Tuesday, September 22, 2009

And they're off... The MET opens with Tosca

The Metropolitan Opera opened it's season last night with a star studded gala performance of Tosca. The reviews are pouring in and I must admit that I was trying desperately not to read them. I wanted to be able to form an unbiased review after seeing the show myself.

But, curiosity has grabbed ahold of me like Tosca grabbing ahold of the knife. And, I feel that I would be withholding valuable information (read: dish) from you if I didn't troll for some good ones. So, here goes.

The Met's opening night gala is very much the starting gun of the entire opera season. Stars of stage, screen, fashion and art turned out for the performance where top tickets went for $1,250. Certainly this was a reminder that the opera house remains a runway for the wealthy, despite the efforts of the Met's Peter Gelb to reach out to all. Mr. Gelb has committed to selling some tickets for cheap, but not for this event. For this one, an extra $500 on top of the $1,250 wins access to a cocktail party beforehand and a dinner afterward.

James Levine conducted a cast headed by soprano Karita Mattila in the title role and tenor Marcelo Álvarez as her lover Mario Cavaradossi. The villain, Baron Scarpia, was sung by baritone George Gagnidze - a last minute replacement for Juha Uusitalo, who had to withdraw because of illness. It would seem (and I say "seem" because I don't know first hand, yet) that the cast, no matter how stellar, could not save this production. Let's just say that this new staging didn't quite satisfy the opera elite / reviewers that attend the opening night festivities. Here are some highlights ....

The huffingtonpost.com writes in part:
Met Opera BOOED: Richard Peduzzi's Tosca Outrages Crowd.

When was there last an opening night quite like this at the staid old Metropolitan Opera?

It had just about everything: a new production of a beloved work, Puccini's
Tosca; a starry cast; music director James Levine in the pit – and from the audience, the loudest and most sustained booing in memory.

The justified anger of so many of the 3,800 fans at Monday night's gala was directed not at the singers or conductor but squarely at Swiss director Luc Bondy and his production team. Their appearance on stage at the end turned what had been a standing ovation for the cast into a raucous protest, prompting the management to bring down the curtain.
Check out the whole huffingtonpost review here.

Anthony Tommasini writes in his review for the New York Times:
An Opera Staple Takes a Stark Turn at the Met

As the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb has been on a campaign to make the house a place for theatrically daring productions with dramatically compelling casts. If this means shaking things up and riling segments of the audience, so be it. There are new audiences to court, as Mr. Gelb has often argued.

But right now he may be thinking, “Be careful what you wish for.” The Met opened its season on Monday night with a new production of Puccini’s
Tosca by the adventurous Swiss-born director Luc Bondy. When Mr. Bondy and the production team appeared on stage during curtain calls, the audience erupted in boos. If there were cheers among the jeers, they were drowned out...

...Still, the booing, if a little unfair, was understandable. Mr. Bondy’s high-concept staging featured stark, spare, cold sets and dispensed entirely with many of the familiar theatrical touches that audiences count on in this repertory staple: Tosca placed no candles by the body of the villain Scarpia after murdering him, and she did not exactly leap to her death at the end. Mr. Bondy had scoured the work, it seemed, looking for every pretense to flesh out, literally, the eroticism of the lovers and the lecherous kinkiness of Scarpia.

Many Puccini lovers and opera purists may feel that Karita Mattila’s cool, gleaming voice is not quite right for the role. But what soprano today is a classic Tosca? There is not much competition right now. Ms. Mattila brings shimmering power, incisive attack, pliant lyricism and emotional honesty to her performance. Sometimes her sound turned hard-edged, her sustained tones wobbled, and her top notes splintered, though in Act III, when she tells Cavaradossi of having stabbed Scarpia to death, she leapt to a high C of ferocious intensity, then plunged down two octaves, mimicking the thrust of the knife into the villain’s gut.

Marcelo Álvarez as her lover Mario Cavaradossi looked a little paunchy in his tight-fitting pants and coat, the work of the costume designer Milena Canonero. But what mattered was his ardent singing.
For more - including the details of what looked like "an orgy" to Mr. Tommasini - check out his full review.

