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"Shabby Little Shocker" in Kentucky

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 30, 2009 - 1:54:15 AM in reviews_2009

Marcelo Alvarez and Karita Mattila in "Tosca" (photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Popcorn, chardonnay, arias?

   Opera at the movies was like flying First Class at Showcase Cinema De Lux in Florence October 28.

   Big cushy seats, ushers available at the press of a button, menus offering appetizers to dessert and wine by the glass.  That plus "Vissi d'arte" were available on the luxe level of the multiplex in Florence as Puccini's "Tosca" played out on the big screen.

   This was not an opera movie, but opera "Live in HD" from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

   It wasn't the original live transmission -- that took place October 10 during a Saturday matinee performance of "Tosca" -- but the Encore presentation, a recorded version of the live Oct. 10 event.   It was fully enjoyable nonetheless, lacking only the keener edge that real time performance yields.

   That edge was made up for by the notoriety this production of "Tosca" has earned since its premiere performance at the Met October 6, when much of the audience booed. 

   Their booing -- which was either not repeated at the Oct. 10 matinee or not preserved in the Encore presentation -- was not for the singers.   Soprano Karita Mattila, tenor Marcelo Alvarez and baritone George Gagnidze, as the diva Tosca, her lover Cavaradossi and the villain Scarpia, were given an enthusiastic ovation, as was conductor James Levine (Joseph Colaneri conducted the Oct. 10 "HD Live" matinee).

  Their ire was for director Luc Bondy, who made his Met debut in "Tosca."  For the Swiss theater director, it was a trial by fire, since his production follows the lavish, romantic Franco Zeffirelli production that has held sway at the Met for 25 years.

   The scorching Bondy suffered at the Oct. 6 premiere was reflected in the interview he gave "HD Live" hostess/soprano Susan Graham Oct. 10.   Bondy said he would not compare his production to Zeffirelli's because he had never seen it.  His objective, he said, was different and that was "to flesh out the characters" and to "go with emotion and truth."

   The sets, by Richard Peduzzi, are stark and bare compared to Zeffirelli's extravagant ones, and in acts I and III, they did look dark and dimly lit.  However, they put one in mind of the famous quote by opera historian Joseph Kerman, who called "Tosca" "a shabby little shocker."

   However popular it may be, "Tosca" is shabby when it comes to violence and depravity, with murder, suicide, torture and rape all part of the mix.  Bondy has given it a big splash of cold, cruel reality, with not a little tawdry sex to boot.  The Church of Sant' Andrea della Valle where the opera begins was austere to say the least, with its high, dark brick walls and lack of ornament.  Bass Paul Plishka as the Sacristan was more grim than amusing (as he is often portrayed).   And speaking of shabby, he re-filled the holy water font from a grimy-looking bucket.

   Scarpia's residence at the Farnese Palace (act II) had plush red sofas and maps of Italy on the wall, which picked up Tosca's flaming red gown and Scarpia's stony colored uniform.  Act III on the roof of the Castel Sant' Angelo prison was appropriately gloomy.

   As Tosca, Mattila was impassioned, the emotion showing in her voice in "Vissi d'arte."  (She wore dark brown contact lenses over her blue eyes to give them the proper color for the role.)   Critics made much of Mattila's stabbing of Scarpia in act II as he mounted her on the sofa.  Whatever, Gagnidze sprawled out obligingly and Mattila even stabbed him again.  She put no candle nor crucifix at his head and feet as the pious Tosca usually does.  Perhaps she was too emotionally wasted.  Mattila implied this in her intermission interview with Graham where she praised Bondy's directorial guidance for helping her "get into" Tosca's shattered body.  "It helps to feel your pubic bone," she said, correcting herself to say "gut" after joking with Graham, "Is this a family program?"

   Alvarez was a heroic Cavaradossi, ringing in his act I "Recondita armonia" and absolutely stirring in "E lucevan le stelle" in the last act.  He was a pillar for Tosca, who, if anything, came off as a weaker character by comparison.

   Georgian baritone Gagnidze (who joined the cast on a week's notice after Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo fell ill) sang Scarpia with heft and polish, carrying easily over the chorus in the act I "Te Deum."  At the same time, he made the lecherous police chief utterly slimy, not a kind of ice cold dignitary as he is sometimes portrayed.

