A few thoughts on Tosca at the Met

I went to my first Met HD broadcast of the season yesterday, and the first I've been to in two years. (They just added a venue I can actually get to: the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook. I'm still hoping the broadcasts will make to the Garde here in New London, but 10 miles away is pretty good.) I bought my ticket before Luc Bondy's new production of Tosca opened to a mixture of cheers for the singers and boos for the director. "Well," I thought when I saw the first reviews, "this is going to make for an interesting broadcast."

Maybe it's just that I never saw the Franco Zeffirelli production that preceded this one, but I can't really see what all the booing was about. I mean, I wasn't thrilled with all the directorial choices. The three Brides of Dracula scantily-clad women who cavort with Scarpia at the beginning of Act 2, for example. George Gagnidze already makes the character skin-crawlingly creepy; to have the three of them crawling over him while he sings about using and discarding his sexual conquests seems like overkill. And I don't particularly care that Bondy got rid of the business with Tosca setting candles next to Scarpia's corpse, but I do think that having her react to killing him by first almost jumping out the window and then collapsing on a sofa was inconsistent, at best. I can definitely see her having a "holy shit, what have I done?!" moment afterward, but I think she'd be more likely to want to get the hell out of there immediately.

That said, I just don't get the uproar over either the stylized and non-lavish sets, or the timing of Tosca's grab for the knife, or her freeze-frame plunge off the tower at the end (which reminded me of Hitchcock's Vertigo, which, in my book, is a good thing). None of those choices seemed indefensible to me. And Bondy and the singers also found a few moments that struck me as quite brilliant: the way, for example, Tosca makes her Act 3 entrance with dark blue gloves on her recently bloodstained hands, and when she tells Cavaradossi how she killed Scarpia—"N'ebbi le man
tutte lorde di sangue!" ("My hands were filthy with his blood!")—he very gently takes the gloves off as he sings "O dolci mani mansuete e pure." I'd never noticed that moment before.

I think my lack of outrage over this "controversial" production stems from my having discovered opera after I'd already discovered both theater and film. If you've seen, for instance, a lot of live Shakespeare, it doesn't seem at all sacreligious when directors update the setting of a play, or stage it in modern dress on a stripped-down set, or interpret a scene in a new way. Even if you don't like or agree with the interpretation, it would be boring if every production were the same. And one of the many things I love about opera is that it inhabits the territory where music and theater meet. It's not equivalent to theater, but it's also not so detached from theater that it should be treated as an unchanging ritual from which any deviation must be met with yells of protest.

(See also the reactions at Parterre Box, Alex Ross's blog, and My Favorite Intermissions.)

4 Responses to “A few thoughts on Tosca at the Met”

  1. Jill Smith says:

    How funny – my mom saw this as well. She was gleefully telling me the plot earlier today (I’m not an opera aficionado, but I love hearing about it).

  2. Clint says:

    I agree with much of what you say here and I wondered what all the hullaballoo was about. I enjoyed the production–although I felt very uncomfortable with the Act 2 opening since there were young teen boys seated in our row–but thought the sets, costumes, etc worked very well. Scarpia was dastardly in the best way and I finally had the opportunity to see Matilla, which was long overdue (I like her, I really like her!).
    I must disagree with you about the ending however. The freeze-frame was very Hitchcockian…but without references of that throughout the production, it was just odd. Particularly due to the medium (HD broadcast), it broke my attention from the performance because my first thought (and that of those around me) was that there was a problem with the broadcast. What should have been a heightened dramatic moment was anti-climatic because it felt like a technical glitch.
    My favorite opera productions have been these updated productions; in my opinion this is what marks opera as timeless, just as is the case with Shakespeare and other great theater.
    Bring on more updates! (especially of Aida–ouch…I wasn’t feeling last week’s broadcast at all!)

  3. Amanda says:

    Hmm. Interesting. I suppose I wasn’t thinking “technical glitch” (even though there was a solar flare disrupting the beginning of the feed, which thankfully didn’t last very long) because I knew that there was some sort of freeze-frame/blackout effect at the end. And some of the dispraise of the production had led me to expect some sort of Tosca dummy swinging from the rafters. When the ending didn’t turn out like that, I was more relieved than anything. But I see what you’re saying about the unexpected effects of the broadcast medium.
    I’m just glad the broadcast directors aren’t doing split screens any more. That one broadcast of Tristan und Isolde had enough of them to give anyone a headache.
    I wasn’t feeling last week’s Aida either. I mean, the singing was lovely and it was visually impressive, but…it was all rather remote, wasn’t it?

  4. Ann Nyberg says:

    Thank you so much for linking to the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center here on your blog. We are trying very hard to make this venue very special for all and we hope that your experience there was a good one.
    Come see us again.
    Ann Nyberg, Trustee