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Renée Fleming, the host of this Met Live in HD matinee performance of Tosca, charming as ever, made us aware of the fact that this particular one was the 929th performance of this opera staged by the renowned company – quite amazing.
Their premiere, on February 4, 1901, was more than a year later than the one in Rome, where the story is set, on January 19, 1900.
Against a political and partly religious backdrop, Tosca is really about raw emotions within a continuously interlinked love triangle, mostly based on fear.
From the beginning it both shocked and thrilled audiences amid scenes depicting a new wave of in-your-face decadence. Various offspring linked to the proverbial seven deadly sins, like murder, suicide, torture, and attempted rape, pass the parade. Desensitised latter-day audiences hardly blink an eyelid.
After decades in which Franco Zeffirelli’s production was staged, the Met premiered in 2009 with a new one by the Swiss director Luc Bondy. He did not beat about the bush, but from the conservative lobby he received booing at 2009’s opening night. Since then the Bondy concept was kept in repertoire.
What we see here through the work of the revival director Paula Williams, is a slightly sanitised version of the original. Apparently Peter Gelb, chief executive of the Met, is treading lightly not to aggravate international audiences’ religious feelings.
This Bondy/Williams staging can be primarily recommended for the mostly robust trio of principal singers and a well considered dramatic plan, giving cohesion to a story which can so easily become singularly melodramatic and thus hardly believable. Here universal psychological truths stand central.
Tosca is apparently American soprano Patricia Racette’s star role. Now we know why. It shows in her solid approach to the extreme diversity of her musical insights and also in the way she uses her voice as a tool to express a rounded spectrum of extremely contrasted emotions.
She is impetuous, nervously intense, but also capable of a riveting quiet purity. Her Vissi d’arte shows us her more than ample, imperious voice. Her fit of jealousy over the blue eyes of the Magdalen which Cavaradossi (Roberto Alagna) is painting, later leads to a touch of real pathos: a jealous women acknowledging her fragility.
Her confrontation with Scarpia in Act 2 is slowly built up with an accumulating, sometime astonishing intensity, like in Tosca’s famous cries of him to idie after stabbing him – “Mouri!”
Alagna is in very fine voice throughout as the artistic dreamer, the at times sly political anarchist and Tosca’s lover. It’s a pity that his physical dramatic presence, starting with facial expressions which are too limited, does not reflect the emotions he must go through – especially after the torture scenes of Act 2.
Baron Scarpia, chief of police, is sung by the Georgian baritone, George Gagnidze. He has the ideal heft in his voice to portray the character as a typical conventional brute, but avoids becoming a caricature. His strength lies in the fact that he never suggests malignity masked by suave elegance.
The orchestra, chorus and sets add to the integrity of the staging as a whole.
• Screening at all Cinema Nouveau theatres till December 19.