Tosca at the MET

Mattila plays the prima donna Floria Tosca as an over-the-top old-school diva,
all self-dramatizing nervous energy. This is dangerous, as the events of the
last day of Tosca’s life would excite a buried Samuel Beckett heroine
from torpor into frenetic activity: Tosca endures jealous frenzies, first
soothed and then confirmed, a command performance before the queen, the torture
of her lover, then betraying him, a brutal seduction, a hot-blooded murder, her
lover’s apparent salvation, his actual death, and a desperate leap to her

If none of this penetrates her self-involvement, perhaps the business with
Scarpia isn’t really so bad — she just gets carried away. You know:
divas! Certainly the final scene of Act II in the Luc Bondy production is a
tasteless mistake — Mattila’s Tosca seems neither stunned nor
shocked by having been driven to murder. She plots it beforehand, hides the
dagger, arranges her dress so as to incite him, kicks him off the sofa
afterward to present a better “stage picture,” and in describing
the event to Cavaradossi later, she acts it all out — clearly enjoying
every moment spent in the limelight of her imagination. If Tosca is too
self-involved to be touched by murder, if she looks upon it as just another
chance to seize center stage, why should we care about her? why credit
her with any genuine feelings?

While Mattila is performing, though, such thoughts seldom intrude. She
whirls about the ugly barn of a church like a Roman dervish, she seizes her
lover’s paintbrush to alter the Magdalen’s eyes; she exposes her
legs for Scarpia’s rape; and she insists that Cavaradossi rehearse his
“fake” execution with her. She cannot be still for a moment —
and the payback is her “Vissi d’arte,” when, drained by
Scarpia’s brutality, she goes pale and empty, lets her voice float
stunned into the theater. She does not remain crushed — nothing
but death will stop this woman’s playacting — but the moment itself
is riveting, and the rest of Mattila’s Tosca seems designed to draw our
attention to it. Since this is not the heart of the opera —
Puccini reportedly found the aria a bit dull — her focus highlights
Mattila’s errors elsewhere. Tosca must grow from the flibbertigibbet of
Act I to the desperate adventuress of Act III, and Mattila’s Tosca does
not make such a change. Her reaction to getting blood on her hands? She puts on
purple gloves.

TOSCA_Mattila_Alvarez_4557.gifKarita Mattila in the title role and Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]

Mattila’s voice is not Italianate — as everyone has been saying
since she took up Manon Lescaut a few years back. Her Manon Lescaut indeed
lacked the opulent young sound of that teenage sensualist — but
Tosca is a mature woman, and Mattila sings her with full-throated sensuality,
passion without wilt or waver. I’ve seen Toscas of a dozen nationalities,
and her sound is more idiomatic, and more beautiful, than many others of the
“Nordic” school — Behrens, Nilsson and Vishnevskaya come to
mind. More important is that she feels, and lives, the notes of this extreme

Marcelo ¡lvarez (an Argentinian) sings a very Italian Cavaradossi, suave and
romantic in “Recondita armonia” and the love duets. He lacked vocal
finesse only in “E lucevan le stelle,” which was not the honeyed
reverie many tenors give us. ¡lvarez seemed so involved in acting the words
— each one clear — that the anguish of his situation choked him up.
The elegiac scene that followed, however, found him Mattila’s match for
power and expressive beauty.

Carlo Guelfi sang a gruff, barking Scarpia, brutally effective in Act I, but
the nuanced slime of Act II was missing — and was missed. Part of the
problem may have been the intrusion of three prostitutes fooling with him at
the opening of Act II, and this is typical of the director’s initiatives
in adding nothing to the show but unanswerable questions. Scarpia is explaining
the trap he plans to set for Tosca — and why: he enjoys sex when the lady
resists — and these women don’t take the hint — not at
all. Are they the sort of persons in whom Scarpia would confide? No
— he’s not the type to confide in anyone, least of all a woman
— he’s an egotist who opens himself in soliloquy. So why are the
dames here? If we’re not supposed to think about it, or to wonder why
they’re hanging around, why their presence and those questions being
shoved in our faces? Does Mr. Bondy not understand the words Scarpia is
singing? Similarly, if the enormous church is built of unpainted brick —
this is Rome? — why is Cavaradossi painting his Magdalen in

Tosca is a finely-crafted machine, every effect calculated to a
hair; set it in motion with the proper fuel (voices and orchestra) and it will
run smooth as a Lamborghini. Each entrance gives us the character:
Tosca’s sensuous piety (in a theme that will come back in “Vissi
d’arte”), Cavaradossi’s romantic idealism, Angelotti’s
desperation. The first appearance of Scarpia is the most terrifying entrance in
all opera — because Puccini set it up to be, thrusting it into the midst
of a rollicking (but thirty-second-long) children’s scene. We are never
supposed to relax after that, whenever Scarpia is around — and that
tension pays dividends as Tosca takes her time suspecting what we feel in our
skin: this man is setting his trap for her. Why are those whores getting in the
way of our focus on a monomaniac evil?

Then there’s dawn amid the bells of Rome, gentle precisely so that it
can be interrupted by the grim preliminaries of an execution. To rehearse the
firing squad during this serene music does not bring us to the proper frame of
mind for a jolt — on the contrary, it gives us a preliminary jolt that
undercuts Puccini’s. We should relax until the jailor summons Cavaradossi
— but try resting with all that pointless activity on Mr. Bondy’s

To this ugly and irritating concept, the familiar Met forces under Joseph
Colaneri brought a symphonic grandeur: the pounding strings rising to climax in
Tosca’s scream as Scarpia corners her, the surge of life around the organ
processional that ends Act I, the subtle flicks of this instrument or that to
comment on character or story or the very real world in which the opera was set
— all reminded us of how fine a contraption of interacting parts Puccini
devised, even as Mr. Bondy was tearing them apart and flinging them to the
winds. I liked Mattila’s abruptly blank face during “Vissi
d’arte,” and Joel Sorenson’s (Spoletta’s) look of
frustrated, “You’re going to let her get away with that?”
during Scarpia’s interrogation, and the way ¡lvarez was always gazing at,
and admiring, his lover — but these touches were probably invisible to
most of the house.

The problem with this school of direction is that its practitioners seem to
regard the score like music in a film, as an afterthought, mere accompaniment
to action. It is not. In opera, the music is the main event — or as much
of it as the action is. Action need not be invented to fill up spaces where
there is merely music — the spaces of mere music are there for dramatic
reasons. To change things without justification is not very good theater.

John Yohalem

image_description=Karita Mattila as Tosca [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
product_by=Tosca: Karita Mattila; Cavaradossi: Marcelo ¡lvarez; Scarpia: Carlo Guelfi; Spoletta: Joel Sorensen; Angelotti: David Pittsinger. Production by Luc Bondy. Conducted by Joseph Colaneri. Metropolitan Opera. Performance of September 28.
product_id=Above: Karita Mattila as Tosca [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]