You may still remember the last Met Tosca, served up dry and indigestible by the French director Luc Bondy (“Luc warm,” I punned in my review*) with abstracted, ugly stage sets aimed at scorning Zefirelli’s luxurious production that had reigned at the Met for twenty years. The height of Puccini’s dramatic opera—Tosca’s deadly bargain with Scarpia, the police chief of Rome, to submit to rape in order to save her imprisoned lover’s life—was a flat affair in a bureaucratic office, garnished with vulgar S/M tropes. It was a major embarrassment for the Met and quickly withdrawn from the program. Nine years later, the new production by renowned director David McVicar does more than repair the blunder. McVicar has created a piece of art
that is grand opera much like the regretted Zefirelli. He honors the era of the story—the Napoleonic attempts to occupy Italy—with faithfully realistic, sumptuous Roman sets (by John Macfarlane) and an astute psychological reading that hits a contemporary nerve.
After a number of chaotic cast changes and scandals (conductor James Levine was fired for sexual harassment), the opening and Live in HD simulcast was conducted by Emmanuel Villaume and featured an ideal cast: Sonya Yoncheva as diva Floria Tosca, Vittorio Grigolo as the painter Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, and Zeljko Lucic as Baron Scarpia. All of them are top stars with superb voices and the capacity to act. McVicar seems to have had a field day with his singer/actors, making the best of their already considerable capacity to move with the help of a “Movement Director,” Leah Hausman, herself an opera director.
The director’s major idea, the axis around which the whole production spins, is that Tosca is a very young star, freshly famous for her vocal talent and her beauty. It’s a brilliant idea that is not part of the operatic tradition. Usually Tosca is portrayed as a mature, arrogant and temperamental “diva.” Puccini based his opera on a play by French playwright Victorien Sardou, written for Sarah Bernhardt who was already in her forties when she premiered La Tosca in 1887 and toured it world-wide. Maria Callas, one of the most famous Toscas, was equally mature when she took on the role, and Karita Mattila, who had the misfortune of serving in Luc Bondy’s mess, was positively matronly. Surely the role has been sung by dramatic sopranos of any age, but I have never seen her youth as a reinterpretation of this popular opera (Tosca ranks as one of the most often
produced operas worldwide). The concept brilliantly suits the young Bulgarian diva Sonya Yoncheva who has stormed to the international top rank in only a few years with her beauty, superb acting and her plush, radiant voice that possesses every imaginable emotional color. In 2017-18 she has the honor and privilege of appearing in a Live in HD performance three times in one season, surpassing even Anna Netrebko. (Netrebko will sing Tosca in a third cast, later this spring. Having bowed out of MacVicar’s Norma at the opening of the season, Netrebko doesn’t appear on the cinema screen at all.)
Under McVicar’s direction, Yoncheva presents Tosca as a fiercely proud but girlish charmer, too young to divine the sinister machinations of Scarpia who plans to get his clutches on the young rebel Cavaradossi, get rid of him and, in one fell swoop, seize Tosca as his prize. The major suspense of the drama comes from our knowing the scheme from the outset. In the beautifully realistic reproduction of the Roman church Sant’Andrea delle Valle Cavaradossi is painting a mural of an attractive blonde woman and helps an escaped political prisoner get to a hideaway. Scarpia is on his track in no time and starts to ensnare Tosca by fuelling her jealousy.
I have usually dreaded those scenes of jealousy in the church when Tosca interprets Cavaradossi’s distraction (by the hidden prisoner) as the threat of some hidden lover. These scenes tend to be acted as the feminine wiles of a woman old enough to know better, but who plagues her lover with her pouting and mincing seductions, while he (and the audience) really want to get rid of her to get on with the suspense story of whether the political escapee can be saved. With Yoncheva, it’s a different story. Her headlong passion for her painter has a childlike absoluteness; she is fiery and also sweetly naïve and devout; her youthful grace makes her love doubts seem natural and forgivable, especially as Grigolo shows an equally youthful passion and a playfulness that takes her little whims as sexy invitations rather than annoyance. Vittorio Grigolo has possibly never been better than here; his
tendency to let his beautiful clarion tenor emote more than necessary is held in check by the director and perfectly channeled to fit the role of a tender and ardent protector of an irresistible, but vulnerable child-woman. The unusual chemistry between Grigolo and Yoncheva makes the audience fall in love with both of them from the moment she storms into the church. No wonder that Scarpia has his eye on her.
