Puccini’s Tosca

November 2, 2009 at 1:59 pm (Film and television, Music, opera, Performing arts)


This is it, right? Replete with drama, melodrama, and utterly gorgeous music, Tosca is a can’t miss night at the opera, is it not?

That was certainly my assumption when I got a group of friends and fellow AAUW members together to see, in a nearby movie theatre, the HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of this perennially popular work. No sooner were the tickets bought and paid for than the stories starting coming of a rather unusual opening night at the Met: a performance of Tosca had elicited boos from the audience!

“When was there last an opening night quite like this at the staid old Metropolitan Opera?” chortled Mike Silverman in the Huffington Post. What happened? The problem lay in the new production, one of eight being mounted at  the Met this season. Luc Bondy has made major changes in the staging and the sets, and they did not find favor with the opening night audience.

First – here’s a summary of the opera, in Alex Ross’s words:

“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, the diva leaps to her death while screaming about God. Each act unfolds in real time, in precisely mapped locales, with no major improbabilities impeding the flow of events. The music is both refined and brutal, late-Romantic opulence pinned to raw action.

(I couldn’t have said it better myself. Actually, no one can say anything about music quite the way Alex Ross does. Click here to read the complete article; and here for “The Storm of Style,” Ross’s stunning piece on Mozart.)

In brief, here are my observations: the set for Act One, which supposedly takes place in an opulent church, was ugly; the lighting was so dim that you could  barely make out what was occurring on stage. (This has to have been even more frustrating for those watching it live in the opera house. We filmgoers had the  major advantage of close-up photography of the singers.) The set for the second act was equally ugly, but thank goodness the lights had been turned up so we could see what was going on. That marvelous, hyperdramatic gesture of Tosca’s in which she places lighted candelabra on either side of the body of the murdered Scarpia and a crucifix on his  chest (see the above poster) was eliminated and replaced with nothing.

Act Three reverted to murky lighting, but for this melancholy finale, this seemed right. The glaring alteration here was at the very end, when a defiant Tosca hurls herself off the parapet. Usually at this moment, the soprano disappears behind the scenery.In the new production, however, you see the leap, which is stopped in mid-action. Bondy was apparently looking to create a freeze-frame effect that would awe the audience. Instead of being amazed, however, said audience was further annoyed by what was perceived as yet another senseless violation of the sacred canon.


Karita Mattila as Floria Tosca

Alex Ross did not care for Karitta Mattila as Floria Tosca, and I must reluctantly agree with him. This renowned Finnish diva has a powerhouse vocal instrument – perhaps, too much so for this role. Her “Visi d’Arte” did not thrill me as I’d hoped it would.

For me at least, the ghost of the fiery Maria Callas hovers over every soprano who assays this role:

Yes, her voice wobbles slightly on the high notes – no matter. I just finished listening to it yet again; for me, its power is  never diminished.

Alex Ross was rather dismissive of Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, and there I have to disagree with him. I did not know this singer before attending this performance; now I feel as though I’d follow him anywhere! In her piece in the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Waleson observes wryly that Alvarez understood that his primary task was to “nail those arias” – meaning “Recondita Armonia” in Act One  and “E Lucevan le Stelle” in Act Three. And did he nail them? For this opera goer, he certainly did:


“E Lucevan le Stelle” is such an elemental cri de coeur, and to hear it sung like that, so imbued with Cavaradossi’s anguish…Let’s just say that days later, it is still resonating. And as for Marcelo Alvarez:  it’s no mean feat to steal Tosca from Tosca – but IMHO, this Argentinian with his glorious tenor voice did just that. (Alvarez came to the singing of opera late and by a circuitous route. It’s an interesting story.)

