Metropolitan Opera Review 2015-16- 'Tosca:' Angela Gheorghiu Rivets With Complex Portrayal of Title Role
Last year Angela Gheorghiu made her return to the Metropolitan Opera after a four year absence. This year, she made a huge mark and reminded audiences why she is one of the best singers in the world.
On Monday evening, the Romanian soprano sang her second performance of Puccini's "Tosca" in a production by Luc Bondy. Her voice is not gargantuan when it comes to volume, but her vocal nuance and expression is second to none.
Her vocal characterization of Tosca early on fit with the image of a chaste and virtuous woman. The singing was delicate, the legato silky smooth. Yet during her duet with Mario Cavaradossi, her voice would start to hint at the tremendous passion of the great diva.
Tosca's fire would start to boil near the end of the act during her brief scene with Scarpia and her violent jabs at Cavaradossi's painting were a potent foreshadowing of what was to come.
The second act is the centerpiece of the opera dramatically and musically and Gheorghiu was at her best here in every respect. Descending into Scarpia's den in a luxurious red dress, the soprano maintained a meek yet noble attitude in the early procedures. During Scarpia's initial questioning, Gheorghiu's repeated answers of "Solo, solo!" diminuendoed. But after Scarpia's cynical "Davver?," Gheorghiu, who had been seated, jumped from her seat and threw the ensuing "Solo!" right back at Zeljko Lucic's Scarpia with all of her vocal resources; it was the loudest we had heard her voice to that point and was also the first major rally in what would become an increasingly violent duel for the remainder of the act.
Gheorghiu would grow weaker during the ensuing torture scene, her voice breaking into heart-wrenching tears, the volume growing as well. Tosca's external weakness was being counterpointed by a growing strength that would make the big murder at the end all the more plausible. You got the sense of the growing rage with the soprano unafraid of placing heavy emphasis on her lower range whenever provided with the opportunity and her rejections of Scarpia were filled with heavy vocal accents.
The famous "Vissi d'Arte" was easily the most poignant moment of the night from every angle. Starting all the way upstage near a window, cornered even, Gheorghiu turned and started singing with the thinnest thread of her voice. As the aria developed, she moved upstage, her voice growing in strength and crescendoing as Tosca's emotions unraveled. At the climax of the aria, her voice soared through the theater in painful anguish and her final notes were held out with seemingly endless breath. The final "cosi" was giving a guttural accent and then giving a glorious swell that eventually faded out. The audience exploded into enthusiastic applause.
Then came the murder scene in which Gheorghiu took the heavily lambasted staging and choreography (more on that later) and turned it on its head. The murder turned into a calculated move with Tosca reclining on the sofa awaiting Scarpia to make his move. Yet there was fear and anguish in her face, Gheorghiu showing how effective she was without having to sing all the time. And she stabbed Scarpia not once but twice; watching her, there was a sense that she could go for a few more stabs, adding tremendous tension to the scene. All the while, she delivered the low register phrases with visceral accents and her final "Muori" was a horrifying scream that made Tosca, for that instant, truly turn into a cold-blooded killer.
But we know that she isn't. She is a pious woman forced to act on desperation. And so it was that instead of contemplating suicide or stupidly sitting on the coach and fanning herself (why exactly is she waiting for someone to catch her in the act?) as was originally staged, Gheorghiu's Tosca moves about looking for any evidence that might incriminate her. And even as she is about to run off, the weight of her crime starts to hit her and three times (the musical gesture often correlated with the placing of the candles) she turned back toward the dead body and seemingly contemplated how badly she would pay for the deed. It made the moment all the more chilling and added a layer of nuance to Tosca's tragedy. She did what she had to and yet she can't accept that she has defied God and will pay for it in one way or another.
And she does in the ensuing act. That brief moment before Tosca discovers Cavaradossi's corpse (she thought it was a "fake" execution) is truly chilling for the audience to watch. Tosca is the only person in the entire opera house that does not know the truth and it is painful to watch the singer whisper to her lover that it is time to make off. It is especially affecting when the singing-actress does it with the initial giddiness of victory that Gheorghiu expressed, her movements jumpy and a smile dominating her face.
