So the first high-definition simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera was Puccini’s “Tosca” and I for one was rather skeptical of how much I was going to enjoy it. . . since the first performance of this new production, which opened this current Met season, was greeted with a sharp mix of enthusiasm, dismay, and hostility. In fact, when director Luc Bondy came out for a bow at the curtain calls, a shower of boos rained down on him – although there were plenty of people cheering him as well. But for an opening night at the Met, this was rather shocking- roughly akin to how shocking it would have been if some unhappy republicans had thrown tomatoes at President Obama’s inauguration. There are some occasions for which people find themselves on their best behavior, whatever their inner unhappiness might be, and opening night at the Met has usually been that kind of occasion. But not this time around. Tosca was once described by a critic as “that shabby shocker” because of its somewhat over-the-top, melodramatic elements- but what was most shocking opening nights were those boos.
The problem is that Tosca is a very popular opera and there are plenty of people out there who prefer their opera “straight” – that is, not delivered within some director’s or designer’s imaginative new vision for the work. This production turned out to be fairly straight- it’s not like he set it on Mars or in the Old West- but there were lots of little touches throughout that deviated from the libretto and some directorial choices with which a traditionalist would take exception. (And for straight-laced traditionalists, there was also the matter of two different instances in the performance when – gasp! – we glimpsed a woman’s naked breast – once in a picture being painted / and the other with a real live woman.) And unlike the previous production, a Franco Zefferelli extravaganza of opulent realism, this production had a much starker look to it.
Which is why I am so surprised and delighted to say that I Loved It! It was provocative and challenging and I didn’t love everything about it (not even close) but for the most part I found it to be an invigorating new vision of an old favorite. But what made it all ultimately irresistible were the thrilling performances of Karita Mattila and Marcello Alvarez, who sang (and acted) as though Puccini himself had crafted this work for them and for their singular talents. They were riveting. One moment in the afternoon that made me smile was when my friend Marshall Anderson leaned over to me just after Mr. Alvarez had done some especially persuasive singing – hurling out thrillingly beautiful sound and with such authentic passion- and whispered “Try that, Richard Tucker!” Richard Tucker was a tenor mainstay at the Met from 1945 to 1975 and very much represented the old fashioned school of stand in one place and thrust out your arms with a couple of stock gestures . . . and that’s all the ‘acting’ he would offer. (That and some impassioned grimaces.) And Tucker’s singing itself was, in our opinion, loud and graceless and not particular beautiful. Compared to that brass, Alvarez was sheer gold in every way.
For as wonderful as the performance itself was, I have to mention a couple of moments during the intermissions that were rather remarkable. During the first intermission, hostess Sharon Graham spoke with Alvarez backstage, and their interview concluded with him speaking his Spanish to the good people of Argentina who were watching this performance on movie screens in their country. (These simulcasts are shown to about a thousand theaters across the globe – on six continents.) As he started speaking Spanish, I found myself shedding my first tears of the afternoon. . . what a blubberer I am . . . so moved to think of the tenor’s countrymen enjoying this remarkable performance by one of their own. And then in the second intermission, Karita Mattila did a similar thing – except that in her case, she was bringing greetings to her countrymen in her native Finnish. . . which is surely one of the oddest sounding languages around. (She sounded for a few moments like she was speaking with an Alka Selzer tablet fizzing in her mouth, so odd were the extraneous sounds which emanated from her.) And then, in what in some ways was the single most shocking moment of the whole afternoon, Ms. Mattila answered a question about the trademark intensity and passion of her singing by referring to her pubic bone…. and then in the next moment asking hostess Sharon Graham if the simulcast was considered to be a family program. (At that point, I turned to Marshall and said “Not Anymore.”)
One more thing about Tosca. . . one of the neatest things about this performance and experiencing it as I did is that one of my current voice students at Carthage, David Duncan, was there, having never seen the opera before- and knowing nothing about the story. (I had handed him his pass Thursday afternoon with no opportunity to give him any sort of quick summary or introduction.) So he just walked in without any kind of “initiation” whatsoever . . . and completely unprepared for the shocking surprise at the end. He LOVED it . . . and it made me realize that for all the value of being fully prepped, there is also something to be said for walking into an opera with absolutely no notion of what is going to happen . . . . utterly “clueless,” although that doesn’t sound quite right to say it that way. Anyway, it underscored for me how a powerful, impassioned performance of a sure-shootin’ opera like Tosca packs an amazing wallop, and maybe is at its most overwhelming – its most “shocking” – when you have no idea where Puccini is going to take you next. In that way, I find myself a little bit envious of a relative newcomer to opera like David, seeing most of these operas for the very first time and experiencing those sorts of first-time thrills.