During the two intermissions, Susan Graham (herself a singer of note) conducted interviews with several of the evening’s luminaries. Or at any rate, she attempted to interview them. Both Marcelo Alvarez and Karita Mattila spoke English reasonably well and came across as attractive individuals. Mattila was bubbling over with excitement; at one point, she broke into a stream of Finnish,for the benefit of the fans back home. This is a language that we virtually never hear in this part of the world, so her patter was charming but utterly incomprehensible. When she had finished, there was a moment of complete silence. Then this from the gallant Susan Graham: “I couldn’t have said it better myself!”


George Gagnidze


Luc Bondy

The interviews with baritone George Gagnidze and Luc Bondy went less well, primarily because both men had almost no English at their command. Gagnidze, a last-minute replacement for an ailing  Juha Uusitalo, hails from the Republic of Georgia. I though he made a suitably villainous Scarpia and sang the role with conviction. He gamely tried to answer Graham’s queries, but for the most part could only shrug amiably. I was more surprised by Luc Bondy’s almost complete lack of facility with the English language.

So, what you had here was a Finnish soprano, an Argentinian tenor, a Georgian baritone, and a French-speaking Swiss producer, all with varying degrees of fluency in English. And let us not forget the conductor Joseph Colaneri, who hails from the  Great State of New Jersey (the birthplace of Yours Truly, as you may have guessed.) How did these folks communicate, one wonders, and was that part of the problem…

The performance that we saw Wednesday evening was not the one which took place on opening night, September 21; it was, instead, “captured” on October 10. We neither saw nor heard any booing or catcalls. Was the encore film cleansed of these negative elements? Possibly.


Joseph Colaneri


James Levine

Also, as I mentioned above, our conductor was Joseph Colaneri rather than James Levine, who conducted on opening night. And here a word must be said about the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra: under Levine’s leadership, it has become one of the world’s great orchestras. Their playing was absolutely glorious.


Peter Gelb

Finally, a word about Peter Gelb and the changes he has wrought. Since taking the helm at this venerable institution three years ago, Gelb has seen it as his mission to drag the Metropolitan Opera kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. As he pursues this goal, there are  bound to be some missteps and unpopular decisions.(Read “It’s a new Met. Get over it” from the September 22 New York Times.) I think most people would agree, though, that the HD movie theater broadcasts are a great innovation. These performances can now be seen at venues all over this country and worldwide as well. I had fun playing with this list of countries – you can see Tosca in Riga, Latvia! Carmen in Costa Rica and Croatia! Peter Grimes in Peru – and at three different locations in Poland! Want to know how to get tickets in Lithuania? See below:


Here once more are  the words of the journalist whose task it was to review a production of Turandot in Covent Garden in 1927, three years after the death of its composer,  Giacomo Puccini:

“Covent Garden was haunted last night. It was haunted by the gentle and immaculate ghost of Puccini…who died with the final bars of Turandot still imprisoned within his brain, who disappeared to solve an enigma more terrible and profound than any created by the Princess Turandot. We like to think that Puccini revisited the glimpses of the moon last night to observe the opera’s performance in England, where his works are so universally cherished, to watch his tricksy spirits at their revels. We imagined him pleased with the magnificent production and the sensation it created.

“Universally cherished” – not just in England, but all over the world.


Giacomo Puccini: 1858-1924

I love Tosca‘s opening musical salvo: five notes signal the advent of grandeur, passion, and tragedy. (Click here; scroll down to Act One and click on the word “play” across from Track One – “Ah! Finalmente!”)


  1. Joyce said,

    We saw this production at the Met on October 3. What a disappointment! I had read the Times review, so was prepared for some of what we were to see, but still… As an antidote I had to watch the Zeffirelli production on DVD about a week later. It has almost erased the bad taste of the current Met production. As I head off to see Turandot in the movie theatre today, I can only hope that they don’t decide to mount a new, un-improved production of this opera!

  2. Carmen: operas make great movies « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of the opera, and I was afraid that it might be “sexed up.” They tried this with Tosca, and the effect, in my opinion, was not edifying. But though this was a very sensual Carmen, it was […]

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