A lot of behind-the-scenes drama accompanied preparations for this new Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, replacing the ill-fated, modernistic Luc Bondy mise-en-scène. For a while, it seemed that the new production was under a curse: all three principals and not one but two conductors have been, for various reasons, substituted! Luckily, singing at the Met is so important for one’s career, that General Manager Peter Gelb was able to find extraordinary replacements in a world where roles are usually cast years in advance.

The constant in this tortuous journey has been a production team that turned the clock back and anchored the new show in the type of realistic details that characterized the beloved 1980s Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza, a Met staple for 16 seasons. One could sense the sigh of relief when the generally conservative New York audience “recognized” the gilded details of Rome's Sant’Andrea della Valle. The only evident concession to the imaginary seemed to be the inclined stage floor, maintained in all three acts, a sign, perhaps, of the Calvary that the characters have to ascend. The second act’s setting is a rendition of the Palazzo Farnese’s Sala di Ercole, designer Robert MacFarlane proposing two “murals”: one faded, and the other one depicting the same Incendio di Borgo subject but treated in a Romantic, Delacroix-inspired manner. Finally, the design for the third act’s Castel Sant’Angelo’s terrace, with the towering statue and Rome’s skyline in the background, was the one closest to reality.

Sir David McVicar, the apparent director of choice for the Gelb era, has not only a gift for lavish visuals but also a keen eye for illuminating details. Not all his attempts were successful. The coming and going of the chorus members in their beautiful 1800 costumes before the Te Deum didn’t make much sense, distracting one’s attention from the action in the chapel. Neither did asking Cavaradossi to hold a lantern next to his head before getting shot. But several fine points – making the volterriano Cavaradossi sprinkle his face with holy water before greeting his lover, having Tosca wash her blood-stained hands with water from Scarpia’s carafe or preceding the execution of the painter with another one at the beginning of the third act – added subtle accents to the plot.

McVicar’s work with the singers was superb. His ability to adapt his artistic message to the interpreters he is working with, and his capacity to bring forward the characters’ traits as different composers imagined them continue to be unsurpassed. Relying on the fact that both Sonya Yoncheva and Vittorio Grigòlo are relatively young singers making their role debuts in Tosca, he conceived their duets as passionate encounters between ardent lovers at the beginning of their affair. The chemistry between the two was outstanding. McVicar asked Yoncheva to emphasize Tosca’s insecurity and vulnerability. He made Grigòlo’s impulsiveness seem part of Cavaradossi’s character.

Starting her career in Baroque roles as a protégée of William Christie, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva has seen her star raise with astonishing speed in the standard operatic repertoire. Her rich lyric soprano has grown fuller in recent seasons and her legato is remarkable. Her focused, silvery instrument was glowing throughout its entire range. She approached the famed “Vissi d’arte” reflectively, revealing at every step the character’s anguish. Her bursts of jealousy and rage will become more natural with time.

Lauded for his beautifully rounded and nuanced voice, Grigòlo dived into the role of Mario Cavaradossi holding nothing back, displaying an outstanding ease and control of the vocal line in “E lucevan le stelle”. His extravagant gesturing may not please everyone but he is a great tenor.

Stalwart baritone Željko Lučić sang Scarpia with the company in 2015. With his elegant voice, he conveyed well the character’s unctuous confidence and menacing power, more so in his chilly confrontation with Tosca than during his investigation at the church. However, he rarely brought Scarpia’s mocking vein to the surface. 

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume navigated the treacherous waters of the score with ease, making sure that the characters’ psychological depths revealed in the orchestral music and vocal lines were successfully integrated.

Comparing the latest two Metropolitan premières – The Exterminating Angel and Tosca – one could infer that Gelb has decided to attract a younger audience with daring settings for new works whilst satisfying his core constituency with traditional ones for standard repertory. It may be a dangerous split for the future of his organization, no matter how well the latter are conceived.