within a more modern Italian opera structure, lacking the full recitives of olde. Yet the story is compact and fast-moving, and there is plenty of opportunity for moveement and acting, although one musicologist referred to it as a "shabby little shocker." It kind of is, but the music is glorious, made for superstar singer at their prime.

Bryn Terfel is a bit of an opera superstar — he's big and imposing and despite his sometimes comic and doofy look (he once played a traveling elixir salesman as an Elvis impersonator), exudes a dangerous sensality and a booming voice that is prettier than you'd expect. The original production features George Gagnidze, who had not sang this role in an opera production before. He replaced Juha Uusitalo, who had taken ill; we feel sorry for the sick guy, because he blew a big chance! Gagnidze was imposing and scary; on opening night, he straddles and humps a statue of the Virgin Mary. On the HD projection, he planted an open-mouthed french kiss on her ѿ a less onerous form of adoration, perhaps. In contrast, Terfel simply kneeled in front of the statue and leered upward, and scared everyone.

The opening night's Mario was Marcello Alvarez, who has a gorgeous, strong tenor and sings the very famous Recondita armonia so well that he's been called "the new Pavoratti." We think that's an injustice, because Alvarez not only sings as well, but he can act and doesn't beg for praise with an oversized handkerchief!

For this night, we were treated to German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who sings very differently but no less well and is known for playing his characters as "batshit crazy" — we saw him in Carmen as Don Jose (and it was totally clear that when Carmen dumped him, that it was him, not her). He doesn't have the sweet tones that Alvarez possesses, but he was convincing and passionate, and fun to watch,and he got rabid cheers for his arias, too.

Soprano Karita Mattila hit the ball out of the house as Floria Tosca, every millimeter the diva. She pointed out that Zeffirelli said, "You cannot say you are a diva, you have to earn it." In this production, and in life, Mattila earned the title with aplomb. She embodied the love for Mario, to the point of being stupid and getting him arrested anew. She can't keep a secret, and she has no trouble conciling her sexual and violent and other less charitable characteristics with her devout love of God and his mother. You really did feel that from her performance.

She took ill on the night we were to see her, alas. This happens in live performances sometimes, and it's best to see this as an opportunity to hear someone new. We got Patricia Racette, who is no slouch as a soprano. She is more petite and seemed more vulnerable as Terfel's very tall Scarpia loomed over her, pressing her to freely choose her virtue ... or her lover's life. "It's a small price to pay; I get one night, and you get Mario," sang the evil police chief. And the way the two of them interacted, it was truth, embodied.

UPDATE: It's a year later, and we saw Tosca again, this time with American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky singing the diva, and she did so spectacularly that people in the audience could barely contain their desire to applaud her. There were screams of pleasure as she concluded Visi d'arte. And there was an extra unexpected treat! The bad news is that Marcello Alvarez was sick and wo uld not sing. The good news is that Roberto Alagna would take his place ... since when was Alagna an understudy? The users juoked about how good the Met's "B-cast" was. Peter Gelb came out to make the announcement, and admitted that though the costume department scrambled to fit Alagna, he was forced to wear the boots he uses in Carmen, which he'd sung the previous Saturday (two days before).

Falk Struckmann sang the role of Scarpia. He was very good, but couldn't compete with our memory of Gagnidze and Terfel. He was a very active, lithe Scarpia with a booming voice, and he totally deserved to be stabbed. But we had the feeling he was a human man dying, whereas with the other two singers, it was as if a demon was released ... and the way each of the men drew Tosca to give herself freely to him — ranged from leering to monstrous. We liked monstrous.

This is a viscous, intense production, boiled in details, as well as being stripped down to its essence. No matter who sings, the performers are allowed to shine, even the henchmen Spoletto and Sciarrone (wonder why the bad guys have surnames starting with "S"?), or the Sacristan when he gives the testimony that damns Caravadossi, or when he complains of the rebels and athiests. The costuming was done by the woman who won the Oscar for best costumes for Chariots of Fire (the year she beat Star Wars), and it really was brilliant yet subtle.

Like we said, we never knew how much we loved Puccini's work, after all. Thank goodness for the bravery of those willing to defy the wealthy traditionalists who want he same old, same old!

Production images from www.nytimes.com and www.metopera.org

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