The Met Streams Puccini’s ‘Tosca’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Tuesday, July 28

Puccini’s Tosca  ~ 2 Hrs 17 Mins

Starring Karita Mattila, Marcelo Álvarez, and George Gagnidze, conducted by Joseph Colaneri. From October 10, 2009.

Puccini’s musical thriller of lust, murder, and politics is usually one of the most dramatically riveting operas in the repertoire. For it’s third Tosca outing, the Met has chosen Luc Bondy’s production, with sets by Richard Peduzzi and costumes by Academy Award-winning designer Milena Canonero that opened the Met’s 2009–10 season. Karita Mattila stars as the beautiful singer Floria Tosca. Marcelo Álvarez is her lover, the painter Cavaradossi and a political enemy of the powerful chief of police, Baron Scarpia (George Gagnidze), who wants Tosca for himself. At the final curtain call on opening night, after the soloists had received their normally enthusiastic ovations, things took a decided – and now famous – turn for the worse. Luc Bondy, and his supporting team, were brought on stage to a huge cacophony of cat calls and booing that lasted for quite a prolonged period of time – nearly unheard of at the Met.

The Met’s previous Tosca production, by the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, premiered in 1985 and played in New York for well over 20 years. To dyed-in-the-wool Met aficionados, the Zeffirelli Tosca was close to untouchable perfection. Audiences literally swooned over the production in which the Roman settings—the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle, the interior of the Palazzo Farnese, and the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo—were re-created in fanatically ornate detail. Zeffirelli himself made it quite clear what he thought about his beloved production being dismantled in favour of one from a fashionable Swiss director. He told the New York Times that he thought Bondy’s approach to Puccini’s music was “idiotic” and called his successor “third rate” – – and the opening night audience definitely agreed.

Bondy had taken an opposite approach to Zeffirelli’s decidedly Italianate sensibilities. He had pared down his sets to the barest – stark – minimum. The church is sparse and austere with bare brick walls; Scarpia’s office in the Palazzo Farnese in act two looks like a waiting room in an institution, painted in brutal browns and oranges; and the third and last act – perhaps the least offensive – is an ugly, plain brick tower set against a dim blue-grey dawn light.

There is also some egregious bad taste in the Bondy version, which no doubt goes some way toward explaining the cat calls and booing. Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene upon which he is working at the start of the opera looks like some modern bodice-burner cover – all soft edges, flowing hair, come hither eyes and, horrors! – her left breast is completely exposed – in church. Not to mention that as act two begins, instead of barking orders to his Captain, Scarpia is being gratuitously and obviously pleasured by a courtesan kneeling between his legs, while two others are stroking his chest – something that might be tolerated in Europe, but definitely does not go over well here! 

The New Yorker summed it up as follows: “It takes a certain effort to suck the life out of Tosca. No other opera in the repertory is so immaculately crafted to deliver its thrills on cue. Revolutionary sentiment seethes in royalist Rome; a famed diva, in love with a rebel artist, confronts a Te Deum-singing, sexually slobbering chief of police; the villain is stabbed with a dinner knife, the lover falls to a firing squad, and the diva leaps to her death while screaming about God…. but Bondy delivered an uneven, muddled, weirdly dull production that interferes fatally with the workings of Puccini’s perfect conception. By the end of opening night, Gelb (the Met’s General Director) had on his hands a full-blown fiasco, with boos resounding from the orchestra seats, the upper galleries, and even the plaza outside, where people had watched on a screen for free. You could almost hear Zeffirelli laughing from his villa.”

So, I certainly cannot recommend your watching this one! You might well listen, however – since, after all, it is still Puccini’s masterful music and is ably, if not spectacularly sung. For that, you would have needed to tune in last month for the Shirley Verrett, Luciano Pavarotti, Cornell MacNeil, 1978 version which was truly wonderful.

If you missed my prior write-up on this one, it is repeated below just in case you want to brush up on the story and its background before listening….

There is definitely some interesting historical context here — although I wouldn’t recommend depending on opera for much accurate historical information. The opera is set in June of 1800 – a time when Italy had long been divided into a number of small, relatively independent states – with the Pope in Rome ruling several of the so-called Papal States in what is now Central Italy. After the French Revolution, a French army under Napoleon invaded Italy and took over Rome – establishing a Republic there in 1798 and exiling the Italian Pope. 

