Tosca, Puccini

The Metropolitan Opera

13th May, 2010

Artistry Outshines the Spotlight

Enough has been written and said about the Met’s decision to replace their old Zeffirelli Tosca production in 2009 with a new one by Swiss director Luc Bondy. Questions were raised during the new Tosca’s premiere season about the administration’s decision to replace a functional, popular production with an arguably less effective one. Rather than continuing to question the wisdom of Peter Gelb’s artistic choices, I prefer to question the wisdom of Luc Bondy’s.

My first question to Bondy as the curtain rose on Thursday night was, “What do you see as the role of the orchestra in opera?” I asked this because the audience spends extended periods of time in Act One of Tosca listening to the orchestra and seeing nothing. Of course, they see the set, dimly lit, picked up in pockets by Max Keller’s sweeping-spot lighting design, but apart from that, there is nothing to experience whilst listening to orchestral interludes which seem to be trying to underscore something, or paint a picture of something, or tell a story of something. Therefore I ask again, what does Bondy see as the role of the orchestra, and did he, in fact, intend for the music to be as incongruous with the stage as it is?

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Photos by: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Pleading for focus in competition with the three blank, skyscraping, square-set walls which comprise the acoustically disastrous Act One set, David Pittsinger (as the escaped rebel Angelotti), and Marcello Giordani (as the artist Mario Cavaradossi) had little choice but to bellow their interactions, compromising any sense of whispered furtiveness as the escapee is secreted into hiding. In the ever-present, yet hardly illuminating follow spot, Giordani continued to power through his first Arietta “Ricondita armonia di bellezze di verse!”, disallowed any use of pianissimo by the lack of anything but a large canvas to aid in sending his abundant sound out into the house.

Daniela Dessi immediately established a no-nonsense Tosca, her jealous argument with her lover Mario seeming laden with years of understanding and frustration. The two bickered like an old, married couple, drawing a veritable sitcom soundtrack of laughs throughout. Dessi played less with fire, but more with water: a woman who is as exhausted by her own jealousy as her husband is. Her voice, most powerful in the middle register, ballooned out with luxurious resonance, intriguing the ear with a gold-leafed edging. Her top register was often a little disconnected, escaping into a place of indiscernible pitch.

George Gagnidze as Scarpia made his way swiftly to the front of the stage and very wisely stayed there throughout his thickly orchestrated first scene, exchanging intelligence with an unusually complicit Sacristan (elegantly sung by Paul Plishka). He soon revealed, though, that his was not to be a one-note Scarpia. Although clearly manipulating Tosca, playing upon her jealousy in order to have her followed to her lover’s hideout, he also successfully communicated Scarpia’s vulnerability to genuine feelings of affection, desire, perhaps even love for Tosca.

Gagnidze’s clear portrayal of this struggle did the production a great favour entering Act Two. Bondy’s unpopular decision to show Scarpia being “serviced” by three women (discordantly and matchingly costumed, inexplicably throwing their legs all over the furniture), in this case gives Scarpia a usually absent audience. It shows him to be a braggart, seeking refuge from his own fear in a public display of bravado, rather than delivering a private monologue which tends to restrict a more complex portrayal of Scarpia’s psyche.

I could have wished for a more committed physicality from Dessi in this act. Her informality left us relying on her vocal communication of anxiety, desperation, and vitriol. She simply looked too relaxed. This, too, could be a symptom of yet another domineering set, which caused awkwardness when enacting key moments: Scarpia’s stabbing took place on a front-facing sofa at the back of the room. The singers were forced into unnatural positions, and relied heavily on traditional operatic gesture to cover their discomfort.

Act Three introduced the most effective and ironically the most traditional set. Atop a ruined rampart, Bondy makes a somewhat interesting choice to show the firing squad rehearsing their moves as the shepherd (strongly intoned by Jonathon Makepeace) sings his foreshadowing of events. Here, Giordani finally had his chance to make subtle, beautiful music. Having proved his tenorial straps in Act Two with an astonishing “Vittoria” , Giordani refused to go down any time-worn paths in his aria “E lucevan le stelle”. Caressing every note of an aria which one always wishes were a little longer, he turned inwards, revealing a Mario not just in love with Tosca, but in thrall to her. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.

Dessi also took this opportunity to enjoy many passages of delightful, lyric singing, showing enviable line and control amidst the otherwise hefty dramatic demands of the evening.

Philippe Auguin conducted the performance which, whilst solid on structure, was lacking in tension. He allowed the singers a certain amount of freedom of expression, but at no point did he seem to participate gesturally in a way which would communicate the singers’ phrasing to the orchestra, or vice-versa. The divide of the pit from the stage creates a disconnect between one group of musicians and another, and for my taste, a followable, clear gesture from the conductor is not enough to bridge this gap and create true unity, rather than just ensemble.

One could have questioned Bondy all night long, in a production which so regularly seemed random in its moments - and there were only moments - of reinterpretation. Luckily, in a work as musically powerful as Tosca, the singers had plenty of chances to help the audience forget the imposed concept and to focus on them, and only them.



Bottom line: Italian seasoning added to bland dish.


Mwyn Bengough


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Production Credits

Conductor: Philippe Auguin
Director: Luc Bondy
Set Designer: Richard Peduzzi
Costume Designer: Milena Canonero
Lighting Designer: Max Keller


Angelotti: David Pittsinger
Sacristan: Paul Plishka
Cavaradossi: Marcello Giordani
Tosca: Daniela Dessi
Scarpia: George Gagnidze
Spoletto: Eduardo Valdes
Sciarrone: Jeffrey Wells
Shepherd: Jonathon Makepeace
Jailer: David Crawford