The Metropolitan Opera needed a new production of Tosca: Peter Gelb’s decision in 2009 to get rid of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1985, audience favorite, stunningly hyper-realistic “You-are-in-Rome!” production with the ugly, grimy prostitute-filled Luc Bondy production that sank Karita Mattila’s Tosca has been rued since the moment it arrived. Even Gelb acknowledges that it was a dud.

Act 1, Tosca at The Met
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

So the news of a new David McVicar directed, John Macfarlane designed Tosca was met with glee, especially with an all-star cast. The prima, last December, had four cancellations before opening night: Jonas Kaufmann, Kristian Opolais, Andris Nelsons, who was to conduct, and then the ever-unreliable Bryn Terfel. James Levine happily took over the conducting duties, but we know what happened to that. Sonya Yoncheva and Vittorio Grigolo saved the day, along with Emmanuel Villaume in the pit, and the performances were very successful.

McVicar’s production gives us the Rome-we-know but with impressionistic touches – there’s definitely the Church, a room in a palace and the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo. The decision to rake the stage sideways makes little sense either physically or dramatically (the prompter’s box had to be raised), and the church is somewhat off-kilter. The walls in the Palazzo Farnese are covered in Goya-esque frescos representing the Rape of the Sabine Women, and the sky in the last act is a swirl of very dark “clouds”. There’s plenty of menace. As far as drawing the characters or their predicaments with any new insights, well, few are to be found, although Tosca and Cavaradossi are giggly and very touchy-feely – innocent young love before the trouble really starts.

Yusif Eyvazov (Cavaradossi) and Anna Netrebko (Tosca)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

And the new, Spring casting has an ace in the hole – Anna Netrebko – and she certainly did not disappoint. Most Toscas normally swan through the church doors looking like sopranos on the prowl; Netrebko looked like a woman upset to be kept waiting by her lover and though certainly gorgeous enough, seemed vulnerably in love. And that was her stance – a very naturally acted, very human Tosca who may be a diva in her career, but is a lover and would-be victim in life. This Tosca was shocked and appalled by her own ability to kill in Act 2. Very effective, indeed. The voice surprised. Even if one had been following her career movement from the “-ina” parts through Leonora and onto Lady Macbeth, the dark tone and more-than-generous use of chest voice seemed new. The upper register still soars (and a few middle notes still wind up out of tune), but here was a genuine spinto, with voice and high Cs to burn. She began “Vissi d’arte” with too much voice and as a result had nowhere to go with it dramatically. Her phrasing and ascent to the big B flat were stunning, though the rest of the phrase was wildly off pitch. But one believed everything she did.

Azerbaijan tenor Yusif Eyvazov, announced ten days before the performances as a replacement for Marcelo Álvarez (with no explanation given), has a big, bright, secure voice. His first act was run-of the mill, but his “E lucevan le stelle” and “O dolce mani” in Act 3, were nuanced and sung with fine shadings. Perhaps he is a “useful, house tenor,” or perhaps more; a nice performance.

Anna Netrebko (Tosca) and Michael Volle (Scarpia)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Baritone Michael Volle, heretofore known as a German rep baritone at the Met (Meistersinger, Holländer, Arabella) was a Scarpia to die for: gigantic voice, smooth, insinuating phrasing in Act 1, and terrifying in the second act. Christian Zaremba’s Angelotti was breathless and effective, Patrick Carfizzi actually sang the Sacristan’s notes and words instead of mugging them. The rest of the cast was involved and interesting.

Bertrand de Billy led a singer-friendly but strict reading of the score, building the second act excitement artfully. The audience, who had come to be overwhelmed by Netrebko, got what they paid for, and more.