Idiots at the Opera — Tosca, It’s Italian

Tosca has so many Italian stereotypes that if an Italian hadn’t written it, it would be offensive. You’ve got your passionate revolutionary artist type tenor, your jealous diva – the character is supposed to be a famous singer — who wields a lethal letter opener, a duplicitous baron who could be one of Tony Soprano’s meaner ancestors, plus Madonna-worship (the religious icon, not the pop-singer), politics, and betrayal.

This is the kind of opera we love – passionate, Italian, and more verismo than a ripped from the headlines episode of any incarnation of Law and Order.

The current production at the Met opened in September with Patricia Racette in the title role, opposite Roberto Alagna as Mario Cavaradossi. The reviews in the usual places are of those performers. We saw it last night with Sondra Radvanovsky and Marcello Giordani in the roles.

Radvanovsky who neither of us heard before, was a revelation. If I could only use one word to describe her voice, it would be supple. She sings with amazing ease. No shrieking, no breathiness, no strain of any kind. She sings the way Fred Astaire dances – that is, she makes it look deceptively easy. She begins her big aria – Vissi d’Arte, supine on a sofa – an act which seems to defy the laws of both gravity and acoustics – and she pulls it off flawlessly. Showboating? Maybe. But we ate it up like cheesecake.

The always reliable Met fav, Marcello Giordani was in especially good form, winning us over with the powerful Act I, aria Recondita armoni. The duet between Mario and Tosca later in the act, showcased the chemistry between both performers. Giordani continued to shine through the evening, and nailed E lucevan le stelle, in which while awaiting his execution he sings of a starry-night and the love-shack cottage where he and Tosca would meet. It was so evocative you could almost see the stars, and the cottage with the two lovers.

Baritone, George Gagnidze singing Scarpia also gave a stellar performance, managing to be wonderfully sleazy – Tony Soprano’s more lustful, meaner, noble ancestor.

As for the production. Having seen Zefferielli’s Turandot, do I wish I had seen his legendery Tosca? The one where all the major tourist-attractions of Rome were somehow recreated in ornate detail on stage? Sure I do. I’ve heard it was an awesome crowd pleaser. The older woman we ran into on the subway said so. She was no fan of the current production, a revival of the notorious Luc Bondy spectacle first performed in 2009, which in her words involved Scarpia’s “jerking off” in a church.

She was referring to the end of Act I, in which Scarpia doesn’t so much embrace a statue of the Blessed Virgin, as maul it. My understanding from the usher working the top of the Family Circle by the secret extra lady’s room, was that what we saw last night was considerably toned down from Bondy’s original staging, which according to her involved Scarpia’s performing cunnilingus on the unfortunate piece of marble. (Ok, her exact words were, “Scarpia was kissing her crotch.”)

Other liberties that didn’t add much also abounded. Tosca doesn’t just complain about Carvadossi’s painting of the Madaonna bearing a resemblance to a certain marchesa, she actually slashes the thing, destroying it, which makes her seem more than simply high strung and way more high maintenance than she needs to be. No matter how much he loves the dame, it’s a little hard to swallow the artist wouldn’t be a bit more upset by that gesture. Later, when we get to Act II at the palace, Scarpia is surrounded by three very heavily made up gratuitous hookers who do a lot of posing.

The first act setting in the chapel was darkly lit to the point where the darkness called attention to itself, as did the spotlight thrown on anyone we were supposed to be watching. In the second act, the Palace Farnese was no palace at all – just an almost bare room with a couple of shabby velvet couches and retro-classic linoleum deco flooring. Tosca who is supposed to be arriving after a performance, is wearing a scarlet dress that matches the sofas, blending her in when she sits down. Not the best look.

In Act III at the prison, Tosca shows up in a different dress, which reminded me of some Carol Burnett movie parody where the heroine has a different costume in scenes that are supposed to be contiguous. This is an opera known for taking place in something close to real time. In Act II we are told that Caravodossi is an hour from his execution. Even if she is a diva, Tosca wouldn’t have had time to stop home and change.

Despite the unnecessary business in the church and the austere sets, it’s still Tosca, and that’s pretty great. Kudos to the entire cast and chorus, the orchestra and conductor.

There are four performances left with the singers we heard. It’s well worth going. The production’s flaws don’t detract from the music or even the drama. Info on tickets and dates here. Info on how to get cheap seats to Tosca or any other opera at the Met here. Also, while there really is a secret lady’s room on the left hand side on top of the Family Circle, be warned, there is no men’s room up there.

Taking you out, this clip of Ms. Radvanovsky and her very big voice from the 2011 production:

(Like my opera reviews? Lots of other cool stuff on this blog, and you can catch my Homeland recaps here. You might enjoy my fiction too.)