Tosca

The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, October 17.

On Saturday night, no one booed at Tosca.

Normally, that would go without saying, but this new production famously received an ugly audience response at its gala debut a few weeks ago. After more than two decades with Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagantly detailed production, which painstakingly recreated the real-life Roman settings, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned a new production, by Swiss director Luc Bondy, that gleefully rejects that kind of spectacular approach in favor of a cold, stripped-down aesthetic, which displeased many opera aficionados, to put it mildly.

For the record, I never saw the Zeffirelli Tosca, so I can’t work myself into a fury about Bondy supposedly desecrating the beloved Puccini opera, but I do think this new production is muddled, at best. The looming, overlarge sets swallow the performers. The costumes and sets comprise a motley, unmatched assemblage. (Just what time period are we supposed to be in?) And the Act II silliness with the prostitutes feels condescending and superfluous and therefore rather pathetic. The whole gesamtkunstwerk concept notwithstanding, though, opera is ultimately about the music, and musically, this Tosca was worth enduring those flaws.

Puccini is one of the more accessible opera composers, but for me, at least, the lurid story of Tosca sometimes feels off-putting under the best of circumstances, so I’m already inclined to appreciate the music and simply go along with the rest. Set in Rome in 1800, when Napoleon’s army was beginning to overthrow other European powers, the opera focuses not on a general or dissident but on an impetuous opera singer named Floria Tosca. When the diva’s lover, a Napoleon-sympathizer named Cavaradossi, runs afoul of the royalist secret police, led by the predatory Scarpia, she goes to great lengths to try to protect him. The compact story is garishly melodramatic, but Tosca is an interesting hero. She’s a self-absorbed, insecure, mistrustful woman—a classic diva—but she truly loves Cavaradossi, and he her, despite her flaws. As annoying as she is at the opera’s outset, by the conclusion she’s earned some respect.

Karita Mattila played Tosca, and though I appreciate her cool, precise voice, she made a more convincing Salome last season. I’m not sure whether to blame her for that or Bondy. He certainly didn’t help her any by directing her to flutter aimlessly about the stage after stabbing Scarpia, finally collapsing onto a couch and fanning herself, seemingly with no intent to flee. Nonetheless, her bitterly mournful aria “Vissi d’arte” was resplendent and affecting, and the scene in which she coaches Cavaradossi on faking his death touched me in spite of myself

I was less conflicted in my appreciation for Marcelo Álvarez’s Cavaradossi. Álvarez gave the doomed man a patient, affectionate warmth, even when Tosca was at her most exasperating, that made me more sympathetic to both of them. His triumphant “Vittoria” upon learning of Napoleon’s victory over the Italian royalists was nothing short of majestic, and his gorgeous, luminous phrasing of the already exquisite “E lucevan le stelle” brought me to tears. (Honestly, Tosca would be worth seeing just for that one aria. It’s one of those rare showpieces that mostly avoids pyrotechnics and flash, relying instead on raw emotion and a perfectly wrought melody.)

None of the other vocalists really stood out for me, though from a compositional standpoint, I loved the complex Act II juxtaposition in which Tosca’s performance for the queen crashes against Scarpia’s interrogation of Cavaradossi. I’m a sucker for all kinds of counterpoint, and I’d never heard that number before, just the big arias, so it was a delightful surprise. In fact, from a purely musical standpoint, the second act was probably my favorite as a whole, so it’s a shame that it was also the act when Bondy’s production was at its most obnoxious. There, in particular, the production felt less like a thought-out vision of what the opera should be and more like a childish knee-jerk against perceived excesses of a more traditional take. It was reactionary and undercooked and sort of pathetic.

I mean, really: The mimed fellatio and menage à quatre during Scarpia’s big arias reminded me, absurdly, of the gloriously silly ballet movie Center Stage, in which the ballet audience is supposed to be shocked—shocked!—by a would-be provocative but extremely mild choreographed sex scene. Whenever I see that, I always wonder whether the screenwriter had any idea of the history of ballet. Nijinsky’s dancers, for example, were performing far more titillating material nearly a century before stupid fictional Cooper Nielsen came around to shock—shock!—the audience with his dumb-ass, supposedly boundary-pushing nonsense. It’s absurd. (And yes, Bondy, I am comparing your pitiful production to a ridiculous teen movie that routinely gets rerun on, like, TBS. Ha!)

The point is that provocation for its own sake is immature, and that’s what this felt like. Not only was there no call for having a trio of half-nude women romp around the stage, it didn’t even make sense for Scarpia’s character. The police chief isn’t merely looking to get off; he needs to crush and humiliate his partner. Paying a few whores won’t accomplish that—assuming that it would is like assuming that rape is a crime of lust rather than wrath and contempt—so the whole thing exists only to needle and titillate the audience. I don’t blame people for finding that offensive. Never mind the supposed attack on Zeffirelli’s production; Bondy’s take on Tosca distracts from the librettists’ far more subtle characterizations and, worse, from Puccini’s beautiful music. Maybe that is worth booing.