15 October 2009

Gilding the Roses ... or Not

Tedium: Act I of Tosca
New York’s Metropolitan Opera offered me a study in contrasts this week, as I bounced from Nathaniel Merrill’s 40-year-old production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier to Luc Bondy’s spanking-new take on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Physically but also spiritually, the former is a bourgeois fantasy of Viennese nobility in the 18th century, all satin and scrollwork, while the latter is stripped-down, as stark as the blade that strikes at the villain’s poisonous heart.

Since the new Tosca replaces the Zeffirelli production — even more elaborate than Merrill’s Rosenkavalier — it was bound to find detractors. You can’t tell from looking at Richard Peduzzi’s new sets that this is Rome, for example, and only Milena Canonero’s costume designs (and the program notes) give any hint that the year is 1800. I have no objection, in principle: the power of Puccini’s music is hardly subtle but entirely direct, needing little help to make its points, and Zeffirelli’s sets and costumes always struck me as too damned much. The trouble is that, apart from a few bits of blocking seemingly devised with no other intention than to provoke the Met audience, Bondy had nothing particular to say. This was the dullest Tosca I’d ever seen — and hitherto, I’d always considered the words “dull” and “Tosca” entirely incompatible.

Venal? Scarpia (Gagnidze) menaces Tosca (Mattila)

It’s possible that some of the detail of Bondy’s direction was lost on me, since I was seated in the Family Circle (but is high-definition television, close-up and in stereo, the only way one can appreciate an opera anymore?), and since I heard Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova in the title role, covering Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who was indisposed, and for whom this production was intended. Unlike Mattila, Gavrilova didn’t have the benefit of extensive, one-on-one rehearsal with Bondy — and moreover, it’s unlikely she could rival the close collaborative relationship between Mattila and Bondy. Obviously Bondy’s work speaks to Mattila in a way that it may not — to the same degree — speak to other singers. But eventually, other singers will be performing in this production: are we to assume that they'll be equally lost, forced to rely on generalized gesture and thrashing around?

Still — I’m inclined to make allowances for some of the lapses in Bondy’s Tosca. But how to account for the end of Act I, when Baron Scarpia starts humping a statue of the Madonna? What about his perversity had we not already learned from the music? After all, he’s roaring on about his lust for Floria Tosca in the middle of a church service. Did we really need the underlining and the humping? And why did Bondy think it made more sense for Scarpia to frolic with prostitutes at the beginning of Act II, rather than awaiting Tosca in solitude, as the libretto prescribes? Isn’t it more interesting if he’s alone, entirely focused on his conquest, coiled and ready to pounce? Apparently, Bondy thinks not.

Extreme interrogation aftermath: Mattila and Alvarez

And never mind that the stage business for Tosca, following Scarpia’s murder, isn’t the Catholic ritual called for in the libretto: it simply makes no sense at all. Why does Tosca start to jump out of a window? (That isn’t what the score tells us she’s doing — after all, we have very clear musical directions as to what impels Tosca to jump, in Act III, and the music at the close of Act II sounds nothing like it.) Why does she then lie back on a sofa and fan herself? Why would anybody do that? Tosca isn’t a work of great psychological complexity, yet I couldn’t make sense of Bondy’s blocking here.

The musical performance profited from Paul Plishka’s well-practiced traversal of the Sacristan and from Marcelo Alvarez’s intelligent, idiomatic, yet emotionally restrained interpretation of the revolutionary painter Mario Cavaradossi. As Scarpia, baritone George Gagnidze offered plenty of stentorian force but very little aristocratic elegance. In the pit, Joseph Colaneri elicited some of the most beautiful string playing I’ve heard in this opera, but elsewhere he missed opportunities. The music following Cavaradossi’s execution, for example, neither blazed with heroic fervor nor scalded with irony — either of which would be a legitimate artistic statement. Colaneri is filling in for James Levine, who presumably got the bulk of rehearsal time with the orchestra; I tend to think that this is a work in progress.

Dude looks like a lady:
Fleming & Graham as the Marschallin and Octavian

Though Levine’s absence was felt in Rosenkavalier, too, this was in other ways a reunion, as Susan Graham and Renée Fleming returned to familiar roles and a winning partnership, under the baton of conductor Edo de Waart, with whom both have often worked. The result was a kind of comfort zone, in which extra attention could be paid to detail, because all the bigger pieces of the puzzle had been worked out long ago. Traditional, yes, but wholly satisfying, and paradoxical though it may seem, this is the simpler, more direct staging.

I’m nuts about this score, which after all permits me to hear the scent of rose perfume. Strauss’ greatest achievement here, however, is that he makes time stand still — twice — when Octavian presents Sophie with the silver rose, and again at the end of the opera, when the Marschallin gently releases Octavian into Sophie’s arms. Dramatically, these are tiny moments, a matter of seconds, but Strauss spins them out musically, making blissful eternities of sound.

Pretty Woman: Fleming

Though I’d heard Susan Graham and Renée Fleming sing this music on recordings, I’d never attended a performance. Three dimensions make all the difference! Fleming’s Marschallin was the most fully rounded dramatic portrayal I’ve ever seen her give, and her voice — actually too pretty in some roles — seems perfectly suited to a woman who despite her outward grace and gentility must navigate insurmountable heartbreak.

Octavian gives Susan a chance to explore knockabout physical comedy, youthful passions, and innate nobility. She made me laugh out loud, and she made me cry — with happiness. I have been trying so hard in this space to explain the effect her voice has on me; for now, let it suffice to say that she did it again. A lot. I can’t believe that I nearly went without seeing her in this signature role.

Susan in the Presentation Scene,
from San Francisco Opera a few years ago

Luckily for you, you can see it, too, even if you’re far from New York. Der Rosenkavalier has been selected as one of the Met’s upcoming high-definition simulcasts, in movie theaters, on 9 January, with encores on 27 January (in the U.S.) and 6 March (in Canada).

1 comment:

Girl From Texas said...

Scarpia looks like Grandpa on "The Munsters"