Tosca (Metropolitan Opera, NR)

opera_tosca.gifBondy’s production is eclectic, combining an essentially spare approach in the sets and costuming with some additional bits of stage business which are true to the characters.







For opera lovers who aren’t planning a trip to New York in the near future, the next best thing is available at the Saint Louis Art Museum: simulcasts of live performances from the Metropolitan Opera in high-definition video and Dolby 5.1 audio. Kicking off this season was the new Luc Bondy production of Tosca, also the first Met simulcast I have attended. The most important thing I have to say is that it really does deliver the sense of being at a live performance: I quickly ceased to notice the borders of the screen because I was so absorbed in the production.

If you follow opera at all, you already know that this production is a bit, shall we say, controversial. Bondy was greeted with boos at the New York premiere, and Franco Zeffirelli (who created the Met’s last production of Tosca) called Bondy "a very bad director" who "should not be allowed to touch these masterpieces." Charges and countercharges proliferated: the boo-ers were labeled hidebound traditionalists threatened by new ideas, while the cheer-ers were called worshippers of Eurotrash eager to jump on any trendy bandwagon which passes by.

Of course, you have to keep in mind opera raises at least as many strong emotions in those who love it as does Cardinalds baseball or Rams football among those who follow those endeavors, and the extra publicity probably helped the cause of opera in general, as well as this production in particular. But let’s get down to the bottom line: Is the new production any good?

The answer is yes. Bondy’s production is eclectic, combining an essentially spare approach in the sets and costuming with some additional bits of stage business which are true to the characters even if not specified in the libretto—Scarpia entertains three prostitutes in his office, Tosca gashes Cavaradossi’s painting of Maria Magdalene—and the preponderance of browns as well as the size of the sets for Scarpia’s office recall Fascist Italy. I think this is a great approach: The opera is set in Rome in 1800, but the basic human types on display have been seen over and over again in history. When Cavaradossi is brought to Scarpia for interrogation and torture, the "there are no rules here except what I say" vibe put me in mind of extraordinary rendition as practiced recently by our very own government.

Bondy’s approach strips the production down to its essentials, bringing out the dark heart of the story and allowing the music to speak for itself. Fortunately, all was well in the musical department: The orchestral sound was rich and the voices strong and dramatic. Karita Mattila was a passionate Tosca, Marcelo Álvarez a silver-voiced Cavaradossi, and George Gagnidze a preeningly demonic Scarpia.

The simulcasts include some bonus features which you will never get at a live performance. The cameras go backstage before the performance and during each intermission so you get some sense of all the behind-the-scenes things which must be done to make a performance happen. There are also brief interviews with the principals and others involved in the production, such as the chorus master and the costume designer. The interviews are about as enlightening as most interviews at sporting events ("Would you rather play Scarpia or a nice person?"), but they do bring a human touch to what can be a very off-putting musical genre. And I did learn one important tip from the chorus master: Always check the sign-in sheet to see what work you’ll be performing that night!

The cameras were a little too busy for my taste. Constant movement and cuts made the simulcast seem like it was meant for television, and too many close shots mean that you often lost a sense of the blocking. It’s not a hockey game, guys, so there’s no need to always follow the puck. If we can’t see the whole stage, or most of it, we’re missing out on a lot of what is happening, including how the characters react to each other. And without belaboring the point, sometimes singers are not even close to the age of their characters or otherwise not physically right for them; while this is easily ignored on stage, when you constantly see the performers in close-up it becomes disconcerting.

But all in all, this was a very satisfying production of Tosca and demonstrated to me that the Met simulcasts can provide a satisfying operatic experience. In case you’re not totally up on the opera, English subtitles are provided. | Sarah Boslaugh

The remaining simulcasts for this season are Aida (Oct. 24), Turandot (Nov. 7), Les Contes d’Hoffman (Dec. 19), Der Rosenkavalier (Jan. 9), Carmen (Jan. 16), Simon Boccanegra (Feb. 6), Hamlet (March 27) and Armida (May 1). Additionally, the National Theatre (U.K.) performance of All’s Well that Ends Well will be simulcast on October 31. Ticket information is available from the museum box office or from Metrotix online or at 314-534-1111.

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