Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume
Director/Producer: David McVicar
Floria Tosca: Sonya Yoncheva
Mario Cavaradossi: Vittorio Grigolo
Baron Scarpia: Zeljko Lucic
After meteorologically challenging holidays, which mercilessly extended through the Epiphany weekend, but at least provided the perfect excuse for indulging in movie marathons and plenty of hot chocolate, the time came to put uncomfortable sub-zero temperatures and a hyperbolically named but still disruptive “bomb cyclone” behind, and resume attending live performances. Because supporting the performing arts can a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
It would have been difficult to find a better way to kick off my 2018 musical year than with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, which even before its opening night on New Year’s Eve had made headlines multiple times due to its hard-working revolving door relentlessly spinning singers and conductors in and out. But the untenable suspense eventually led to a happy end by way of a scintillating cast including Met regular-in-the-making Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, new Met regular Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and confirmed Met regular Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, who would all sing under the last-minute baton of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume.
Therefore, last Tuesday night, on a lovely winter evening (You know you’ve had it rough when 35 °F feels downright balmy), I was thrilled to have yet another opportunity to revisit the opera that had made me fall in love with the art form in the first place, not to mention to introduce my friend Vy An to it as well. The excitement of this long-awaited outing, complete with pretty awesome orchestra seats, being only tempered by the fact that this Tosca may very well be our last pizza & opera date for a long time.
With three charismatic characters, a straightforward story, an unhappy end, a reasonable length, and plenty of hand-wringing drama and fabulous music, Tosca has all the right ingredients for a memorable night at the opera for neophytes and connoisseurs alike. This is probably the opera I’ve seen the most often, and I keep going back to it for the same reason as everybody else: Knowing full well that I will be inexorably pulled back into its irresistible mix love, sex, religion, revenge, politics, and death one more time, and relish every minute of it.
Sonya Yoncheva had impressed many audience members, including myself, with her confident Violetta last year, and I was thrilled to hear that she would replace Kristine Opolais as the most popular diva of the opera repertoire. I am even more thrilled to report that my sky-high expectations were indisputably met as her naturally plush voice enabled her to deliver some wide-ranging singing that effortlessly went from amorous whispering with her beloved Mario to hair-raising fury with the much-despised Scarpia. Her splendid “Vissi d’arte” started soft and reflective, but she knew exactly when to ramp up the intensity and literally rose to the occasion. She may not have the full weight of an Angela Gheorghiu or Sondra Radvanovsky yet — This will no doubt come with experience — but she threw herself whole-heartedly into the part and has earned her Tosca credentials.
As much as I had enjoyed Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi several years ago, I was ready for a change in leading man and was totally looking forward to seeing what Vittorio Grigolo, whose impetuous Romeo had impressed many audience members including myself, last year, would make of the role. And the verdict is, he smashingly nailed it as long as you like your Cavaradossi youthful, ardent and untamed, which I did. That said, it also must be pointed out that beside his by now signature wild puppy antics, the irrepressibly hot-blooded tenor had no trouble occasionally slowing down to express deeply nuanced emotions to outstanding effect. A case in point would be his genuinely heart-breaking “E lucevan le stelle”, full of tenderness, melancholy and anguish.
As the ruthless chief of police Scarpia, Zeljko Lucic had the daunting honor of stepping into Bryn Terfel’s mighty shoes to impersonate one of those evil characters everybody loves to hate. That also means, of course, that he had a particularly juicy part to play with, and he certainly played it for keeps. His poised demeanor and ominous singing consistently exuded the understated elegance of the born aristocrat and the force tranquille of a powerful man used to getting his own way at any price.
Smaller characters such the desperate escapee Angelotti (Christian Zaremba), the kind-hearted sacristan (Patrick Carfizzi), and the sinister Spoletta (Brenton Ryan) all made lasting impressions while iconic moments such as the glorious “Te Deum” at the end of Act I and the angelic singing of the shepherd boy at the beginning of Act III compellingly came to life.
If the unusual youth of ill-fated lovers was a refreshing change, the production was a determined step back into Zefirellian past. The three sets dutifully displayed the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, the Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and the Castel Sant'Angelo in Act III, all faithfully recreated, beautifully lit, and utterly predictable. The costumes looked very good and the directions did not err much from the norm, except maybe for small details such as the holy water that Cavaradossi generously splashed over his face in Act I as he was frantically trying to help his revolutionary friend on the run and calm down his jealous lover. On the other hand, yes, you may rest assured that Tosca did place two candles around Scarpia’s dead body because that’s just the kind of pious woman she is.
Regardless of what’s going on on the stage, one sure value of the Metropolitan Opera is its endlessly versatile orchestra, unperturbably playing away in the pit. Although most of the musicians could probably work their way through Tosca from memory by now, their performance was as committed, vibrant and colorful as expected. After Andris Nelsons had pulled out and James Levine had been pulled out, Emmanuel Villaume was called to rescue and boldly stepped in. This third time turned out to be a charm as, on Tuesday night, he seemed to fit in seamlessly, even taking the time to join the audience in applauding the show-stopping arias. Even the maestro agreed, that Tosca was a memorable night at the opera indeed.