There’s been considerable drama at the Metropolitan Opera: uncontrolled lust, sexual onslaughts, towering figures undone by their recklessness. Some of this is even happening on the stage, as it is at a new production of Tosca.
A thrilling, traditionalist take on the 1900 Puccini melodrama about a jealous opera singer, her painter boyfriend, and the wicked police chief who aspires to bed the former and kill the latter, this production debuted in a cloud of uncertainty on New Year’s Eve. (Ten months may be old for a White House scandal, but it’s fresh as this morning’s bagels in opera terms. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1985 production of Tosca at the Met played for more than 20 years.) Last night marked the first of 13 performances of the new season, this time with a heartbreaking Sondra Radvanovsky of Berwyn, Ill., in the title role. The soprano, a Met veteran whose credits on this gigantic stage date back to 1996, is having a busy season, also playing the lead in Aida beginning in January, and may she be as triumphant in that offering as she is as Tosca.
As directed by Sir David McVicar, the current production is sumptuous, bearing no scars from the backstage intrigue involving various cast departures and the mega-scandal surrounding the alleged sexual predations of the second of its planned conductors, James Levine, who for 40 years was the music director of the Met and was to the institution something akin to what J. Edgar Hoover was to the FBI. McVicar wisely eschews the contemporary tweaks of the much-loathed 2009 “kinky” (the New York Times) edition helmed by Luc Bondy and situates us firmly in 1800 Rome, where the rebel Angelotti (Oren Gradus) flees the secret police to the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, magnificently realized by John Macfarlane’s set. Working on a fresco in the church, the painter Mario Cavaradossi (Joseph Calleja) tells the church sacristan (Patrick Carfizzi) about the lovely lady he’s seen outside the church who is serving as his model for Mary Magdalene in his painting. She turns out to be Angelotti’s sister, and Cavaradossi agrees to help him evade capture.
Enter Floria Tosca, Mario’s girlfriend and a renowned vocalist. Tosca is a piece of work. She doesn’t just behave like a diva, she is one, as in that’s what it says on the top line of her tax return. Picture Streisand when her lunch is delayed and she’s just discovered a large pimple on her cheek. In such a mood is Tosca when she appears in the church and notices her boyfriend’s fresco. Who is this girl? She has light hair, blue eyes. Tosca is dark-haired, dark-eyed. She wants reassurances that Mario isn’t involved with the girl he is painting. The tenor Calleja brings a wheedling, desperate quality to the part as he pleads with Tosca, but her jealousy is such a blazing beacon that it lights the nefarious police chief Baron Scarpia’s path to locating Angelotti. When he finds a lady’s fan in the church — it was meant to help Angelotti disguise himself as a woman — he uses it expertly to fuel Tosca’s suspicion that Cavaradossi is cheating on her. If this plot device sounds vaguely familiar, at least Tosca’s libretto (by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on Victorien Sardou’s play) is upfront about it. “Iago used a handkerchief, I’ll use a fan,” reasons Scarpia.
Living up to that James Bond–villain name, Scarpia is fantastically brutish and loathsome. Picture Harvey Weinstein equipped with not just a sofa but also a torture cell. The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic plays him brilliantly, like a mountain that is about to erupt on Tosca while he sings about how he prefers “violent conquest” to “soft surrender.” He seems to draw erotic voltage from knowing that the painter is being tortured by his minions in a back room. As foolish as Tosca was in Act I, with her religious devotion played for a laugh (“not in front of the Madonna,” she says when Cavaradossi embraces her near a statue), in Act II she has a magnificent pathos. A net of fate closes in on her as she bewails how little her faith has repaid her. The tragic aria “Vissi d’Arte” (“I lived for art”) brings it all home. Radvanovsky sings it magnificently, all warmth and sweetness and fragility. She doesn’t want to betray Angelotti or God or bring satisfaction to Scarpia, and yet she is cornered into doing all three for love. Her inveterate jealousy, dire as it has made things, is easily forgiven. The scope of Cavaradossi’s love for her comes into focus.
Melodrama tends not to age particularly well, and comedy often fares even worse over time. Music is forever, though, and so is character. Floria Tosca’s human mix of flaws and qualities makes her indelible, just as Scarpia’s all-controlling despotism and giddy attraction to sexual violence remain as grimly recognizable as ever.