Saturday, November 30, 2013

Falling again for Eugene

Eugene Onegin at the Met
November 24, 2013

With the opening gala, this is my second Eugene Onegin of the season, essentially because I’m a devout Villazón fan and could just not miss his comeback performance at the Met.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
The first (and last) time I saw Rolando live was in a Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met in 2009, when he bewitched me with his powerful warmth and visceral musical sweetness, all while making me cry copiously. Back then I got out of the Met transformed, having for the very first time experienced live how an Italian-style tenor, like no other singer, can have a “streak of animal sensuality which cuts through all operatic politesse and leaves the listener gasping.”* Shortly thereafter, during a later performance of that same run of Lucia di Lammermoor, Rolando’s voice failed to respond and cracked instead of producing a high note. In front of a full house at the Met, he stopped singing for several seconds, cleared his throat and then repeated the note.  Villazón’s vocal chords cysts saga unfolded, he underwent surgery and stopped singing for a while,  then resuming performances only in Europe. Though I became an avid listener of all of his recordings, I was longing to see him perform again, so much that I toyed with the idea of flying from NYC to Vienna or Barcelona for a week-end just to hear him in Don Giovanni or Elisir.

It was such joy (though tainted by trepidation) to see Villazón perform again on that very stage where his vocal chords first so publicly failed him. He was the expressive singer and charming actor I remembered and managed to heat up Russian singing with his always rich and warm tone. His power may not be exactly where it used to, but I blame the size of the Met for that (and my family circle seat). While his Lensky died tragically in Act II, Rolando movingly looked like the happiest singer in the world at the curtain call, high-fiving Peter Mattei, hugging everybody, double fist-pumping in the air and jumping up and down, rightly excited for having finally dominated the Met again. I cannot but join in such excitement, relieved that one of my very few favorite living tenors can still do it!

Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
While there’s scarcity of great tenors, lately I’ve come to realize that there are plenty of awesome baritones around ready to knock my socks off. This time it was Peter Mattei. While I think I saw him before, probably in a good Barbiere a few years ago, this time I was blown away by how he absolutely owned Onegin, with charismatic manly stage presence, effortless spotless signing, dynamic acting and deep musical Russian phrasing. Mattei was truly magnificent as he fleshed out Onegin, bringing the character to a whole new level of depth. His transformation from cold, snotty and cynical to ardent, passionate and love-crazed was one of the most convincing and heart-wrenching performances I've seen at the Met.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Marina Poplavskaya was a vocally solid Tatyana, however pretty pale next to my recent memories of Netrebko singing this same role. I will say, though, that Poplavskaya has less of a diva stage presence than Netrebko that, oddly, led to more effective acting with respect to the shy dreamy characterizations of Tatyana in the first two acts.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Photo Credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Bass Stefan Kocán as Prince Gremin was as always excellent and commanding, my only critique being to the Met’s make-up and wig department: he is supposed to be an old retired soldier but he looked like the youngest, sleekest and hottest of all men on stage. Grey hair and some wrinkles were much needed to make his character credible.

The production may have been the same, but the different cast really transformed Eugene Onegin into a whole new experience. Also, without the gala distractions (tiaras-spotting, gay protesters and the like), I was able to better focus and appreciate even more the deep romanticism of this opera. The outbursts of passion really came through as the backbone of the piece: Lensky’s declaration of love to Olga, Tatyana’s letter, Lensky’s jealous fight with Onegin and his nostalgic aria before dieing, Gremin’s bit on the joys of married love and Onegin’s final desperate love confession to Tatyana. Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Pushkin’s novel in verse really does pack in a lot of quintessential operatic drama, and I am grateful to the Met for having lured me twice to enjoy it.

I may have gone to this second Eugene Onegin to check on Rolando (very glad to see he’s in good form), but came out having fallen head over heels for Peter. I should start scheduling some operatic travel to catch more Mattei. It looks like the only other opportunity this season to see this dreamy baritone will be in Berlin for Tannhäuser in April – who knows, he may even help overcome my Wagner fears.

– Lei

Photo credit: Maria Protopopov / Blog Villazonista
Photo credit: Maria Protopopov / Blog Villazonista

A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to The Plots, The Singers, The Composers, The Recordings, Modern Library, 1998, p. 852

