Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Trouble With Tosca

If one's answer to the question "What's in a name?" is anything other than "nothing", one is probably best served by not having the name Bondy in New York Cty right now. This year one such unfortunate has managed to get himself fired from a top City job; that would be "Joel" Bondy, who is at least unofficially accumulating much of the blame for what has become known as the CityTime scandal. But my concern right now is with another Bondy, the almost equally maligned Luc, who last year offered us a new Met production of Tosca, the Puccini opera that has managed to stay in the forefront of the repertoire in spite of its rather dubious dramatic premise.

Bondy's production, which I saw Monday night, replaced Franco Zefirelli's longstanding one last year. Though I never saw the Zefirrelli production (they didn't have $20 Varis rush tickets then) it is not hard to imagine what it was like if you have ever seen his films (which I have). Zefirrelli's staging and set design are descendents of the Hollywood blockbuster style of the '50's, Cecil B. DeMille in particular. Fancy costumes and oversizes sets fill all the available space, with enough extras to employ a small town in full. Luc Bondy is the opposite: stark, indeed dark, spare staging, with unadorned sets that loom like huge geological outcrops. 

Bondy's Tosca was roundly criticized when it appeared last year, with calls for bringing back the Zefirrelli show at all cost. The Met resisted. I wonder why! Read Donald Henahan's review of their 1985 opening of the Zefirrelli production and you'll see. In case your Times access is restricted, let me give you an idea. It begins, "Poor Franco Zefirrelli," and gets a little worse from there. Of the famous procession in the Te Deum sequence Henahan writes: "Given a modicum of talent onstage and in the pit, it is difficult to keep this scene from making a tremendous theatrical effect. Mr. Zeffirelli, however, succeeded in failing simply by crowding his procession of panoplied worshipers downstage close behind Cornell MacNeil" (Scarpia). What further galled some people was Zefirrelli's use of an elevator stage in the third act, literally lifting the courtyard into the air to reveal Cavaradossi in a dungeon, awaiting execution.

No elevator in the Bondy production. Everything's cut back to the bare walls. Ed Pilkington wrote in the Guardian that Scarpia's office looks like "a waiting room in an institution". Then there is the odd bit of antithesis to this restraint: three sluts who hang out with Scarpia in his office fawning over him in various sexual positions - a man who declares only a few moments later that he could care less for this sort of affection, who only gets excited when he has a woman caught in his iron grip, after which he tosses her aside. And there's the tremedous Cavaradossi painting, not much smaller than Chagall's Met murals, which Pilkington inaptly compares to "a Mills and Boon cover portrait"; it is rather vaguely reminiscent of some Italian Renaissance painting, though certainly not a good painting - a bit of washed out Rembrandt or toned down Rubens perhaps, and certainly nothing that would have been painted in Italy during the time of the Napoleonic wars.

But all that in itself would not make or break a production. Why, then, does this one seem so, let's say, not very satisfying? I have a theory. It goes like this: take a problematic drama and dress it up and no one stops to think about what a problematic drama it is; take the same one and cut the frills back to recession levels, and there is no avoiding the painful fact that the play is just not very good. The problem, in short, is not so much Bondy as what happens to Puccini, or perhaps Sardou, when Tosca is allowed to stand on its own as a drama.

What happens, to my sensisbilities, is that the action is seen as so simplisitic - formulaic, if you will - that it fairly insults the intelligence. The crux of it is that an evil police chief is going to try to get Tosca to sleep with him by torturing her lover until she relents in order to save him. Torture does not really work on the stage. It can work fine in movies, from Open City to Casino Royale; it falls flat on stage just because it is so over the top. Male sexual predation also does not work dramatically when the situation has no subtlety; there is no room there to plumb any deep human insights, as we are all a little too familiar with this sort of character flaw. Sexual conquest guaranteed by torture is about as naked as it gets, and even the leather that Bondy injects into the scene (how 1800... not) cannot make it more interesting.

But what if the sexual exploits are a vehicle for some higher-order meaning? After all, there are quite a few themes that surround and contextualize the underlying sexual tension (such as it is): there is the Napoleonic invasion, and the fate of the Republican Angelotti, who depends on the favor of Napoleon for his office as Consul. There is Tosca's jealousy. And there are numerous references to the relationship between art, politics, religion and morality. Does this save the play? Not really. Perhaps Scarpia's dictatorial pretensions are being equated with sexual domination; I doubt, though, that that was a new or interesting metaphor 100 years ago, and certainly isn't today. Another problem is that when the action turns this way and that based on the fate of the Napoleonic invasion it has the quality of an ad hoc device: someone runs in and declares that his forces are losing, or winning, and bingo, deus ex machina, the dramatist has what he wants to alter the fates of the characters.

