On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Tosca, the lurid masterpiece created by Giacomo Puccini and libretttists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. This was, of course, the David McVicar production that was surrounded by such scandal when it premiered last New Year's Eve after having lost almost its entire original cast as well as two successive conductors. I have to admit that one of my reasons for attending was to see what all the fuss had been about.
In its original form Tosca was a drama written by Victorien Sardou as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, inarguably the most famous actress of the late nineteenth century. It was, in fact, after having witnessed Bernhardt's performance that Puccini resolved to adapt the work. Like the opera drawn from it, the play contained not only murder, torture and suicide but for good measure a tempestuous woman's revenge for sexual blackmail; it is this last element that has most riveted modern audiences. Many attending the opera do not realize that Tosca's confrontation with Scarpia is taken largely intact from Sardou's play. The Met program notes helpfully quote the play's dialog to make clear the connection:
"Ah, you abuser! You tormented me for an entire night, should I not thenhave my turn? She bends over him, staring at him eye to eye. Look at me, scoundrel. Ah, to delight in your agony, and dying by a woman’s hand, you coward! Die, wild beast, die despairing, enraged, die, die, die!"
Set on a specific date (June 17, 1800), both play and opera use the Battle of Marengo between French and Austrian forces as a background for the action onstage. It's an interesting device, one that serves to intensify the action among the fictional characters as the forces of history swirl about them and provide a context for their personal dilemmas. The allusion would have been very familiar to the Roman audience attending the opera's 1900 premiere as Italy was then preparing to celebrate the battle's centenary, but its significance is largely lost on those seeing the opera today. One would think that setting the opera on a given date would preclude any attempt to update the action, but that hasn't stopped several producers from trying. A 1986 production, for example, set the opera in 1944 Nazi-occupied Rome with Scarpia as chief of the Fascist secret police.
Perhaps Tosca's most important legacy is its contribution to verismo. One doesn't ordinarily think of Puccini as a composer of verismo but it must be remembered that this opera was composed within ten years of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1892) and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1890). Puccini was definitely astute enough to recognize a new trend in opera and to capitalize upon it. It may have been this aspect as much as Bernhardt's performance that determined the composer to adapt Sardou's play in the first place. Not only was the gritty action far more naturalistic than that in Puccini's earlier operas but the music too was far more raw and incorporated such non-orchestral sounds as church bells.
I had heard Sondra Radvanovsky sing the title role of Tosca several years ago and greatly enjoyed hearing her reprise it at this performance. She is without question one of the finest sopranos now active - I've previously seen her triumph at the Met in Norma and in Donizetti's Tudor Queen operas - and she has rightfully become one of the company's brightest stars. Her rendition of Vissi d'arte brought down the house on Saturday afternoon and even had one fan shouting for an encore. Joseph Calleja, whom I heard sing the role of Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra two years ago, was excellent as Cavaradossi. He sang exceptionally well, and his Act III duet with Tosca was truly touching. Claudio Sgura was less successful in the role of Scarpia, the evil genius whose malignant presence drives the action forward much as Iago's did in Otello. Finally, conductor Carlo Rizzi, hardly a household name, did a much better job on the podium than I had anticipated. Perhaps the fact that he too had studied at the Milan Conservatory endowed him with an affiinity for Puccini's music.
The production by David McVicar was one of the most satisfying staged by the Met in recent years. It was unapologetically opulent. Strongly reminiscent, especially in Acts I and III, of the fondly remembered Zeffirelli production, it marked a return to the lavish settings beloved by conservative New York audiences. Hopefully, the Met has at last given up on its ill advised search for "relevance" and returned to its core values.