In 1799 however, the French withdrew, leaving the new republic without protection, and so, predictably, it was quickly invaded by neighboring Naples (aided by the Austrian army also out and about, and looking for conquest in Italy). Something of a police state was briefly established in Rome, but in May of 1800, Napoleon once again crossed the Alps into Italy and met the Austrian army (supporting the Neapolitans) at the Battle of Marengo (which is alluded to twice in the opera). This was in June, 1800 – the month in which Tosca is set. That battle initially looked as though the Austrians were winning and good tidings were sent to Rome’s current occupiers, but the tide turned late in the afternoon as fresh French troops arrived. Rome was once again made a republic (although annexed, of course, by France), which lasted from 1800-1814.

So, at the specific time of the opera, there was no Pope, nor papal government in Rome, and Rome was occupied by Neapolitans (with Austrian backing). They had rounded up the seven (French supported) Roman Consuls who ruled Rome under Napoleon and made them political prisoners. Angelotti, the hotly pursued character at the very beginning of the opera, is based on one of these consuls. As the opera opens, we see Angelotti, having just escaped prison, rush into the deserted Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, find a key hidden there by his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, and lock himself in the Attavanti family’s private chapel. 

Mario Cavaradossi, a young painter, then enters and resumes work on his large painting of Mary Magdalene. The painting has been inspired by the Marchesa Attavanti, whom Cavaradossi has seen in the church but does not know. While he works, we are treated to the wonderful aria “Recondita armonia” in which he compares the dark-haired beauty of his lover, the singer Floria Tosca, to that of the blonde Marchesa Attavanti, who just happens to be, as we saw, Angelotti’s sister. Angelotti emerges from the chapel and asks his friend Cavaradossi for help, but quickly returns to hiding as Tosca herself enters to pray – and, of course, to see her lover, Cavaradossi. Their passionate duet – after an initial spat over the painting because it looks like another woman, should not be missed. Tosca leaves and Cavaradossi gives Angelotti the key to his own villa, telling him to hide in the unused garden well. 

A Te Deum is announced in (as it turns out, premature) thanks for Napoleon’s defeat at Marengo and the angry Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia, enters searching for the escaped Angelotti. He suspects Cavaradossi is aiding the fugitive and would just as soon arrest Cavaradossi as well, knowing that he is a rival for Tosca’s affections. During the gorgeous “Te Deum,” Scarpia swears that he will bend Tosca to his will and famously says to himself, “Tosca, you make me forget God.” When Tosca herself returns, he fans the flames of her jealousy using a lady’s fan with the Attavanti crest he has just found (he says) among Cavaradossi’s painting things. He tells her he will look for her at the Palazzo Farnese that evening after her performance.

Meanwhile, Scarpia’s men have arrested Cavaradossi under suspicion that he is hiding Angelotti and are torturing him for information. Tosca is summoned to Scarpia’s study and told that the only way to save her lover from indescribable pain is to tell Scarpia where Angelotti is hiding. She initially resists but weakens quickly as she continues to hear his screams coming through the door. Scarpia then proposes a bargain – if Tosca will give herself to Scarpia, he will free Cavaradossi. 

Scarpia awaits Tosca’s decision, and we are treated to her most famous aria of the opera “Vissi d’arte” asking God why He would do this to her when she has only ever lived for Art and love. New news of Napoleon’s actual victory at the Battle of Marengo seems to presage what might be a happy ending for our lovers. Ah, but as in that battle, tides do turn several more times and there is still much more drama, deception, and plot twisting to be seen, and much more achingly beautiful music to be heard and enjoyed before the opera moves to its ultimately tragic ending. Cavaradossi’s second great aria, “E lucevan le stelle” is the final highlight to watch for as, no surprise, we discover Scarpia’s last treachery – the actual, not fake as promised, execution of Cavaradossi – and Tosca’s fatal leap from the Palazzo’s parapet to escape the murdered Scarpia’s henchmen.

Photo Credits

1. Karita Mattila in the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Met, 2009. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

2. George Gagnidze as Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Met, 2009. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

3. George Gagnidze as Scarpia, Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi and Karita Mattila as Tosca in Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Met, 2009. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

4. The Act II murder of Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Met, 2009. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

5. Marcelo Álvarez and Karita Mattila in “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 2009. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP.

6. Tosca Poster for the 1900 Rome premiere.

7. Maria Callas (1923-77) as Floria Tosca in Puccini’s “Tosca” at Covent Garden. Photo: Houston Rogers Colour photograph. London, England, 1964.

8. Tosca Poster, 1906 – Universal Images.

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