The Fall of the Roman Opera

Photo: Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Tosca is an opera of geometric precision. Its three acts take place at the points of a triangle in the center of Rome—a church, a palace, and a prison, each a short walk from the other. The dating is exact (June 1800, a few days after Napoleon’s bloody victory at Marengo), the politics are pointed, and the action is bounded by a day. Most important, Puccini diagrams on the molecular level the emotional bonds among three characters locked in desire and betrayal.

The Tosca that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season to vigorous boos, on the other hand, is profligately generic. The director Luc Bondy has stripped the piece of specificity and replaced it with a grim collection of non-locales and coarse interpolations. Rather than open in the Baroque basilica of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, as the score dictates, Bondy places the painter Cavaradossi in a plain brick Everychurch, where he is at work on a bare-nippled portrait of Mary Magdalene. In Act Two, the police chief Scarpia doesn’t prowl an ornate lair with en suite torture chamber in the Palazzo Farnese; instead, he inhabits a blankly bureaucratic hall hung with yellowing maps. That, presumably, is the point—to display the eternal nature of evil’s blandness, to insist that at any given instant, some government is inflicting deliberate pain.

Though Bondy has never worked at the Met before, his fashionable Euro-minimalism has become something of a house style: dim light, blank walls, black costumes, and dour abstraction. Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent, hyper-detailed Tosca from 1985 demanded to be adored, and was. The new one challenges anyone to tolerate it. I hope the Met’s Peter Gelb is already trying to figure out how soon he can scrap this staging.

An opera as sturdy as Tosca should be able to shrug off even sets as ugly as Richard Peduzzi’s, but Bondy’s direction plumbs deep enough to do some serious damage. He even manages to undermine Karita Mattila, one of the world’s most riveting sopranos. Having heard her as a ferocious Salome, a tough Leonore in Fidelio, and an indestructible Katya Kabanova, I thought she might overdo Tosca’s ruthlessness. Puccini’s heroine is petulant and demanding, simultaneously cunning and disastrously naïve, willing to betray her lover’s secret to save him from martyrdom, ready to trade sex for favors and even readier to kill. Through it all, Tosca spins out one sculpted melody after another, slipping from lyric softness to homicidal grit.

All that should be fertile terrain for Mattila’s talents, but on opening night the singer couldn’t maneuver her gown, convey real feelings, or find her vocal center. She could stick her head in a burlap bag and still outclass most of the competition, but the galvanic current of her soprano was weakened, her phrasing blurred, and her conviction flickered. So she did what every uncertain diva does: resort to eeks and swoons and head straight for the surefire aria—in this case “Vissi d’arte.”

Mattila may yet be able to rescue a compelling Tosca from this staging, but Scarpia is a lost cause. The director must have intended to underline the character’s badness by having George Gagnidze sing him as a baritonal Tony Soprano. There’s even a Bada Bing!–style moment, in which he gets fellated without skipping a note—but even Tony might pause before putting the moves on a statue of the Virgin Mary, as Scarpia does here. Such vulgarity overshadows the seductiveness. Puccini garlands the character’s villainy with irresistible tunes and supports him with an orchestra that spits fire. We crave his singing even as we cheer his death. Bondy has made him cheaply repulsive.

As Cavaradossi, Marcelo Álvarez is at least impressively adequate. He delivers shrink-wrapped sentiments in a loud and pretty voice, and makes few demands on the audience’s attention. This is what it sounds like when a natural resource runs dry: I know of no active tenors who could sing the role at the Met with the electrifying simplicity it requires: Álvarez is as good as it gets. The evening’s only true clarity and color came from the orchestra, led by James Levine, presumably with gritted teeth.

Directed by Luc Bondy.
Metropolitan Opera. Through May 13.

The Fall of the Roman Opera