If the painstaking recreation of Rome during the Napoleonic Wars is stripped away from the setting of Tosca. If choral numbers, sparing to begin with, are muted as distant drumbeats. If the title character is reinterpreted as a country girl with little artifice rather than a grand diva whose sheer confidence and sexuality prove irresistible to men. If the pageantry and pomp is limited to but one number, then all that’s left to savor watching Puccini’s fifth opera is the music itself. The success of the production must rest squarely with the principal singers and the orchestra and the interrelation between the performers and the conductor together with his musicians.
When the Metropolitan Opera shelved the venerable Franco Zeffirelli Tosca and unveiled a fresh one directed by Luc Bondy for the 2009-2010 season, it was roundly criticized and even aggressively booed for stripping out many of the conventions seasoned operagoers had not only grown to expect but also to adore. And for good reason. Puccini himself went to exorbitant efforts to recreate the realistic depiction of many facets of life (including violence) in this, his first foray into verismo opera. The composer also exhaustively researched the liturgical practices at Rome for the "Te Deum" that concludes Act I, which lacked much of the majesty of earlier Met versions. Though the program notes included the statement from Bondy, that he was driven to create a Tosca without “excessive proportions or . . . decorative spectacle,” to have tossed out Puccini's vision for his own composition seemed more reckless than brave, more wasteful than artful.
This remained my experience, an overall feeling of let down regarding the minimalist production elements, even while watching the blue-ribbon cast the Met assembled upon Tosca’s reintroduction in January of 2011 with Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcello Álvarez, and Falk Struckmann singing the lead roles. Since I was prepared for the "stripped-down" version I was about to see - as opposed to those who attended the 2009 premiere of Bondy’s leaner, meaner Tosca and were caught by surprise, I knew not to expect an ornate set or many special effects. I was ready to embrace the voices, the performances, and Puccini’s music laid bare.
German baritone Falk Struckmann absolutely chilled as Scarpia from his first swagger. He personified evil. He electrified the stage--the very air--until hairs on the neck bristled. His soaring voice infused his character with such raw power, one is struck amazed that Floria Tosca can summon the courage to defy and then murder him. As Cavaradossi, Marcello Álvarez earned bravos from the crowd almost from the first moment he opened his mouth - and it was plain that the crowd was disposed to love him from the start - both the character and the handsome star himself.
Though the men were spectacular, the afternoon belonged to Sondra Radvanovsky, who is generally considered the preeminent Verdi soprano of her generation. However organic her rationale for portraying Floria Tosca as a simple country girl (as explained in program notes), such a choice didn’t serve the story as well as portraying Tosca as an opera diva. Despite the fact that her character was underplayed to my taste, none of this took away from her singing of the role which was, in a word, magnificent. Her big aria in Act II, “Vissi d’arte,” was breathtaking - literally. At one point, the purity and power of her voice became so consuming, it left me gasping for air. Every emotion was pitch perfect. Note by note, scene by scene, act by act, she crafted a powerhouse performance. Of course, after such a masterful display of technique and artistry, there was nothing the audience could do at curtain call but leap to its feet in adulation for the performance of a stratospheric talent in the opera firmament, one whose star continues to rise.
To hear Radvanovsky, Álvarez, and Struckmann together on one stage under the capable baton of Marco Armilliato was a privilege that few in attendance will scarcely forget. No matter what you think of Puccini’s music—that he can get too syrupy and sentimental in spots is a common criticism—none can dispute that while not approving of the artistic direction, Puccini would have to be smiling down on the principals currently singing his first versimo opera that afternoon at the Met.
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