Producer/Director: Luc Bondy
Tosca: Patricia Racette
Cavaradossi: Jonas Kaufmann
Scarpia: Bryn Terfel
What better way to end my Met opera season than with Luc Bondy's much debated, therefore abundantly advertised, Tosca? But it looked like all the mostly negative hoopla had at least one positive outcome: the performance was sold out, another proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity. My first taste of opera ever, and still the one firmly at the top of my list, I was just dying for a chance to understand what all the fuss was about. If anything, I figured that the cast was simply too good to pass with, in the title role, the luminous Patricia Racette, whom I was eager to see in a role that was a drastic departure from stirringly complex but decidedly unglamorous Jenufa or Ellen in Peter Grimes. The casting of Bryn Terfel as Scarpia was screaming "satisfaction guaranteed" and I had heard many good things about much-in-demand newcomer Jonas Kaufmann, who is currently juggling Tosca's Cavaradossi with Carmen's Don Jose at the Met. Ah! The bottomless energy of youth...
An irresistibly explosive cocktail of politics, religion, love and sex, Tosca may not be very subtle, but it is so perfectly served by its take-no-prisoner score (or is it the other way around?) that it is essentially impossible not to get pulled in. Even if the historical context is barely hinted at and the audience is unfamiliar with the Roman iconic landmarks, the fierce clashes among the sadistic chief of police, the Voltairian artist and the hot-blooded diva, not to mention Puccini's uninhibited melodies, provide enough entertainment to keep the audience happily spell-bound.
Tosca is one of those roles that can make or break a career overnight, and I was very much looking forward to finally getting to witness ever-reliable Patricia Racette in a downright sexy role, sporting a dark wig over her usually blond hair and donning lavish costumes in lieu of drab outfits. Even if her voice did not always carry the earthy overtone I always associate with Tosca, it was as bright and supple as ever, fitfully expressing her irrepressible, roller-coasting emotions. Her "Vissi d'arte" was as deeply moving as they come and unsurprisingly brought down the house.
As her most obsessed admirer, Bryn Terfel was just a riot as one of the world's most delectable villains, all black leather-clad, and his deep, rich baritone unmistakeably adding a deliciously sinister touch to his bad-to-the-bone Scarpia. Jonas Kauffmann has been unfairly blessed with the perfect looks, demeanor and vocal power to be a brazenly dashing Cavaradossi, the ill-fated hero as devoted to his political cause as to his ardent lover, and he was not afraid to make full use of those advantages.
Puccini's music is verismo at its very best, with short but instantly hummable arias (Who hasn't melted listening to "E lucevan le stelle" is simply not human) and discreetly evocative ambient sounds, such as the lovely shepherd boy's song opening Act III, followed by the morning church bells, which solidly anchor the action. A frequent visitor of Germany's and Austria's major opera houses, Fabio Luisi ripped through the intensely lyrical score without looking back, staying on top of the dramatic pulse of the music with unwavering gusto.
So what were the raging controversies all about then? Well, for a public accustomed to tradition-bound directors, a few things legitimately seemed odd at best, blasphemous at worse. Gone was Zefirelli's meticulously reconstituted Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese and Castel Sant' Angelo. Instead, the sets were stark, brightly modern or non-descript. At least one unfortunate visual effect happened when Tosca's eye-popping red dress in Act II awkwardly disappeared on Scarpia's equally vivid couch, seamlessly blending in when contrasting the two would have yielded a better result.
A couple of directing choices did make the purist in me kind of gasp: Scarpia fooling around with prostitutes is an extremely unlikely sight for a man with particularly refined tastes, a true blue aristocrat who would never lower himself to mingle with the little people in any circumstances. Tosca failing to place candles around Scarpia's body after she killed him, thereby emphasizing the moral conflict she was enduring, was sorely missing too. But I hasten to add that, while important, those departures from tradition did not by any means ruin my enjoyment of the exhilarating joy ride that was this new production.
The 2009-2010 season is dead! Vive the 2010-2011 season!