Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Fascist, the Singer and her Lover

Puccini's Tosca at the Met
November 2, 2013

Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
Lei: This is the tale of Tosca, a fiery brunette (complexion becomes an important plot point), who also just happens to be an opera singer, and her lover Cavaradossi, a tormented painter. Together they suffer the hardships of an oppressive regime, represented by Scarpia, an evil (and perverted) secret police chief. The painter is working on a portrait of Mary Magdalene that depicts a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty and causes Tosca to throw a jealous fit, demanding proof of his fidelity – though it seems like her jealousy is part of the couple’s dynamic since they are otherwise profusely lovey-dovey. Politically, Cavaradossi is opposed to the regime in power and helps a fugitive friend in his escape from prison. Enter the evil police chief who suspects the painter and lusts creepily after the singer. From here on, the action only heats up, and violently so. By the beginning of Act Two, the police have captured the painter who refuses to betray his fugitive friend.

The Fascist Scarpia and his three "Graces"
Photo credit: Mary Altaffer
Lui: Though the opera is originally set in Rome 1800, the police chief's study in Act Two of this production is taken directly out of Bernardo Bertolucci's World War II-era thriller, Il Conformista, and so this Tosca is given a decidedly camicia nera, fascism-in-Italy spin. While prostitutes lounge about in various states of undress, the evil chief of police, dressed in fascist black overcoat and vest, paces to-and-fro meditating on how to act on the latest object of his desire. Scarpia is a perverse sexual predator. He ends up fitting the fascist stereotype even in this regard.

Photo credit: Marty Sohl / The Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Scarpia then has the singer come over while his henchmen torture her lover in the next room so she can hear his excruciating cries of pain. Tosca cannot stand it and divulges the escapee's whereabouts. As a result, the painter is condemned to a public hanging for his anti-regime activities. The perverted police chief proposes a deal to the devastated singer: if she lets him use her body for a "quickie" (literally, he says “a te chieggio un istante”), he’ll save the painter by arranging a mock shooting in lieu of a hanging. The singer reluctantly agrees but also very fortuitously finds a knife lying around and, when the evil police chief is about to rape her, she stabs him to death.

Patricia Racette was a fine Tosca with good acting presence, however her singing left me lukewarm, no shivers whatsoever. George Gagnizde’s Scarpia was also acceptable but lacked the cruelty required by the role, both vocally and acting-wise. I think Dmitri Hvorostovsky would make a magnificent Scarpia – now that would be a believable villain (although based on a 2007 interview it sounded like Dmitri was not willing to tackle it quite yet).

Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Act Three opens beautifully with a subdued orchestral prelude. All of a sudden the melancholic voice of a shepherd boy pierces the scene sending tingles through the house. I was blown away by the sheer beauty of Puccini's orchestral atmospherics. Cavaradossi maintains the "cold dawn" mood of the opening as we find out that he going to give his ring – his last worldly possession – to the guard in exchange for the promise that his last letter will reach his beloved Tosca. The whole scene remains introspective when he breaks into "E lucevan le stelle." He is destitute. He has been imprisoned, mistreated, tortured. He is a bruised-up, bloody mess, and he is about to be executed. In thinking of his true love, he remembers their one big liaison in the park after dark. This is the pain of a man who has been beaten down, who is left with nothing, wanting only to relive one of life's fleeting joys: the unexpected spiritual exaltation of physical intimacy with another person. 

Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
This aria is without a doubt the climax of the whole opera, I would argue, its raison d'êtreAnd it is not necessarily an aria in the strict traditional sense. There is no refrain, no repetition, no songy progression. It is pure poetry – a beautifully sustained single crescendo of raw emotion that departs from the sensory experience of beauty, as it is impressed on the memory, and that soars on eagle's wings to the heartfelt recognition that life never got any better than that moment, though its upward flight is stunted by the realization that now all he has to look forward to is his time to die: "Muoio disperato." It is melancholic, bittersweet, and I tingle still at just the thought of hearing it sung live in its narrative context. And this is where Roberto Alagna really stole the show. He took the emotions exactly where they needed to go. It was some of the best singing I've heard from a tenor at the Met in recent memory. It is moments like these that justify my love of the medium. It's everything that matters in life boiled down to three minutes of poetry and feeling expressed through music.

Lei: I am generally not a Roberto Alagna fan. While technically capable and powerful, I usually find his tone not deep or warm enough and at times even fake, as though he does not really mean what he's singing. Nevertheless, in his Act Three embodiment of Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” he proved me wrong, showcasing the raw desperate emotion of a man about to die, remembering and longing for the woman he loves. I cried copiously.