The role of Tosca's jealousy, other than to give rise to a duet or two, is to cause her to run to Cavaradossi's love nest in the woods, unwittingly leading Scarpia's men to where they think Angelotti is hiding and to the arrest of Cavaradossi himself. I guess you can say that her jelousy leads to her undoing and that of her lover. The problem is that that idea, though it has some merit as irony, is so completely overshadowed by the sexual power play in Act Two that it really does not get exploited much for dramatic or philosophical value. Here you have not only an ignoble man dominating two great artists, but an inferior theme dominating a much better one. And as for that art and morality idea, I am at a loss to see that it gets a very insightful treatment here. Art does not seem to have much power in this depiction, and perhaps that is the point, though it is an odd point for a drama. After all, it's what everyone thought all along (though I suppose Plato would be an exception - he thought it had the power to distort our understanding of reality). The painter is murdered, the singer is betrayed and commits suicide... aside from a pile-up worthy of Shakespeare, what does this ultimately say about the human spirit or the role of art in uplifting it? It's not as if the tragic flaws here are so well exploited that we can get any further message out of it.

Lastly, there's an art-love-religion conjuncture here, but again, I can't see that much coming out of it. Tosca is a deeply religious woman, and her love for Cavaradossi is first enacted in a cathedral, where she at first refuses his advances due to the presence of a depiction of the Madonna. But Cavaradossi's painting is apparently also compared with the Madonna, so Tosca's jealousy, inspired by the painting, has a double edge to it as more than slightly immoral. Perhaps this is why she has it within her to commit murder -  in self-defense, or is it revenge? A little of both, perhaps. As for Cavaradossi, the torture he is subjected to in Scarpia's hands is described as having a spiked ring tightened around his head. Uh, right, let me see, does that remind me of anything? The artist as Messiah, tortured and murdered by the... Roman guards? Okay, I get it. But in what way, exactly, is art supposed to save the world here? That part I don't get. There may be something about faith and freedom going on, though the equation of Napoleon with liberty and justice might not resonate very much today. I guess one could explore this more. I am convinced, though, that whatever philsophical content there is here is too deeply hidden beneath the sordid action to have much theatrical power.

Quite a bit could be added about Puccini's role in making the opera difficult to bring off dramatically. I mean, for example, the not exactly faint vocal part assigned to Cavaradossi as be emerges from the torture chamber - is that supposed to be believable? No, it's supposed to be opera... All the same, there are some dubious choices here. Admittedly, there is a certain genius to the device of having an offstage "cantata" (sung by Tosca and choir) competing with the vocal lead in Scarpia's office; I'd love to examine the score to see if they are even in the same key. (A foreshadowing of Stravinsky and Ives?) But no one has ever denied that Tosca is a great work of music.

So am I saying "buy the CD, don't go to the opera"? Not quite, though I could see an argument for it. Why then go into this lengthy dramatic analysis of a 110-year-old opera? Because in my opinion that's what underlies the Zefirrelli-Bondy debate. The former tried to mitigate the play's dramatic failures; the latter perhaps thought that was dishonest and it is best to let it speak for itself. I'm all for honesty, but it can only be brought off if the quality of the acting is as high as that of the singing. In the case of this production, at least, that was not really so. Sondra Radvanovsky gave an admirable performance of the music. She had sufficient range and power to bring off the part, and was particularly impressive in the magnificent Vissi d'arte, the aria in which she compares her dedication to art with her present horrible situation, after which the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause. If she had one or two minor difficulties with some of the vocal leaps demanded by Puccini it did not, overall, detract from the beauty of her singing, which included some perfectly executed pianissimo tones up in the coloratura range. Unfortunately, her dramatic skills are all but nonexistent. I was seated in the orchestra, not close, but close enough to appreciate the difference between a rote performance and real acting. Falk Struckmann's Scarpia was quite a bit better dramatically; as the imperious police chief he was sufficiently domineering but capable of pulling off the good-cop-bad-cop thing that is implied by this character's machinations. His singing, and that of Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, whose dramatic options are really quite limited in this opera, was strong and fully up to the part.

In light of all this, I guess the question to ask is whether there was anything really wrong with the Zefirrelli production. Should it be brought back? Actually, Zefirrelli produced the opera not only for the Met, but for La Scala and Covent Garden, and given the differences in the stages and the state of technology at the time, I'm not sure all these productions were the same or even very similar. One thing I can say without hesitation: there is nothing wrong with this Zefirrelli production - though bringing it back would be something like a scene from The Uninvited. I doubt there is a true opera fan who would not have given his left ear to have been there. Until somebody brings back these dramatic skills, I'm afraid that Bondy's production will continue to highlight the awkwardly simplistic drama at the heart of Tosca.

Ultimately, people go to opera for the music, not the play, and I suspect that in the long run they will continue to go to Tosca regardless of what the production is. Nevertheless, this production should be taken as a warning. There are quite a lot of operas based on weak underlying dramas. If the drama is not the point anyway, I say let the production take over when it has to. The music will be heard, and may be more satisfying, because a bad play is in the end more distracting than a good spectacle.

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