Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Friday, October 9, 2009


In the end the performance does not rescue the dreary new production – still, the reason to visit the Met’s new Tosca is Karita Mattila’s bravura if wrongheaded interpretation of the title role. Mattila plays the prima donna Floria Tosca as an over-the-top old-school diva, all self-dramatizing nervous energy. This is dangerous, as the events of the last day of Tosca’s life would excite a buried Samuel Beckett heroine from torpor into frenetic activity: Tosca endures jealous frenzies, first soothed and then confirmed, a command performance before the queen, the torture of her lover, then betraying him, a brutal seduction, a hot-blooded murder, her lover’s apparent salvation, his actual death, and a desperate leap to her own.

If none of this penetrates her self-involvement, perhaps the business with Scarpia isn’t really so bad – she just gets carried away. You know: divas! Certainly the final scene of Act II in the Luc Bondy production is a tasteless mistake – Mattila’s Tosca seems neither stunned nor shocked by having been driven to murder. She plots it beforehand, hides the dagger, arranges her dress so as to incite him, kicks him off the sofa afterward to present a better “stage picture,” and in describing the event to Cavaradossi later, she acts it all out – clearly enjoying every moment spent in the limelight of her imagination. If Tosca is too self-involved to be touched by murder, if she looks upon it as just another chance to seize center stage, why should we care about her? why credit her with any genuine feelings?

While Mattila is performing, though, such thoughts seldom intrude. She whirls about the ugly barn of a church like a Roman dervish, she seizes her lover’s paintbrush to alter the Magdalen’s eyes; she exposes her legs for Scarpia’s rape; and she insists that Cavaradossi rehearse his “fake” execution with her. She cannot be still for a moment – and the payback is her “Vissi d’arte,” when, drained by Scarpia’s brutality, she goes pale and empty, lets her voice float stunned into the theater. She does not remain crushed – nothing but death will stop this woman’s playacting – but the moment itself is riveting, and the rest of Mattila’s Tosca seems designed to draw our attention to it. Since this is not the heart of the opera – Puccini reportedly found the aria a bit dull – her focus highlights Mattila’s errors elsewhere. Tosca must grow from the flibbertigibbet of Act I to the desperate adventuress of Act III, and Mattila’s Tosca does not make such a change. Her reaction to getting blood on her hands? She puts on purple gloves.

Mattila’s voice is not Italianate – as everyone has been saying since she took up Manon Lescaut a few years back. Her Manon Lescaut indeed lacked the opulent young sound of that teenage sensualist – but Tosca is a mature woman, and Mattila sings her with full-throated sensuality, passion without wilt or waver. I’ve seen Toscas of a dozen nationalities, and her sound is more idiomatic, and more beautiful, than many others of the “Nordic” school – Behrens, Nilsson and Vishnevskaya come to mind. More important is that she feels, and lives, the notes of this extreme character.

Marcelo Álvarez (an Argentine) sings a very Italian Cavaradossi, suave and romantic in “Recondita armonia” and the love duets. He lacked vocal finesse only in “E lucevan le stelle,” which was not the honeyed reverie many tenors give us. Álvarez seemed so involved in acting the words – each one clear – that the anguish of his situation choked him up. The elegiac scene that followed, however, found him Mattila’s match for power and expressive beauty.

Carlo Guelfi sang a gruff, barking Scarpia, brutally effective in Act I, but the nuanced slime of Act II was missing – and was missed. Part of the problem may have been the intrusion of three prostitutes fooling with him at the opening of Act II, and this is typical of the director’s initiatives in adding nothing to the show but unanswerable questions. Scarpia is explaining the trap he plans to set for Tosca – and why: he enjoys sex when the lady resists – and these women don’t take the hint – not at all. Are they the sort of persons in whom Scarpia would confide? No – he’s not the type to confide in anyone, least of all a woman – he’s an egotist who opens himself in soliloquy. So why are the dames here? If we’re not supposed to think about it, or to wonder why they’re hanging around, why their presence and those questions being shoved in our faces? Does Mr. Bondy not understand the words Scarpia is singing? Similarly, if the enormous church is built of unpainted brick – this is Rome? – why is Cavaradossi painting his Magdalen in it?

Tosca is a finely-crafted machine, every effect calculated to a hair; set it in motion with the proper fuel (voices and orchestra) and it will run smooth as a Lamborghini. Each entrance gives us the character: Tosca’s sensuous piety (in a theme that will come back in “Vissi d’arte”), Cavaradossi’s romantic idealism, Angelotti’s desperation. The first appearance of Scarpia is the most terrifying entrance in all opera – because Puccini set it up to be, thrusting it into the midst of a rollicking (but thirty-second-long) children’s scene. We are never supposed to relax after that, whenever Scarpia is around – and that tension pays dividends as Tosca takes her time suspecting what we feel in our skin: this man is setting his trap for her. Why are those whores getting in the way of our focus on a monomaniac evil?

Then there’s dawn amid the bells of Rome, gentle precisely so that it can be interrupted by the grim preliminaries of an execution. To rehearse the firing squad during this serene music does not bring us to the proper frame of mind for a jolt – on the contrary, it gives us a preliminary jolt that undercuts Puccini’s. We should relax until the jailor summons Cavaradossi – but try resting with all that pointless activity on Mr. Bondy’s stage.

To this ugly and irritating concept, the familiar Met forces under Joseph Colaneri brought a symphonic grandeur: the pounding strings rising to climax in Tosca’s scream as Scarpia corners her, the surge of life around the organ processional that ends Act I, the subtle flicks of this instrument or that to comment on character or story or the very real world in which the opera was set – all reminded us of how fine a contraption of interacting parts Puccini devised, even as Mr. Bondy was tearing them apart and flinging them to the winds. I liked Mattila’s abruptly blank face during “Vissi d’arte,” and Joel Sorenson’s (Spoletta’s) look of frustrated, “You’re going to let her get away with that?” during Scarpia’s interrogation, and the way Álvarez was always gazing at, and admiring, his lover – but these touches were probably invisible to most of the house.

The problem with this school of direction is that its practitioners seem to regard the score like music in a film, as an afterthought, mere accompaniment to action. It is not. In opera, the music is the main event – or as much of it as the action is. Action need not be invented to fill up spaces where there is merely music – the spaces of mere music are there for dramatic reasons. To change things without justification is not very good theater.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You nailed it in your assesment. I liked Mattila overall. I found the Vissi too over the top; but that is the norm today. I thought she was awfully flat during the 3rd act. I agree with the fact that all directors seem to think that "action" is first and music is second....
Having said all that I am dying to see the Valencia "Ring"