Tosca then runs to the imprisoned painter to explain the deal she cut for him, all while providing some theatrical advice on how to feign death when fake-shot. Unfortunately, the singer should have known better than to trust the word of an evil (and perverted) police chief, since the execution turns out to be a very real one, with the painter actually being shot to death by firing squad. The singer cannot believe how utterly evil and untrustworthy the police chief was and, when trapped by his henchmen, she jumps to her death.

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
I am not a Puccini person. I generally find his operas too cheesy and unnecessarily sappy, with plots that are not complex enough to make the drama of the music really credible. I mean, it’s too bad that Cio-Cio-San is cheated by that colonialist pig Pinkerton and that Mimi dies of tuberculosis, but tragedies like these are simply not intricate enough for my operatic taste. I like works with over-the-top multiple layers of dynamic dramatic tension. Maybe verismo is just not for me. Tosca, however, is a possible exception to my Puccini aversion, and it may be because (at least in Acts Two and Three) it is action packed with several extreme situations that justify the dramatic outbursts of the score.

Lui: After finally seeing Tosca for the first time, I now see clearly the link between Italian neo-realism and Puccini's brand of operatic verismo. I have long been aware of the fact that there is very little raw "realism" to the plotlines of so-called "neo-realist" Italian cinema. Although shot on a shoestring with non-professional actors, the films of Roberto Rossellini and company, nevertheless, have more in common with melodrama.  And this production at the Met emphasized many of these parallels. Seeing that Puccini wrote these harrowing scenes of brute institutional force, political violence and torture in the year 1900, this production demonstrates how he beat Rossellini and the neo-realists of the post-war period to the punch by nearly half a century. The torture and subsequent execution scene are the obvious forerunners to the climax of Roma città aperta and are no less grueling.

Scarpia's Study, Act II
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Lei: I saw this Luc Bondy production at the 2011 season opening performance and back then I found it unconventionally interesting, however today I think I may have been blinded by the gala excitement as, after seeing it again, I felt it was really hit and miss. While Tosca does not necessarily have to be a Zeffirellian baroque extravaganza, it does need to give the audience something to engage with. And I think this production takes a “period-minimalist” route that does not always work and is generally so dimly lit that I had to squint through my opera glasses to figure out the sets. While I get the concept that the action takes place in obscure tyrannical times, a little more light would have been good, both for the staging and the eyes of the audience. The first act is all set in the transept of a dark no-frills brick church that it’s just bland, and also historically at odds with the Caravaggio-style painting Cavaradossi is working on. Also, the “Te Deum” scene at the end of the first act just did not work. It is supposed to be a moment of contrast between choral religious fervor and Scarpia’s devilish attitudes, however, in this production the worshipers and the clergy were walking along the transept, behind Scarpia, almost following him, while in a more credible rendition (at least by Roman Catholic standards), the chorus should proceed along the nave of the church, towards the altar, with Scarpia left in the back, scheming his wrongdoings.

The Te Deum scene in Franco Zeffirelli's Tosca at the Met in 1999
Photo credit: Ruby Washington / The New York Times
The Te Deum scene in Luc Bondy's Tosca in 2013
Photo credit: Andrea Mohin / The New York Times
The second act worked better and had some interesting off-libretto variations, such as the three prostitutes entertaining Scarpia while he explains his preference of brutal lust over romantic love (“Ha più forte / sapore la conquista violenta / che il mellifluo consenso”). The torture scene with the bloodstained door letting in a cone of light and Cavaradossi’s laments was also very effective.  

The sets of Act Three were just weird and felt almost incomplete, with an L-shaped fortress structure occupying less than a third of the stage, and the remainder of the space just empty green-black darkness with some streaks of white. If such parking-lot looking space was supposed to be the river Tiber, it was just not represented very vividly.

Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera 
One thing that worked extremely well in Act Three, however, was the very last scene, where Tosca runs up the stairs escaping Scarpia’s henchmen and jumps off the ledge into the dark. This production shows Tosca’s full body actually leaning out of the tower at an angle that looked extremely credible, with the lights going to black while she’s almost mid-air, cinematographically freezing the sight of Tosca in her extreme suicidal gesture.

Lui: After a slow start in Act One, it was a chilling finale to an emotionally-intense last two acts.
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

No comments:

Post a Comment