The first opera I ever attended at the Metropolitan Opera was Puccini’s Tosca.
Under general manager Peter Gelb’s guidance, the Met had just tossed aside the sturdy, if creaky, Zeffirelli production of Tosca for a new staging by Luc Bondy, part of a broader initiative to reinvigorate the Met. Bondy’s stark, uninviting production did not prove to be a hit with critics or audiences. Bondy tossed aside the grandeur of Zeffirelli for a haphazard vision that did little to enliven the material. Still, I found the experience delightful. I had never heard Puccini’s score performed live, and, as performed by the Met’s orchestra, it was truly thrilling. I further enjoyed seeing and experiencing the Met itself, an exemplar of mid-twentieth century architecture that finds some strange coherence through its incongruous impulses.
This past Friday, I once again journeyed to the Met for yet another Tosca, this one staged by director David McVicar. The McVicar production exists more or less as an apology for the despised Bondy production, promising a lush and traditional take on a beloved classic. The critical response to McVicar’s staging of Tosca has been muted, as if it would be unseemly to praise a production that takes no significant risks. But who needs big risks when you’re dealing with Tosca? It’s an opera that rarely benefits from innovation.
McVicar’s new staging is certainly attractive. The audience greeted John Macfarlane’s sets with applause, and rightly so; they’re elegantly composed and ornamented. There’s an impressionistic aspect to the way they employ color and texture, further accented by the painterly quality of David Finn’s lighting effects.
But what truly distinguishes this new Tosca is its dramatic clarity. McVicar puts the opera’s characters first, deriving the most striking moments of his staging through their interactions. McVicar loses his way a little toward the end of Act I, during which he needlessly crowds the set with anonymous extras wandering through the cathedral. Otherwise he remains in command of the material, adding flourishes that accentuate some of the opera’s more incredulous turns (including a fairly clever rendition of Cavaradossi’s final moments).
The orchestra, under the command of Bertrand de Billy, sounded as vibrant as ever. Jennifer Rowley played the title role, stepping in for Anna Netrebko, who was ill. Rowley’s firy, complex Tosca was a marvel; she demonstrated breathtaking vocal command throughout her performance, but especially on her very fine rendition of “Vissi d’arte.” Michael Volle’s Scarpia proved to be a terrific match for Rowley’s Tosca, and the great battle of wills between them in Act II proved to be the highlight of the night. The third link in the trio, Yusif Eyvazov’s Cavaradossi, demonstrated great vocal force, but otherwise dynamism and expressiveness; he seemed to struggle with Cavaradossi’s quieter moments.
If this Tosca will do little to make waves in opera history, the Metropolitan Opera now successfully has an updated, contemporary Tosca that will nicely align with many of the other staples in its repertoire. As it looks to other classic productions to update (of the Puccini tentpoles, I’m personally hoping they develop a new version of Turandot,, which, unlike Tosca, would benefit from conceptual innovation), they could do worse to follow the example set by McVicar’s Tosca.