Two Boys, a Detective and her Mother

Muhly’s Two Boys 
The Met - November 9, 2013

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Lei: Nico Muhly’s new opera, Two Boys, is based on the real criminal case of a disturbed British 14-year old who choreographed his own (attempted) murder by inducing a 16-year old to stab him. The murder/suicide is staged through a scheme where the younger boy assumes more than two dozen different web chat room identities, including a flirty girl, an M5 spy and a rapist, who enact all sorts of sexual and psychological harassment on the older boy before finally commissioning him the stabbing. The opera begins in the aftermath of the action, when we meet up with the detective who has been assigned the case, and we uncover the story as she does. Much of the plot details, including its framing devices, are lifted directly out of a 2005 Vanity Fair investigative article. While this source material is modern and promisingly intriguing, its Muhly-Lucas adaptation fell short on virtually all levels that to me are the necessary components of a great opera, namely, enthralling music serving a cohesive plot, strong dramatic tensions, a meaningful libretto, outstanding singing and a clever and incisive production.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Lui: To me it fell into the trap of trying to opera-ify what can’t be opera-ified. Craig Lucas’ libretto had little grasp of what makes for an effective opera and instead presented too much exposition in the mouth of its singers, an issue that reminded me of symptoms that plague other modern operas like Steven Schwartz’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon (2009). Under no circumstances do we need to hear the female lead sing repeatedly (I counted at least three times) that she is “Detective Lieutenant Anne Strawson.” First of all, it sounds ridiculous. And second, even if you have to insert it once in good faith just to maintain that Law & Order television police drama trope for reasons of genre, then just do it once. We got it the first time. She is, after all, the only middle-aged female square on stage dressed vaguely like a private eye, who does detective-like things behind an archetypal film-noir, detective-like desk.
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera

Characterization in the narrative economy of opera is generally conveyed by means of a whole series of signs and signals other than explicitly holding the hand of the audience as if they were incapable of reading those signs. Can you imagine if the evil chief of police in Puccini’s Tosca came out and repeatedly sang that he was chief of police Scarpia? It would be ludicrous. In fact, his name is hardly even pronounced once, let alone his title. Yet we still know exactly who he is and precisely what role he plays in the drama. Nevertheless, operas like Two Boys and Schwartz’s Séance relentlessly bombard the audience with an unnatural reiteration of the characters names in ridiculous ways. Over and over again in Séance do we hear Mr. Johnson’s name repeated – there is even an aria with a relentless Mr. Johnson refrain. The operatic intoning of names like Mr. Johnson and Detective Lieutenant Strawson sounds foreign not only to the lexical stylings but also to the narrative technique of opera. 

The most unfortunate thing about this tactless flaunting of the conventions of the form in these recent English-language productions is that people who, for example, don’t understand Italian come away from these shows thinking that this must be what the experience of understanding one of the classic operas in Italian must be like. And this couldn’t be further from the truth, especially since Schwartz and Muhly and his librettist lack the pure musical, dramatic and literary artistry that the iconic composers of the past possess. 

Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
Lei: The meaning and poetry of sung words cannot be overlooked. Libretti and the nuances of the language do matter. Rigoletto could address the Duke’s court saying “Cortigiani, siete dei disonesti” (“Courtiers, you are dishonest”) but it will never sound as good as “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (“Courtiers, vile cursed kind”). This is why I personally cannot have a complete operatic experience if I don’t understand the language of the work that’s being performed, without the muffling and streamlining filter of a subtitled translation. And that's precisely what irritates me when Craig Lucas' libretto has the poor singers dramatically declaim stuff like "Even senseless crimes make sense" or else "I am only sixteen / I wake up ang go to school / come home do my homework / have dinner / watch TV".  Ordinary language like this may be fine on TV but just sounds stupid when sung in an opera. 

Lui: All the buzz around Nico Muhly’s mélange-of-modern-music did not seem to promise the kind of pedantic narrative singing his opera actually delivered. I was expecting to be completely swept away by an avalanche of polyphonic sound approximating the multitude of voices active at any given moment on the Internet. At least this is what the bait-and-switch promotional material emphasized. Though these choral “voices of the Internet” moments were few and far between, this was precisely when I felt the opera had a pulse, that it was most alive. 

Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
Despite all the talk about his multiplicity of musical models and influences, I really wished he would have just gone back to study his Philip Glass playbook. He could have framed the whole thing through a simple series of impressionistic musical tableaux, like Satyagraha. The Glassian narrative musical texture Muhly achieves from time to time could be employed to convey a kind of meditative Internet droning background against which this otherwise compelling story could have played out. Rather than follow its Vanity Fair source material so doggedly, we could have experienced the story as it actually unfolded, with all of its mystery and intrigue revealed through impressions.
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
There’s no harm in wearing your influences on your sleeve and Philip Glass’ minimalism with its infinite layering of nuance and complexity is exactly what this story called for with its boy genius conjuring up layer after layer of phony characters and fake avatars to dupe a poor unexpecting soul into strange sexual encounters and eventually murder. It seems to me that Muhly could have built layer upon layer of musical deception and intrigue, until the whole orchestration climaxes with the narrative and its ambiguous but unequivocally tragic denouement. In short, anything to avoid the prattling on of the detective and her mother, who only serve to muddy the thrust of the real drama and dilute the soundscape.