Then came the moment where she ran over to the body and let out the horrified scream that represents the complete destruction of Tosca's innocence. All over the floor, Gheorghiu's instinct was to look at her hands -- not only contaminated with Scarpia's blood but now also her lover. Her voice was a painful wail of sound; her tragedy was complete. So what was left but to do exactly what Tosca does. In her final defiance of Scarpia Gheorghiu let her voice power through the theater before ascending to her suicide.
It was a truly chilling performance through and through from a world-class artist.
As Scarpia Lucic, got off to a rather uneven start, his voice drowned out during the Te Deum at the end of Act 1. But he was in his element throughout the second act, playing up the predatory and animalistic desires of Scarpia. He could be constantly found sitting upstage, an image of cool and collected power that had no problem throwing in some vocal shouts during some phrases. One could sense that monster coming to the fore and his lust for Tosca was expressed with wilder singing. During the famed aria "Gia, mi dicon venal, ma a donna bella" his voice crescendoed tremendously during the opening phrases, accents on consonants denoting an unbridled violence in the character. The way Lucic sneered at Gheorghio and even ogled her added to the discomfort one would feel for the Romanian soprano. His death was also a powerful moment, the baritone reaching for Tosca as she grew further out of reach, his eyes searching for hers.
As Cavaradossi, Roberto Aronica projected well throughout the opera house and John Del Carlo sang with pointed directness as the spiteful Sacristan.
In the pit, Paolo Carignani seemed a tad restrained, almost afraid of overpowering his singers (as noted, he often did). Yet the orchestra remained consistent throughout in terms of the texture and tone, the phrasing elastic.
Now for the elephant in the room -- Bondy's production. This behemoth replaced a Franco Zeffirelli production that was often criticized for showcasing a unwieldy scope. At least the Italian master's production offered scope and some degree of realism, because Bondy's production continues to baffle for its lack of focus or perspective. The opening act is supposed to be a church and some set dressing certainly points to that. Yet it is nothing if not unwieldy and unfocused, the center of the set looking unfinished; it hurts that for most of the act, that very section of the stage largely goes unused and remains an eye sore. One could argue that it pays off with the Te Deum procession at the end, but that does not excuse the extravagant size of the set that eats up singers' sounds.
The second act is a slight improvement. "Slight" is the key because it might as well have come out of an IKEA catalogue, the colors a sloppy mess from any angle. There have been some changes to the lighting, though on this occasion the arrival of the lights seemingly came too early and became a distraction at the front of the stage.
Then comes the third act. The first two acts of the opera are each around 40 minutes; the third act clocks in at under 27 minutes. Yet the third act on this night felt longer than the other two combined. Some of it might have to do with the libretto itself and the fact that what follows is simply the resolution to the tense climax of Act 2. Yet there is a lot to be said for the visual incoherence that comes about in this final frame. Everything is thrown together with no physical reference point for anything. There is a body of water upstage right while a tower sits on the opposite end. The front seems to have an incline and the soldiers sit around in different areas. There is even a chess board on one side of the stage. Where are we exactly?
The chess board is a more recent addition and it comes in rather poor taste. A clear reference to Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," Cavaradossi sits with the jailor and plays chess. But we know that it is an empty reference devoid of the tension of the classic film. Cavaradossi is not playing for his life; that has already been determined. The symbolism instead becomes gratuitous. The remainder of the opening is just dull, with the lack of visual direction leaving the audience member (especially this writer) wondering when the "E Luce van le stele" would finally get underway.
There are still many other performances of "Tosca" to come at the Met with a wide array of sopranos, tenors and baritones. Unfortunately there will be no more Gheorghiu on the Met stage for the balance of the 2015-16 season. However, her brief run on the famous stage was a stark reminder of why she is such a poignant artist.