Scarpia makes his lecherous plans to the thrillingly dissonant sounds of the Te Deum procession, with Puccini’s archaic Italian bells tolling, culminating in his sacrilegious confession, “Tosca, you make me forget even God!”
Interestingly, the great Slovakian baritone Lucic does not play Scarpia as the obvious lecher most great Scarpias of the past portrayed (a prime example is Tito Gobbi in Zefirelli’s London Tosca with Maria Callas). He is not the Marquis de Sade of unfettered sadistic drives and appetites. Lucic’s Scarpia is understated and only displays a dangerously cold greed for power. After torturing Cavaradossi in Tosca’s presence, in the second act, the psychological torture of Tosca continues and every time he approaches her and forces his physical presence on her, something like a sexual beast bursts out in his face and voice. Yoncheva makes one feel the goose pimples, the mounting revulsion and finally terror in each of these close encounters. The false neutral tone in Scarpia’s negotiations with her creates illusory moments of possible rationality and hope, only to be
undone the more frightfully by his surprise attacks of closeness that still only hint at the man’s true intentions. The ambiguity is powerfully underlined by the stage lighting that keeps one half of the plush palace room in warm, velvety tones while the other half receives a chilly, unforgiving blue light from a set of windows.
Lucic’s downplaying of his own sex appeal and acting the business-as-usual police chief makes him a stand-in for any charmless, unsightly, off-putting power monger of the Harvey Weinstein & Co sort, who could easily be mistaken by a naïve young woman as nasty but harmless—until he asks if she wouldn’t like to watch him take a shower and opens his robe. Yoncheva awakens gradually to the real and present danger, and every moment of it is like another step in her understanding the sneaky methods of assault that he applies.
A good decade ago, the Met invited school classes to experience romantic opera with Anna Netrebko in Romeo and Juliet. This Tosca with Yoncheva and Lucic would be a good lesson in what sexual harassment can look like at its most banal and most sophisticated. “Vissi d’arte” is for once not the artificial high point when everything stops for the main aria of the diva, her lament asking God what she has done to deserve this. With Yoncheva it seems to be a seamlessly growing awareness that “living for art” and being a good and pious young person has not in any way prepared her for the reality of men’s power over women. Facing a disaster she simply cannot fathom her voice rises to the highest outbursts of emotional distress. When he comes at her in triumph: “Tosca, finalmente mia!” she grabs a knife from the table and stabs him in a rage: “This is Tosca’s kiss
!... Is your blood choking you? Die accursed! Die! Die! Die!”
A particularly thrilling, brooding passage in Puccini’s composition follows the murder and foreshadows that the drama is not over and will not have a happy end. Shaken but undeterred, Tosca continues her transgressions during that orchestral interlude. As required by the libretto, she searches the corpse for the laissez-passer to freedom she had bargained for, then creates a sacrilegious ritual around the dead monster with candles and a crucifix she grabs from the wall. She believes that Scarpia has granted Cavaradossi a mock execution from the firing squad and they will get away together. At the Castel Sant’Angelo, in Act III, Grigolo does a marvelous job in his singing and acting of believing and not believing Tosca. He follows her plans and instructions with a tenderness that seems not to want to contradict a child’s ultimate fairy tale.
When Cavaradossi is executed before her eyes and Scarpia’s men catch up with her, it all ends, of course, with Tosca hurling herself over the ledge of the parapet. The famous leap has been controversial. Puccini had to fight for over four years with his librettists who felt the drama in Sardou’s play was too overwhelming for an opera, and Tosca ought to go mad rather than commit another transgression with her suicide. Fortunately, Puccini wouldn’t hear of it and insisted (like Sardou) on her leap. Tosca—a passive victim after all?
Sopranos haven given innumerable interpretations to that dramatic finale. I’ve seen some fearful and some heroic leaps, some heavy sacks of potato going down, and I’ve heard stories of injuries as well as resistance: one diva, Monserrat Caballe, ignored the libretto and simply strode off the stage. Yoncheva’s leap from the Castello’s wall — “Scarpia, we will meet before God!”— shows the pride and grace of a young rebel whose refusal of being abused is almost a victory. The audience made it an unequivocal triumph.
* Tosca 2009: https://www.scene4.com/archivesqv6/nov-2009/1109/renatestendhal-r1109.html