Lei: For the most part there was no real singing but rather unnecessary dramatic declamations that sounded forced and stupid. English is not the most musical language, even more so when it’s used in this way. I counted too few exceptions to this anti-melodic singing pattern, starting with the “bait-and-switch” choral Internet scenes with their tense chaotic and daunting musicality. Additionally, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote did not have much to work with throughout the opera, since she mostly proclaimed in operatic voice lines like “Do you speak chat?” or “People in ether, where do I find them?” However, when her character has a breakthrough moment in the final scene, Muhly finally gives her a musical aria worthy of such name, and she sang it beautifully. Although the most impressive true singing was performed by treble Andrew Pulver performing the “real” boy (as opposed to his chat room fake identities) orchestrating his own murder.

Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera
The purity, musicality and piercing strength of Pulver’s voice made me immediately think of Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato (and the only one who made it to live recording). I’ve always been puzzled by why castrati were the ultimate operatic phenomenon back in the 1700s, never really understanding what was so hot in a grown man singing with a little boy’s voice. After hearing Andrew Pulver and imagining his voice transposed in an adult male with extraordinary lungpower and mature artistic expressivity, I realized for the first time why castrati were the Netrebkos of their time. A singer like Farinelli was the rare phenomenon of a delicate voice capable of tackling gender-bending roles with incredible power and agility (castrati portrayed both sexes on stage), delivering experiences that were both unsettling and inexplicably viscerally beautiful.

Lui: I wonder if the beautifully ambiguous voice of the boy wasn’t part of the point. Even though the little boy is only a kid of something like twelve or thirteen, one theme of the multifaceted story seems to be the difficulties one faces, not so much as they accept, but rather as they attempt to impose their sexuality on someone else. Though the homosexual issues of the pre-teen sexual predator are never really made explicit, since he remains a ghostly figure and his characterization both musically and in terms of casting, remains so deceptively naive, not only to the audience, but also to his parents, we are nevertheless not sure what to make of him. He is a haunting specter, extremely effective.

Lei: The plot stressed the wrong issues. It could have been about the perverse anonymity of the Internet allowing multiple identities, pre-pubescent sexual confusion and disconnect between virtual and real world. All these themes, however, were just in the background and not really fleshed out. The driving force and connecting narrative thread was instead the detective, with her inability to understand web dynamics, her personal drama of having chosen a career over a child she gave up for adoption, her commiserating over unsupervised troubled adolescents and her live-in petulant old mother (who offers some unnecessary comic relief).  
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

Lui: Though it is billed as a story about the pitfalls of human connection in the time of the early Internet, my impression is that they opted to tell a sociological parable about the importance of family values. Sure the murder plot line revolves around the unbridled fantasy land of the World Wide Web, but most of the characters in the story hardly even know what a computer is. What links all three or four of the main story lines is the disintegration of family values, the inevitable oversights of working class parents, the choice of career over parenthood, the trials and tribulations of caring for the family you do have, the alienation of the younger generation from their inattentive parents, and the hands-off parenting styles of well-meaning mothers who have no particular knack for raising children. More than the Internet it’s a story about the current state of family life in the modern working class suburbs. 

Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Staging was boring and looked cheap. It was all-grey floors and movable walls with scarce tiny little furniture. If the idea was to have a plain and understated “real” world, it should have been contrasted with a bustling and hyper-lively virtual parallel world, which this production was not successful in bringing to life. While some of the Internet scenes were visually interesting with projections conveying the chaos of information overload and the chorus members perched on different levels on either side of the stage, it was just not enough to counter the blandness of the sets. 

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Lui: Why was there no attempt to deconstruct and play with all the chat room shorthand that is peppered throughout the libretto? Muhly’s style seems to be perfectly suited to defamiliarizing Internet abbreviations by turning them into the code language they appear to be: reading out the letters or riffing on the pure sounds of them. Instead what he gave us, both in terms of the text and his treatment of it, was an overly sincere attempt to sound “young” and “fresh” to millennials and an all too earnest use of slang, directly declaiming the Internet lingo for exactly what it means. The result is that both the libretto and the music’s embodiment of it felt flat and came across too often as just silly. Despite my frustration with the surface of the show, I could feel the seriousness of the underlying story, as well as the overarching sense that a thriller packing a fourth quarter payoff was boiling just beneath that surface. So I was absolutely willing to give it credit and I most certainly did not write it off beforehand. In fact, I wanted it to redeem my faith in contemporary opera. I was ready to be wowed by modernity at the Met. I wanted to see the stodgy institution that I love so much taken by storm. Nothing would make me happier!

Lei: All in all underwhelming, boring and at times also plain irritating, I had to make an effort to sit through to the end. While Muhly proved himself an impressive composer, an opera needs much more than just great music to be truly complete and worth seeing.  

