Tosca - 1/21/11 (Radvanovsky, Alvarez, Struckmann)

Last week I wrote a blog entry in which I had some pretty harsh things to say about Sondra Radvanovsky. So tonight I did the right and proper thing and went to see a performance of Tosca starring Ms. Radvanovsky herself. It was also my first time seeing Luc Bondy's production in the house (I had only seen the HD broadcast), and I have had kind of a rough, annoying week, so I was pretty excited when the chandeliers rose.

I should start by saying that Tosca is one of my least favorite standard operas. I love just about every other Puccini opera better, and for that reason strangely I'm rarely actually dissatisfied with a Tosca performance. I guess when you don't really love and value something, it's easier to be happy with a performance. And I also wasn't around when Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi or Franco Corelli sang Tosca, so I don't have those golden-aged memories.

How was the performance? First I have to say that despite "redirection" by Luc Bondy, one can't fix what I suspect is a fundamentally broken production. There are some basic things about this production that just don't work -- one is the fact that he places so much of the critical action on the extreme ends of the stage. The audience's sightlines generally veer towards center stage, and when center stage is literally empty for so much of the opera, the drama is unintentionally minimized. For instance, why make it so prominent to have Tosca and the others kneel in front of the Lady Madonna and talk about the Lady Madonna, and then to have the Lady Madonna be offstage in Act One? Why have Scarpia sing Te Deum in a spot where you can barely see him -- downstage extreme right. In Act 2, if you want to set it in a Fascist Era, why make the maps of Italy again on the very sides of the stage, where some of the audience can't see them? For all of the critcism Bondy took for his choices in Act 2, I think it's actually his best act in that he places action in areas of the stage that within the natural sightlines of the auditorium. In Act 3, why is Tosca watching her lover's execution at very downstage right, almost by the wings? Why does Tosca jump off a tower that's so extreme stage left that I could barely see it from where I was sitting? I could go on about other ways the production doesn't work, but enough ink has already been wasted on that subject.

Of all the roles I've seen Sondra in, Tosca might be her best. I think it's maybe because in Verdi heroines (or at least the ones she plays) the drama is in the music, and it's up to a singer to fill in the character with the strength of her own personality. Sondra can often seem terminally dull in those roles. In Tosca, the stage directions are all there, basically ossified since Sarah Bernhardt, and although Bondy doesn't have Tosca place the crucifixes by Scarpia's body, and also has her slash Mario's painting and throw a chair in anger, much of the stuff Bondy's Tosca does really isn't that different from every other Tosca production in history. The traditional Tosca stage directions are so ossified because they work so well. It might be a "shabby little shocker" but it's effective theater.

Sondra doesn't exude the absolute larger than life personality of the old school Toscas, and her attempts to be girlish and flirtatious always irritate me.  But in its own way Sondra's less grand diva interpretation works. I've always said that at least once a performance, Sondra does something onstage that seems to be her own "invention" that makes me cringe and completely ruins the stage illusion that is so important in any opera. Tonight she got through almost all of Act Two without that "Sondra moment." I could have done without the sobbing in Act One, but basically she was believable as both the jealous lover and the terrified woman. In Act 2, I was thinking pretty good. Her struggle with Scarpia was as dramatically potent as I've ever seen her. Then it was time to stab Scarpia, and ... oh dear. Sondra desperately needs stabbing lessons, if that makes any sense. Instead of stabbing him vehemently, she chose instead to like, gingerly poke him as if she were testing meat on a grill to see whether it was medium or well done. I did like how instead of simply fanning herself on the couch after the murder she sat on the couch and tried to fan herself and her hands shook so much she dropped the fan. That wasn't in Bondy's original production, but it did seem like a more dramatically effective way of handling Bondy's inert stage directions.

