NEW YORK — When was there last an opening night quite like this at the staid old Metropolitan Opera?
It had just about everything: a new production of a beloved work, Puccini's "Tosca"; a starry cast; music director James Levine in the pit – and from the audience, the loudest and most sustained booing in memory.
The justified anger of so many of the 3,800 fans at Monday night's gala was directed not at the singers or conductor but squarely at Swiss director Luc Bondy and his production team. Their appearance on stage at the end turned what had been a standing ovation for the cast into a raucous protest, prompting the management to bring down the curtain.
That was a shame, because there was more cheering to be done for the three principals – soprano Karita Mattila, tenor Marcelo Alvarez and baritone George Gagnidze.
"Tosca," first performed in 1900, takes place a century before that in Rome during the Napoleonic Wars. In three short acts set in a church, a palace and a prison, it tells the tale of singer Floria Tosca, her lover, painter Mario Cavaradossi, and Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police – none of whom survives to the final curtain.
The sadistic Scarpia seizes Cavaradossi as a political prisoner, then tells Tosca the price for her lover's life is to have sex with him. Tosca agrees but murders Scarpia instead, thinking Cavaradossi will be set free after a mock execution. Too late, she discovers Scarpia has tricked her and the execution is real. As the police close in, she throws herself off the ramparts of the prison.
Bondy, making his Met debut, had an unenviable task replacing the sumptuous, highly detailed Franco Zeffirelli production that had been a mainstay of the house since 1985.
Desperately trying to bring a fresh look to the piece, he turns his back on tradition with a vengeance, starting with Richard Peduzzi's sets. The church in Act 1 is virtually devoid of religious trappings, and its looming arched brick walls make it look more like a prison than a place of worship. Folding wooden chairs and a metal ladder add anachronistic touches.
Scarpia's apartment in Act 2 is sparsely furnished with a small table and chairs and two garish red sofas.
Act 3 is the most realistic, a bare rooftop where soldiers rehearse the firing squad while Cavaradossi sleeps on a pallet near the front of the stage.
Odd though the sets may be, far worse is Bondy's mishandling of the action at key moments. In most productions, Tosca attacks Scarpia with a knife as he approaches to embrace her. Bondy instead has Mattila recline awkwardly on one of the sofas, hiding the weapon in the cushions. When Gagnidze lunges at her, she apparently stabs him, but it's impossible for the audience to see the action clearly.
Once he is dead, with his head on the floor and his feet still on the sofa, the libretto and score call for Tosca to place a candlestick on either side of his body and put a crucifix on his chest before rushing out of the room in horror at what she has done.
With Bondy, there are no candlesticks, no crucifix, no hasty departure. That would be defensible, if he substituted fresh, inventive action to accompany the closing bars of music. Instead, Tosca climbs onto the window sill and contemplates jumping, then she climbs down and staggers to the other sofa, where she collapses as the curtain falls.
Not much drama, less plausibility. Why would she stay in the room with the corpse of this monster a moment longer than she must? The first boos broke out before the house lights came up.
Tosca's death leap is often unconvincingly staged, with sopranos jumping halfheartedly onto mattresses just out of sight. Bondy has Mattila run up a flight of stairs and disappear. After too long a delay to be plausible, a double dressed like Mattila flies out from an opening and hangs suspended by a wire as the curtain falls. It's meant to be a coup de theatre, but instead of gasps it evokes giggles.
Almost lost in the directorial misdeeds is some excellent singing, starting with Alvarez, who was an ideal Cavaradossi, muscular and refined. He rightly drew the night's biggest ovation with his tenderly sung aria, "E lucevan le stelle" ("The stars were shining"). He never stinted on the powerhouse high notes, but he was equally affecting when he sang softly.
Stepping in with just a week's notice after Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo canceled, Gagnidze did more than hold his own. The baritone from the Republic of Georgia had a little trouble being heard above chorus and orchestra in the closing Te Deum section of Act 1. But he held the stage compellingly in Act 2, his high notes ringing out with suitable menace. In look and gesture he brings to mind Tony Soprano as played by James Gandolfini, which fits Bondy's vision of Scarpia as more thuggish than suave.
Finally, there's Mattila, one of the most prominent sopranos at the Met for more than a decade, singing this touchstone role for the first time outside her native Finland. Some will complain that her cool Nordic sound is at odds with the warm, impassioned phrasing the role demands. But she threw herself into the part and came close to making it her own, spinning out a finely shaped lyrical line. Her middle voice sounded strong, and only a couple of high notes (one of them unfortunately near the end of her big aria, "Vissi d'arte") caused her any audible distress. Always a vivid actress, she was by turns imperious and touchingly vulnerable.
The Met orchestra played magnificently under Levine's direction, savoring Puccini's rapturous melodies and rising to the climactic moments with thrilling power.
The production is scheduled for seven more performances this fall and then returns with some cast changes for eight more outings in the spring.
Other new productions over the years have been greeted with boos, but rarely if ever has a Met opening night performance received such a hostile reaction.
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