Photo credit: Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Gotham-Weimar Operetta Feast

Baden-Baden 1927 by Gotham Chamber Opera
October 26, 2013 - The Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College    

Image credit: Georg Baselitz / Gotham Chamber Opera
Gotham Chamber Opera opened its season by taking a fresh look at four one-act operettas first presented at the Baden-Baden Festival of Contemporary Music on July 17, 1927. The quality and caliber of the production were sensational by any standards and even more so for a company of this size. Mixed media techniques were deployed. Live camera recordings were projected on stage in ways that heightened the drama. The stage was transformed into a massive multipurpose art gallery with paintings by German neo-expressionist artist Georg Baselitz. The costumes were playful and cohesive. Paul Curran’s direction was consistently clever and inventive. In short, it was a refreshing contemporary take on material that was avant-garde in 1927. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to be in the presence of such talent and vision.

Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Each opera was introduced by a different singer who interacted with the public and gave a playful take on each piece. This served both as entertainment during the set changes and also as live production notes. Creating a mise-en-abyme, by placing one form of art inside the other, and posing the overarching question: “What is Art?”, these touches of immersion-theatrical techniques sought to involve the audience, from questions on the plots to on-stage commentary during intermission to the selection of a reluctant dance partner for the two female characters in the last operetta.

Image credit: Gotham Chamber Opera
Though they were doing a lot, they made it all look very simple. After having been so impressed with Gotham's site-specific production of Eliogabalo at the Box (that made our 2012-13 highlights list), the full-on theatrical professionalism on display here was really on a whole other level. The music was electrifying; Neal Goren’s conducting was crisp and dynamic. In many ways it reminded me of Shostakovich, not surprisingly given that these works premiered only three years before The Nose. Helen Donath (soprano), Maeve Höglung (soprano), John Cheek (bass), Matthew Tuell (tenor), Daniel Montenegro (tenor), Michael Mayes (baritone), Jennifer Rivera (mezzo) formed an impressive cast, with top-notch and high-energy singing and acting. All of the singers commanded attention on stage each in their own unique way, evidently having a lot of fun in the process.

On the specific operettas:

Darius Milhaud's L’Enlèvement d’Europe (The Abduction of Europa) is perhaps the shortest opera I have ever seen, at only 8 minutes. The concept of Zeus coming out of a painting (and wearing a camoflaged suit matching the patterns of the painting) was genius. In just a few brushstrokes, the production team was able to communicate the idea of the rapturous power of the divine emerging from a work of art (or is it the other way around?) and seducing a glamorous Europa, with a chorus of little-black-dress gallerinas commenting on the action. It was a slice of Chelsea and a modern spin on a classic myth that made a whole lot of sense.  

Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Ernst Tosch's Die Prinzessin Auf Der Ersbe (The Princess and the Pea) was my least favorite portion of the evening. In an effort revamp the original piece, the production took it in a reality-TV direction that I always have a hard time stomaching, even if, as in this case, it is used as social satire. The techniques employed, however, were visually very effective. A live feed of footage being filmed by cameramen buzzing about the stage was projected onto the elaborate sets themselves. The whole thing was very busy but also very carefully choreographed. Kaleidoscopic psychedelia: achieved!

Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Paul Hindemith's Hin Und Zuruck (There and Back) was the most delightful of the four for me. It was a perfect little package with a narrative of love, betrayal, murder, suicide, and an Andy Warhol deus-ex-machina that rewinds the story, palindrome-style, to a happy ending: the beginning. Very clever realization with parallel projections of the story running forward while the actors are in the process of unfolding the action in reverse.

Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Kurt Weill's collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, the Mahagonny Songspiel, was certainly the most famous and recognizable piece of the evening. Its absurd surrealism came across with a zany sense of Weimar-era humor, and the singers lit up the stage with a startlingly fresh take on the classic "Moon of Alabama Song" that has been covered by such acts as the Doors, David Bowie and Nina Simone. As is to be expected, the whole thing was crazy, allegorical quasi-nonsense, although very entertainingly so.

Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Photo Credit: Richard Termine
An extremely satisfying evening at the theater. Makes you think that the spot left by NYC Opera has already been filled by this vibrant, visionary and virtuosic independent company. Especially since a little more than a year ago NYC Opera fleshed out this same space to much less elaborate use with Christopher Alden's monotone and monochrome production of Così fan tutte.

Baden-Baden 1927 was an impressive display of creative power, innovative thinking and top-notch execution by Gotham Chamber Opera. This company showed it has the means and vision to bring some high quality fresh air into NYC’s opera scene. Eagerly awaiting their next shows this season, I am particularly intrigued by the site-specific production of Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda in the armor room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on February 26 and 27, 2014.

Gotham Chamber Opera, what you do to me, I want done forever!

Lei & Lui

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