It was announced that Sondra R. had tracheitis and that she asked for our consideration. I didn't hear much evidence of illness for the first two acts. I also think vocally the role of Tosca suits Sondra's voice. It's a huge voice that cuts through the orchestra, and the sharp, acidic edge to it sounds right in verismo. And the things that usually bother me about her voice and the way she sings didn't bother me as much tonight. I thought in Act One she even did a good job lightening her sound slightly to match the flirtatious, more sentimental music. She does indeed have a huge voice, and a blazing top, and her high C's in Act Two did provide a visceral thrill. Her "Visse d'arte" was secure, long-breathed, very pretty. She didn't snarl out "Quanto? Prezzi?" with as much conviction as some old-school Toscas. Sondra's voice did seem to run out of gas in Act 3. Much of it started to sound shrill, thin, and (unusually for this soprano) inaudible. Her last note was an off-pitch scream. But Act 3 seems an anticlimax to Act 2 anyway. Many Toscas have the temperament but not the voice. Sondra has the voice but not the temperament. It's as good of a tradeoff as any, I guess.

Marcelo Alvarez has to be one of the most forgettable singers regularly put on the "A-list" cast. He's not good, he's not bad exactly, his voice is just the kind of lyric tenor voice that I forget the minute I hear it, and he sings in this generalized, fresh-out-of-the-conservatory way. The only thing that's distinctive about his voice is how he very often will croon out the top notes so they sound weak and breathy, and the notes in the passagio are starting to sound strangulated. I would say what he was like in "Recondita armonia" or "E lucevan" except less than 12 hours later, I've already basically forgotten. Not exactly a bad tenor but not memorable either. As an actor he stands and sings and follows the Placido Domingo school of furrowing his brows. I wish I had seen last-minute opening night sub Roberto Alagna instead. Alagna is a vocally more uneven singer than Alvarez, but a much more memorable and heartfelt performer, whose gutsy determination to get get through every role has made him a huge favorite of mine.

Falk Struckmann stole the show as Scarpia, as Scarpias are wont to do. He had the voice, the temperament, and put his individual stamp on the role. Last year George Gagnidze was a complete thug, crudely sexual even in church. Struckmann's Scarpia is more subtle, and thus more frightening. This is a villain who can turn it on and turn it off at will. In Act 1, he seemed kindly, almost paternal, to Tosca. The infamous stage business of him humping the Virgin Mary statue is now reduced to him kind of touching her in a slightly aroused way. In Act 2, he followed all of Bondy's sometimes ridiculous stage directions (it opens with him being pleasured by three hookers) without losing the essential chilling authority behind the character. This Scarpia has to at one point whimper as he grabs onto Tosca's dress, and pant like a dog in heat. Struckmann did it all, but there wasn't a false note the entire time. I think with performers, a certain kind of authority and believability really come from within, and the best performers can do the most ridiculous stage business without ever sacrificing that quality.

Marco Armiliato was the conductor and he really doesn't have much of a feel of how to propel the orchestra in a constant forward, exciting way. This is verismo, but in parts of Act 1 and "Visse d'arte" he seemed to be conducting a bel canto opera, in which singers are expected to extend the vocal line indefinitely for more beauty of tone.

I have to make one more comment about the costumes in this production. Both Alvarez and Radvanovsky are tall, somewhat statuesque singers with large thick waists. Couldn't someone in the costume department retailor the costumes so they looked more flattering?

Overall though, not a bad night at the opera. The Met was a cold drafty place tonight, which always made me wonder how some women arrive at the opera wearing nothing but a slinky cocktail dress and heels. No stockings either. Wow. Those women have guts.


  1. i heard but didnt understand entirely, that somebody slaps somebody in the opera. COuld you tell me who slaps whom and when please?

  2. I don't know if anyone slaps anybody. I think Tosca in Act One gets very mad and throws a chair. She might have slapped Scarpia in their struggle in Act Two, not sure, but I don't think she did.

  3. I love the way you personalize your analyses, from details of costuming tall people, to comparing the way Struckmann's Scarpia compares to Gagnidze's incarnation of the role. It's refreshing to read about people being people, rather than abstractions. Your writing is always entertaining.

  4. Your review is very subjective but you are free to write whatever you like. So am I. And I strongly disagree with your opinion about Marcelo Alvarez. For me and many other opera fans, he's the owner of one of the most beautiful tenor voices of our time! I'd rather see and listen to him than any other tenor in the role of Cavaradossi and many others. The fact that he is regularly put on the "A-list" cast is not a concidence!


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