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Opera review: New 'Tosca' opens Metropolitan Opera season

September 22, 2009 |  1:30 pm

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Women arrived at Lincoln Center on Monday night decked in flowing gowns, flashing jewels and patrician smiles. Men made sure their tuxedos didn’t obscure their oversized gold or platinum watches. A crowd came out to admiringly gawk at an aristocratic parade of VIPs entering the theater. It was, recession or no recession, a typical Metropolitan Opera opening night.

But this is also now the people’s Met, and that crowd could then take a seat in the Lincoln Center Plaza and watch a new production of Puccini’s “Tosca” starring Karita Mattila on a large screen placed in front of the opera house between the two huge Chagall paintings the company recently has used for collateral. Outdoor tickets were free. A mile away in Times Square, an additional 2,000 seats were set up in front of more monitors, and no tickets were needed to watch the show.

Those at home had other choices. The Met streamed the production live on its website.  XM and Sirius radio carried a broadcast. The Oct. 10 matinee performance will be transmitted to movie theaters in 42 countries to begin the Met’s new season of “Live in HD.”

There are many ways to slice a turkey.

I must qualify that. I’ve got a pretty good idea that the Met’s new “Tosca” is a turkey. I witnessed this opening night from a peculiar but not uninteresting – vantage, three rows from the stage, on the right side of the auditorium.

About 10 feet in front of me was a large video camera and a large video camera operator who was in constant motion on his squeaky chair. Unlike those outdoors or at their home computers, I -- and those around me (many of whom had paid a considerable premium to attend this gala benefit) -- couldn’t always see the action on stage. But I have it on good authority from colleagues and friends that Tosca did, in fact, stab Scarpia in the crotch or somewhere anatomically lower than usual. Reports vary slightly. 

At the Met now, media matters most.

A new Met “Tosca” was something to look forward to. Franco Zeffirelli’s imposing quarter-century-old production had been a tourist attraction for long enough. This time the company turned to Luc Bondy, a thoughtful if rarely controversial (by European standards) Swiss director, and Mattila, one of the most striking singing actresses of the current generation. The Finnish soprano had sung the title role only once before, three years ago in Helsinki.

The sets were by Richard Peduzzi, who like Bondy was making his Met debut. Peduzzi designed Patrice Chereau’s now legendary Bayreuth “Ring” production of 1976. James Levine (of whom I had an excellent view) conducted.

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And yet, for all that, neither the production nor its cast provided fresh ideas. Bondy updated the story of a diva, her lover and the lecherous chief of the secret police, from 1800 to a decadent Rome in the early 20th century. Cavaradossi paints a topless, fetching Mary Magdalene, which Tosca in a fit of jealousy slashes with a knife, in a cathedral that looks more like a grand Fascist assembly room, albeit one with somewhat nicer folding chairs than those given the audience in the plaza. Scarpia’s lair is early Italian modern. Three prostitutes do their best to arouse the head cop as the curtain rises on the second act.

But these touches are window dressing in what is essentially a garden-variety “Tosca,” without all that much to interest or offend. Even so, an easy-to-anger Met audience showered the production team with boos during curtain calls.

I wonder whether a more convincing cast might have made a difference. Mattila put a lot into her performance. When I could see her, I was close enough to watch her show gobs of temperament. She sang with clarion tone and was more involved with expression than perfect high notes in her aria “Vissi d’arte.” But close up, anyway, she appeared calculated and camera-ready.
 
Tenor Marcelo Álvarez was a generic Cavaradossi, interested in his full, round tone and extending climaxes for as long as he could get away with. A Georgian bass, George Gagnidze, replaced Juha Uusitalo, who took ill and bowed out of the production a week ago. Gagnidze’s Scarpia never seemed a match for the towering Mattila or, for that matter, even for his call girls. His goons -- Spoletta (Joel Sorensen) and Sciarrone (James Courtney) and their other black-clad assistants in torture – were the more confident sadists. Veteran bass Paul Plishka was the bumbling Sacristan.
 
Through it all, Levine conducted as if this were the most sensuous music ever written. He was slow and blissed out. The orchestra was lush and a joy to hear. Inner parts were displayed with exquisite elegance. Such honeyed horns, the likes of which you’ve never heard.

The pit was a wondrous world of its own. I know. For that, I had the best seat in the house.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: (top) Scarpia (George Gagnidze) readies for his conquest of Tosca (Karita Mattila) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Below) Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi. Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

  


 
 

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