Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tosca, we hardly knew ye.....

Luckily for us opera goers, Marcelo Alvarez and Karita Mattila were in very fine voice at the Met's Tosca last Thursday night, which trumped a threadbare, disappointing set and costuming that appeared to be a cross between La Traviata and the Hip Hop music awards. We didn’t get Jimmy at the podium due to a last-minute back ailment, and the singer (George Gagnidze) who replaced the singer for the role of Scarpia came down with a cold and oy-gehvalt….what a night !

It was my first opera of the season, and the opera house looked quite grand, all aglow across the newly refurbished Lincoln Center plaza. A warm early autumn night, and I felt kinda grand,

too, though a bit wistful. That night, my head was in the opera house but my heart was four years and ten thousand miles away.

Live opera always brings surprises, and that night was no exception. For people like me, who have seen some of these operas several (or many) times, the fun comes when comparing performers, set designs, costuming, and many of the trivial and not-so-trivial production details from one performance to the next. Though memory often fails as to specific singers and dates, I usually remember enough to be able to either coo in delight during intermission or dismiss with a knowing, raised eyebrow. Prefer the cooing.

When the lights go down and the spotlight hits the house manager coming onstage with an announcement, you know you’re probably about to be disappointed. Before the first act, we were told that Levine would not be conducting and that Scarpia had a head cold, but would perform and asked for our indulgence. OK.

The music lifted me as the curtain rose, but I was quickly brought back to earth by the set of the new production---the gorgeous Italian Baroque church interior now replaced by a plain red brick Romanesque concoction, which recalled the industrial exterior of the Tate Modern and the barracks which remain at Auschwitz. Let’s say, not warm and fuzzy.

I sat in the balcony that night (sign of the times…), but the acoustics were great as were my sightlines. Thrilled to hear Marcelo and Karita (two faves), though she really is too old for the part now from a physical standpoint. As long as I pocketed my opera glasses and focused on the music, I was OK with it. Meooowwww.

Second act opened inauspiciously as the house manager came out again and announced that tonight's Scarpia could no longer sing but would act the role onstage while a substitute sang the role from a podium set up stage right. This was a first (for me). I howled, while the audience erupted into high buzz but soon settled down as the curtain rose and we were underway. The ringer/singer (Carlo Guelfi) did quite well, but the acting was preposterous. During the knifing scene, as Scarpia's twitches and turns result in him sprawling off a red velvet couch, head down, halfway on the floor, about a third of the audience (including me) began to laugh out loud. I think the dramatic impact of the evening ended then and there.

No announcement from the floor at the beginning of the third act, but something had clearly gone wrong backstage, since the intermission ran way overlong, culminating in the audience clapping and hooting to get the ball rolling and bring the night to an end. The fatal double-cross goes off without a hitch, but for some unknown reason, the extraordinary dramatic events of the last minutes of the opera were crammed into a small sliver of the set way over stage left, almost invisible to about 2/3 of the house. With virtually no room to maneuver in this production, Tosca's scurrying up and up to the heights of the Castel Sant'Angelo in the Zeffirelli production were here confined to a single lame brick staircase, where she lingered as Scarpia's forces arrived to try to seize her. I couldn't wait for her to jump. Which she did. I jumped up and left.

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