The jet-set lifestyle of Harper’s Other Dad took him to Valley Forge, PA at the time of the MET’s ‘Live In HD’ simulcast of Tosca so we attended Wednesday night’s encore broadcast instead.
Premiering in 1900, Puccini’s Tosca is a one of the world’s most often-produced operas. In the current season, the opera will have its 1000th performance at the MET. The music is beautiful. The story is a classic tragedy where the villainous Chief of Police, Scarpia, tears the passionate lovers, Tosca & Cavaradossi, asunder and everyone dies before the final curtain. That’s entertainment!
I was disappointed in this production but my disappointment rests more with MET management than with any of this year’s performances. A little history may help for context.
For a quarter century prior to 2009, the MET’s Tosca was a production designed by Franco Zeffirelli. It premiered in 1985. In many art forms 25 years would be a whole generation of viewers. For opera in general, and the MET in particular, it more likely means the Zeffirelli production was all audiences had seen since they entered middle age. Now in their dotage maturity, some of the MET’s audiences are more than slightly resistant to change.
For the 2009-2010 season director Luc Bondy designed a new production.
Lacking the lavish feel of the familiar Zeffirelli production, the production also contained elements that were either erotically charged or gratuitously vulgar depending on whether you liked or disliked them. At the opening night gala performance the singers received a standing ovation while the director and design team were greeted with boos and cat calls. Even Zeffirelli weighed in calling the production “idiotic” and Bondy “third rate”.
The 2013 production is still credited to Bondy but it appears the MET tried to address some of the concerns of those who disliked the production in 2009. The sets seem less minimalistic but rather than striking a more lavish note to appease the MET’s dowagers, they just seem ugly. The carnal aspects in Act II seems less gratuitous but the also more awkward. There was much criticism of the 2009 staging because one of the prostitutes on stage appears to have her face between Scarpia’s legs. With the new blocking, her face remains well above the belt but, the result is Scarpia is singing into her ear. For the HD audiences, there is a period of time where all we saw was the hooker’s wig and Scarpia’s eyebrows.
Most glaring of the bandages applied to the production was the climax. (Spoiler Alert!) Tosca famously ends with the heroine plummeting to her death after leaping from a tower. Criticism was heaped upon the 2009 production because they used a dummy and a quick blackout to simulate Tosca’s tragic leap into immortality. In this iteration the dummy has been replaced by a human stunt double. The blackout is slowed just long enough to assure all concerned that the person about to jump is, in fact, a human being. Of course, in that instant it is also obvious that it is not the soprano who has been singing the role for the preceding 3 acts.
No arts organization can afford to alienate its subscriber base, especially in these economic times, so I can appreciate the MET’s dilemma. Tosca is a staple of the repertoire and the subscribers will always turn out to see it. The MET can get away with doing something edgy or more avant-garde with operas like The Nose or Satyagraha. The old guard may opt to give them a miss. Even if the subscribers choose to attend, the productions won’t have to overcome expectations ingrained for decades. The cost of a completely new production so soon after the 2009 effort would be prohibitive but one wonders why the MET didn’t simply raise the white flag, dust off the Zeffirelli sets and give a new production a go in five years. I’m afraid they chose instead to alter a controversial production making it worse for those that enjoyed it in the first place without doing much to address the concerns of those that did not.