NEW YORK—Based on Victorien Sardou’s play, a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” is a melodrama of romantic obsession, political intrigue, and religious themes. The Metropolitan Opera’s production has had its own upheavals, but ultimately the company presented an evening that was dramatically and musically exciting.
For years, the Met used the popular production designed by Franco Zeffirelli. In 2009, this was replaced by Luc Bondy’s edgier version, which was booed at its premiere—a rare event.
Now, the Met has a new production by Sir David McVicar that is more traditional, so much so that the audience applauds its scenery (by John Macfarlane, who also designed the costumes). The church in Act 1 is especially impressive.
Casting the opera was also a turbulent process. First, the lead soprano canceled, along with her husband, who was set to conduct. Then, the tenor dropped out, the baritone became ill, and the substitute conductor was disqualified.
Fortunately, the Met came up with superb replacements: Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca, Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi, and Zeljko Lucic as Scarpia, and, at the performance I attended on Jan. 18, Gareth Morrell conducted. Emmanuel Villaume conducted the other performances.
The action takes place in Rome during 1800, after the republic has been overthrown. One of the revolutionaries, Cesare Angelotti, has escaped from prison and is hiding in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. He runs into his friend Mario Cavaradossi, who is painting a fresco of Mary Magdalene, coincidentally inspired by Angelotti’s sister, who came to the church to pray.
Angelotti hides when Floria Tosca appears. She is a famous opera singer and Cavaradossi’s lover. She spots the portrait of the blue-eyed blond woman and, thinking it is of his latest love interest, flies into a jealous rage. The painter calms her fears, and she leaves, followed by Cavaradossi taking Angelotti off to hide at his villa.
The evil police chief Baron Scarpia, in pursuit of Angelotti, turns up at the church with his henchmen. They find a fan left by Angelotti’s sister, and Scarpia recognizes her portrait. When Tosca returns, Scarpia uses the fan to induce her jealousy toward Cavaradossi. After she departs, as the members of the church are singing liturgical music, Scarpia declares his lust for Tosca and a plan to eliminate her lover.
Act 2 takes place at the police chief’s quarters at the Palazzo Farnese. The authorities have captured Cavaradossi and brought him before Scarpia. When Tosca arrives, her lover pleads with her not to reveal anything to the police, but when she hears her lover being tortured in the next room, the diva breaks down and reveals Angelotti’s hiding place. Cavaradossi is furious with her, but when he learns of a victory by the revolutionary forces, he belts out a cry of victory, leading to the villain sentencing him to death.
Scarpia offers to spare the painter’s life if Tosca will give herself to him. Finally, she agrees, and he gives a cryptic message to his henchman. He is supposedly communicating that the execution should be faked, but in fact is telling him the opposite. After he hands Tosca a passage of safe conduct so she and Cavaradossi can leave the country, she stabs Scarpia. On the way out of the room, she leaves a crucifix on top of his body.
The last act begins on the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo, where Cavaradossi awaits his execution. Tosca appears and assures him that the shooting will be a sham and that he must fall to the ground when the rifles are fired. After the soldiers discharge their weapons and leave, Tosca discovers that Scarpia had tricked her: The execution was real. By then, Scarpia’s body is discovered and, as the soldiers are about to arrest Tosca, she leaps to her death.
First, it is noteworthy that all the leads look appropriate for the roles and act with commitment. They also sing gloriously.
Yoncheva has a big voice, which she uses with taste. Her “Vissi d’arte” brought the house down. (Incidentally, this season at the Met, she is also playing the title role in “Luisa Miller” and Mimi in “La Bohème.”)
There was also thunderous applause for Grigolo’s performance of the two famous tenor arias, “Recondita armonia” in Act 1 and “E lucevan le stelle” in Act 3. While most tenors sing the latter aria rooted to one spot, Grigolo managed to traverse the stage, with quite a bit of freedom for a prisoner on death row. Among the most animated of singing actors, he was relatively restrained here, and he admirably varied his vocal coloring.
Lucic is an expert at portraying villains. His “Te deum” scene in the church was powerful, and he was particularly insidious as he verbally tormented Tosca in the second act.
“Tosca” will be performed with this cast on Jan. 23 and 27. The Saturday, Jan. 27, matinee performance will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. This is one production that should look especially good on the big screen.
A second cast, starring Anna Netrebko in the title role, with Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi, and Michael Volle as Scarpia, opens on April 21.
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 53 minutes
Closes: May 12
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.