   If anyone should be able to parade lurid sex at the opera, it is Scarpia and sure enough, he had three scantily clad "female admirers" hanging onto him before Tosca arrived at his apartment in act II.  He also ogled the statue of the Madonna during the "Te Deum," even kissing her on the lips.

   Tosca's leap to her death after Cavaradossi is shot in the last act was cut off, the curtain descending quickly as what looked like her body flew from a window of the prison tower.  This displeased the New York audience Oct. 6, and it does seem like a better ending could have been found.

   This was my first "Live in HD" experience and there is much to be said for it.  Operas are sometimes made into movies, of course, but this is the real thing, live from the opera house itself.  The award-winning series (Peabody and Emmy Awards) has drawn flocks to theaters all over the world and, despite some initial skepticism, is credited with helping to revive the art form itself.

   Created by Met general manager Peter Gelb in 2006, "Live in HD" is being transmitted this season into over 1,000 theaters in 42 countries on six continents in four languages (with subtitles).  The series comprises nine operas during 2009-10.  Live transmissions are on Saturday afternoons, with Encore presentations the second or third week after each live event.

    Yet to come are:

   "Aida." Giuseppe Verdi. Encore, November 11. Violetta Urmana (Aida), Dolora Zajick (Amneris), Johan Botha (Radames), Carlo Guelfi (Amonasro), Roberto Scandiuzzi (Ramfis), Stefan Kocan (The Pharaoh).  Production, Sonja Frisell. Conductor, Daniele Gatti.

   "Turandot." Giacomo Puccini. November 7. Encore, November 18. Maria Guleghina (Turandot), Marina Poplavskaya (Liu), Marcello Giordani (Calaf), Samuel Ramey (Timur).  Production, Franco Zeffirelli. Conductor, Andris Nelsons.

   "The Tales of Hoffmann." Jacques Offenbach. December 19. Encore, January 6. Kathleen Kim (Olympia), Anna Netrebko (Antonia), Ekaterina Gubanova (Giuletta), Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse), Joseph Calleja (Hoffmann), Alan Held (Four Villains). Production, Bartlett Sher. Conductor, James Levine.

   "Der Rosenkavalier." Richard Strauss. January 9. Encore, January 27. Renee Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Christine Schafer (Sophie), Eric Cutler (Italian Singer), Thomas Allen (Faninal), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Baron Ochs). Production, Nathaniel Merrill. Conductor, Levine.

   "Carmen."  Georges Bizet. January 16. Encore, February 3. Barbara Frittoli (Micaela), Elina Garanca (Carmen), Roberto Alagna (Don Jose), Mariusz Kwiecien (Escamillo). Production, Richard Eyre. Conductor, Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

   "Simon Boccanegra." Giuseppe Verdi. February 6. Encore, February 24. Adrianne Pieczonka (Amelia Grimaldi), Marcello Giordani (Gabriele Adorno), Placido Domingo (Simon Boccanegra), James Morris (Jacopo Fiesco). Production, Giancarlo del Monaco. Conductor, James Levine.

   "Hamlet." Ambroise Thomas. March 27. Encore, April 14. Natalie Dessay (Ophelie), Jennifer Larmore (Gertrude), Toby Spence (Laerte), Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet), James Morris (Claudius). Production, Patrice Caurier, Moshe Leiser. Conductor, Louis Langree.

   "Armida." Gioachino Rossini. May 1. Encore, May 19. Renee Fleming (Armida), Lawrence Brownlee (Rinaldo), Bruce Ford (Goffredo), Jose Manuel Zapata (Gernando), Barry Banks (Carlo), Kobie van Rensburg (Ubaldo). Production, Mary Zimmerman. Conductor, Riccardo Frizza.

   "Live in HD" productions are transmitted to these movie theaters in Greater Cincinnati:

   Regal Deerfield Town Center, 5500 Deerfield Blvd., Mason, OH 45040

   Showcase Cinema De Lux, 7860 Mall Road, Florence, KY 41042

   Springdale Cinema De Lux 18, 12064 Springfield Pike, Cincinnati, OH 45246

   For further information and to order tickets, visit http://www.ncm.com/Fathom/Opera/MetLive09_10Series.aspx