Friday, January 28, 2011

Met - Tosca - 01/25/11

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Director: Luc Bondy
Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky
Cavaradossi: Marcelo Alvarez
Scarpia: Falk Struckmann

As I was spending quite a bit of quality time with Verdi at the Met last week, I couldn’t help but look wistfully at the Tosca poster proudly standing on the Lincoln Center Plaza. I had already seen the controversial Bondy production last year, but not with Sondra Radvanovsky, one of my very favorite sopranos and one I had always considered the ideal singer for Tosca. Marcelo Alvarez, who coincidently had starred with her in Il Trovatore two years ago, seemed just as well-suited for Cavaradossi, and if the name Falk Struckmann as Scarpia did not ring a bell, I quickly figured that two sure things out of three was a pretty good deal.
After seeing a few different productions of Tosca along the years, all more or less traditional, I was excited when a modern take on it was announced at the Met last year. Although the reactions from the critics and the audiences were strongly divided, but mostly on the negative side, I thought that all the brouhaha was a bit too much. Yes, some choices were misguided, perplexing and it had a decidedly stark feel to it, but when all is said and done, Tosca is a dark, violent story, only brought to miraculous, exciting life thanks to Puccini’s stunningly lyrical score. On Tuesday evening, the weather forecast was not predicting any snow or subpolar temperatures for a change, so I figured that I might as well go for yet another night at the opera.

And it was a particularly glorious night indeed. As expected, Sondra Radvanovsky brought her fierce physical presence and her ripe, wide-ranging voice to the celebrated larger-than-life diva, who had also somehow remained a simple girl at heart, relentlessly fighting for her lover’s life with all the might she probably never knew she had. Her "Vissi d’arte" was the show-stopper of the evening, so finely tuned in its intense desperation, and easily brought down the house. But dazzling aria or not, this was a superbly alive performance that did more that justice to one of opera’s most hot-blooded heroines.
As her ardent lover, house favorite Marcelo Alvarez generously projected his big heart and robust singing, whether to celebrate his love for his temperamental mistress or his commitment to his political ideals. Passionately exuding an artist’s sensitiveness and a revolutionary’s resilience, his Cavaradossi was a very admirable young man, affectingly belting out his own crowd-pleasing arias, "Recondita armonia" and "E lucevan le stelle", which brilliantly book-ended the evening.
And to complete this magnificent trio, Scarpia, the sadistic chief of police everybody loves to hate, was flawlessly impersonated by German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann. His strong, assured singing as well as his thoroughly despicable demeanor, first hypocritically subdued, then shamelessly lecherous, made for a Scarpia as deliciously baaaaaaaaaad as they come.
For all its faults, the production still had some priceless moments, such as the rousing "Te Deum" at the end of Act I or the lovely shepherd’s song at the beginning of Act III, all of which we owe first and foremost to the master of emotional manipulation that was Puccini. Setting the plot in three well-known Roman locations and having the story unfold in almost real time were other tricks meant to surely engage the audience, and it has been working like a charm as people still flock in mass to watch the three main characters ferociously fight until their very last breath.
Tosca’s popular score remains one of the most dramatically effective works of the Italian composer. But all the heart-wrenching turmoil comes at a price and it takes a particularly skilled conductor to strike the right balance between the music from the pit and the singing from the stage. On Tuesday night, Marco Armiliato, a long-time house regular, did not always manage to keep the musicians under tight control, resulting into the occasional drowning of the voices by too loud instruments, a problem I have frequently encountered with Tosca.
Nevertheless, the sensuous melodies beautifully soared and the outstanding cast was the best I had ever heard, so the whole outing was yet another very satisfying night at the Met.

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