But wait, there's more...

Anne Midgette writes in her review for The Washington Post:
The Met's Twist on Tosca? It's the Audience That Gets the Knife.

If art is a secular religion, opera can be a particularly orthodox sect of it. Certain rituals have become codified with time. In La Bohème, Rodolfo always clutches Mimi the same way when she dies. In The Barber of Seville, the maid, Berta, always sneezes loudly after taking snuff. And in Act 2 of Tosca, Tosca always spots the knife with which she is going to kill Baron Scarpia at a particular chord in the music; and she always sets lighted candles around his dead body before she leaves the room. It's in the score; it's in the music; it must be so.

So when Luc Bondy, the director of the new
Tosca that opened the Metropolitan Opera's season Monday night, had Tosca fail to do those things, he was virtually guaranteed a lusty chorus of boos.

Opening night at the Met is something of an international observance, particularly since the accession of Peter Gelb as general manager in 2006. Gelb's first opening night featured a
Madame Butterfly from the English National Opera by the film director Anthony Minghella, whose presence drew considerable star wattage, with the likes of Sean Connery and Jude Law in attendance. None of the subsequent opening nights of Gelb's tenure has been quite as lustrous, and with reason: None, including this Tosca (which will be broadcast live to movie theaters around the world on Oct. 10) has been artistically as good.

Tosca was going to be sacrilege to some people, no matter what Bondy came up with. The Met's previous production, by Franco Zeffirelli, which dated from 1985, was seemingly set in stone: It faithfully reproduced each of the Rome locations specified in the score, so that you got a veritable postcard of the Palazzo Farnese in Act 2, which plays out in Scarpia's study, and a faithful reproduction of the last-act Castel Sant'Angelo, from whose parapet Tosca leaps to her death. Zeffirelli, a local hero at the Met, did not go gently into the good night; in an interview with the New York Times before the performance, he dismissed Bondy as "third-rate."

Bondy certainly tried to clear away the layers of encrustation from the opera, rather like a restorer trying to clear the varnish from a painting. The problem was that he didn't always seem to have a vision of the strong underlying image he was trying to reveal. His modus operandi seemed to be to get rid of all of the Tosca traditions and start afresh, but "afresh" often involved gestures every bit as gratuitous as the ones he was trying to replace. For instance: Tosca doesn't place the candles around Scarpia's body, and place the cross on his breast, after she kills him in Act 2; instead, she runs to the window and contemplates a suicide leap, forecasting her demise at the end of Act 3. Like so many of this production's gestures, it's contrived and a little odd without being particularly effective.
For more - including thoughts on Karita Mattila who "held nothing back, took abundant risks, and bit into a gravelly chest voice time and again" - see Ms. Midgette's full review.

And finally, for those who just like looking at pictures - here is the New York Times slide show of the evening's events. In addition, we can always rely on NY1 to bring us some video coverage. Enjoy!

[Photos - Upper: Karita Mattila as Tosca. By Andrea Mohin for The New York Times. Lower: The cast members made a curtain call from a balcony of the Metropolitan Opera House after the broadcast of the performance. By Richard Termine for The New York Times.]


James Newman said...

From Facebook
Joseph Grienenberger says:

I will never understand directors [in any theatre medium] who ignore what the writer originally included in a stage work.

What's next? Cio-Cio-San shooting herself instead of committing hara-kiri? Violetta actually alive at the end of Traviata because it was all just a dream? Supporting characters deleted because they're not interesting.

If a director wants to be considered brilliant and innovative, he/she should strive to make a work truly theatrically riveting, particularly the creaky warhorse shows. The National Theatre in London did amazing productions of "Oklahoma" and "Carousel" simply by approaching them as if no one had ever seen them before -- making them committed to truly telling the story, without an ounce of artifice or hackneyed show-biz'y dreck.

Lah said...

Thanks for posting this. I checked it out via my phone the other day and didn't realize it was your blog I was reading!

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