Total Pageviews

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Tosca as Comfort Food

Grigolo and Yoncheva, photo @ Ken Howard
There exists a "live from the Met" recording of Tosca made all the way back in 1903. These Mapleson cylinders have horrible sound and are mere snippets of a performance. Nevertheless a recording of an opera made only three years after the premiere is sure to tell us something about how Tosca has evolved over the years, right?

Wrong. Even though the singers in the recording (Emma Eames, Emilio de Marchi and Antonio Scotti) have voices that today don't sound like natural fits for the opera, the most revealing thing about those Mapleson cylinders is how unrevealing they are. You can imagine everything that's happening onstage just from what the singers are singing. Eames screams at the exact moment you expect her to scream -- when she realizes after the third "Mario" that the execution was real.

Puccini's "shabby little shocker" is choreographed down to the minute. That's it's greatest strength and biggest limitation -- Puccini makes the trains run on time to such an extent that there's very little room for interpretation and creativity. Luc Bondy's 2009 production was an attempt to try something new -- he took away the usual trappings: the ornate Roman church, the candles and crucifix at Scarpia's body, the famous leap into a mattress that all Toscas since time immemorial have taken in the final moments of the opera. Unfortunately he replaced the traditional Tosca with a dreary, industrial, boring production. The best experience I ever had with that production was when Angela Gheorghiu showed up with her own costumes, and completely did her own thing. There wasn't a single Bondy direction she followed. It was great.

Why is he painting in such a white shirt?
What Gheorghiu recognized was that behind the blood and guts story Tosca is really comfort food opera. You go to Tosca to NOT be surprised. A good performance should be like a well-oiled machine where the soprano, tenor, and baritone all do their thing and have their moments and everyone goes home happy. It's no wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber borrowed so liberally from Puccini. They are brothers from another mother.

David McVicar's production which premiered New Year's Eve put Tosca squarely back in the comfort food zone. The production had maybe the highest turnover of any Met new production in recent history -- by the time opening night rolled around we were on our second Tosca, second Cavaradossi, second Scarpia, and third conductor. Yikes. Despite the changes what I saw on the third performance was a perfectly competent, professional performance. As I said, Puccini really makes the trains run on time.

McVicar's production has traditional, opulent sets by John MacFarlane (despite an oddly sideways raked stage) and mostly traditional blocking. The most daring thing about it was the slightly modern twist on Tosca's clothing and mannerisms -- she doesn't wear a veil while entering the church, and her dress in Act 2 is a low-cut evening gown that shows quite a bit of cleavage. She also has a more extended makeout session with Cavaradossi in Act One than is normal. Since this is Opera Life and not Real Life, I was only mildly perturbed by the fact that Cavaradossi was painting in a puffy white shirt in Act One. Uh, I've never seen a painter in such a bleached shirt. A little more bothersome was the fact that Scarpia had a roaring fireplace in a Roman summer, and that there was light streaming through his windows when the whole of Act Two takes place after Tosca's evening performance. Oh well. As I said, Opera Life, not Real Life.

Yoncheva and Lucic, photo @ Ken Howard
The three principals were varying degrees of competent/professional. The most inspired was Sonya Yoncheva. She's new to the role, but handled the vocals with admirable ease. Her voice is now large enough to handle the heavier Puccini orchestration, and she even has a surprising chest voice. The only alarming things: her timbre, once so plush and beautiful, now sounds much harder and slightly bottled, with some unsteadiness in the upper register. Her acting was not the fiery diva -- she in general doesn't do "fiery" well. More of a terrified #metoo victim. I thought she handled the long scene with Scarpia in the second act very well -- the high C's were secure, she has fairly good diction for a non-Italian singing verismo, and she strongly conveyed the fact that Scarpia was making her skin crawl. Oddly "Visse d'arte" was her weakest moment -- it was just a little too placid and the sustained B-flat was not her loveliest note. In Act Three she had just enough desperation in her voice to make one think that Tosca had her own doubts about Scarpia's promise. Her dive off Castel Sant'Angelo was great -- she stretched her arms and fell like she was embracing this meeting with Scarpia before God. Overall well-sung, well-acted Tosca.

Final tableau for Act Three, photo @ Ken Howard
Vittorio Grigolo was the ying to Yoncheva's yang. Yoncheva relied mostly on her large voice to make her effects. Grigolo stretched his considerably leaner tenor into a baby-spinto and for most of the opera it worked. "Recondita armonia" even had a nice degree of Mediterranean sunshine. And when he simply did not have enough voice for the music ("Vittoria," "E lucevan le stelle") he relied on some shouting, crooning, whispering, and other popera effects. However all the vocal effects couldn't hide that where you wanted to hear a trumpet you heard a bugle. His acting was his usual ball of energy. You admire his always giving 100%, even if his 100% is not exactly what the opera needs. For instance when he saw Angelotti (Christian Zaremba) he embraced him with the same passion as he had for Tosca. But it was good that he was paired with Yoncheva -- I think she needed someone considerably more frenetic to shake her out of her default passive stage persona.

The most disappointing was Željko Lučić as Scarpia. It's not that his voice is inherently wrong for the part -- it's sort of wooly and rough around the edges but Scarpia is the definition of creep so an ugly voice isn't a detriment. It's not that his acting is uninspired -- in Act Two he definitely gave off a very Harvey Weinstein vibe with the way he constantly tried to invade Tosca's personal space. It's that his overall performance has moments where it just seems like he doesn't much care what's happening. For instance in Te Deum he dropped out of bars and bars of music and seemed to simply mime the words. Was he losing his voice, or simply saving it for the Act Two marathon? Considering that after the intermission his voice was 100% back, I think I know the answer. 

Emmanuel Villaume was shoe-horned into the production on short notice and the lack of preparation and rehearsal time was apparent. He sounded better than opening night but overall he just didn't seem to know Tosca's train schedule. His default style is ponderousness and Tosca calls for nonstop urgency, tension, suspense. I'd hate to see him conduct any of Bernard Herrmann's scores. 

But the audience went away happy and so did I for the most part. The fact that Grigolo's curtain calls now include him cupping his ear at the audience as if to say "louder, I can't hear you" is just part of the comfort food experience. 


  1. Nineteenth Century Roman churches are SUPPOSED to be ornate.

  2. I know they are which is why i think McVicar's production is an overall improvement over Bondy's.