Sonya Yoncheva’s Violetta was the heart of the most beautiful and exciting event I have ever seen on the stage – Willy Decker’s essentialist La Traviata, with Michael Fabiano (Alfredo) and Thomas Hampson (Germont), so the prospect of seeing Yoncheva’s Floria Tosca was greatly anticipated, to say the least.
Decker’s Traviata realized that Dumas’ story, though pioneering the way to theatrical realism, was still carrying the French Neo-Classical archetypes as a play about character relationships rather than about the effect of environment on behavior. Consequently, Decker brilliantly reduced the story to its universal essentials- The Woman, The Lover, The Father, and The Son. The stage became a post-modern palais a volonte of bold universal colors – red, black, white, and shapes – the rectangle (sofas) and the circle (the clock and the enclosure). Time, an important element in French Neo-Classical thinking about the stage, merely signaled how much remained until Death led one away.
Only a master director like Decker could pull off such a coup de theatre, and then only by subjugating his own imagination to the essential values he correctly discerned in the Dumas story. His work was always about Verdi and his characters, never about him.
Lesser directors have tried to ignore the authors’ instructions to disastrous effect. Puccini’s Tosca, especially, has been brutalized. The Romantic Puccini, writing later than Verdi, was more of a verismo realist. None of the trappings of the Neo-Classical Ideal remain in Puccini’s work. Rather, Puccini moves the operatic libretto toward the realism of Emile Zola, as drama clearly showing the effect of environment on character behavior. Consequently, Puccini’s instructions concerning his settings are essential to getting at what Puccini is all about. Directors need to use their imagination, not to replace Puccini’s guidance, but to serve his descriptions, seeking the most effective and dramatic means to realize them.
Franco Zeffirelli knew and respected Puccini’s stage directions.
His Tosca debuted at the Met in 1985. As a director Zeffirelli seemed hellbent on attending to the composer’s wishes. He believed that the composer knew what he intended, just as Puccini believed the play’s La Tosca’s author, Victorien Sardou, knew best. The text’s stage directions were adhered to whenever possible.
Victorien Sardou wrote La Tosca especially for Madame Sarah Bernhardt. The play debuted on Wednesday, Nov 23, 1887 at her Porte St. Martin Theatre. The plot was specifically set in June 1800. George Bernard Shaw famously described Sardou’s play as “an old-fashioned, shiftless, clumsily constructed, empty-headed turnip ghost of a cheap shocker. He prophesied: “Oh, if it had but been an opera!” He then summarized all of Sardou’s plays as little more than: “Sardoodledom”.
Nevertheless, Zeffirelli knew that play had served Madame Sarah well for her entire career and saw no need to change it. His Act I was, therefore, clearly the Church of Saint Andrea della Valle with the Attavanti chapel clearly labeled with the family crest on stage right. The Madonna was prominently visible upstage left. The painting of Caravadossi was clearly in the style of David, as specified by Victorian Sardou.
Most importantly, Floria Tosca immediately revealed her roots as a convent novitiate as she dutifully laid the flowers at the Virgin’s feet.
Zeffirelli’s Act II was the fastidious Farnase Palace apartment of the courtly and mannerly Police Chief Baron Scarpia, dressed impeccably to the nines in Peter J. Hall’s elegant costumes. Following the murder of Scarpia, Zeffirelli has Tosca follow Puccini’s stage directions to the letter, just as Puccini followed the intentions of Tosca’s creator Victorian Sardou:
She begins to leave, then, seeing the lighted candlesticks, goes to extinguish them; but she changes her mind and, taking a candlestick in each hand, she slowly places the one she holds in her left hand to Scarpia’s left, and, passing in front of the cadaver, turning her back to the audience she places other to his right. She looks around her while going towards the door and sees the crucifix on the prayer stool. She takes it down slowly, by the foot, pointing Christ’s head towards the audience, kneels in front of Scarpia, and places the crucifix on his chest. At the same instant, the drums roll a third time in the citadel. Floria gets up again and reaches the upstage door, pulls the bolts open and half-opens one side. The anteroom is black. She sticks her head out to listen, then, quietly slipping out, disappears
The Tosca which replaced Zeffirelli’s at the Metropolitan Opera was guided not by the perceived wishes of the composer, Giacomo Puccini, but by the wishes of the director, Luc Bondy. Bondy seemed to want to present a Tosca which, like the work of many young directors, (and alas, too many older directors), showed how clever he was. The focus was to be on Bondy’s hip imagination rather than on Verdi’s eternal work.
Consequently, Bondy’s Act I, as devised by designer Richard Peduzzi, seemed set in an abandoned warehouse. No chapel was visible, and a Madonna was merely referred to as being somewhere off stage right. Bondy’s semi-nude Magdalena was made fit for a bachelor pad. His Floria Tosca merely tossed her bouquet toward the out-of-view statue as she rushed back to her lover. Bondy’s Scarpia, clad in a serpent-like body-clinging wetsuit designed by Milena Canonero, accentuates his disgusting demeanor whenever possible.
Bondy’s idea of Scarpia’s apartment is of a garish bachelor pad, populated by hookers and pimps servicing Scarpia’s every whim.Then his Tosca savages Scarpia with a fury taken from a 1970s Sam Peckinpah movie, and after the bloodbath, Bondy jettisons the wishes of Sardou and Puccini with regard to the candles and crucifix. Instead his Tosca climbs to a window to contemplate suicide before rushing off.
Zeffirelli’s Act III has two scenes, as Puccini requested – a casement near the platform of Castel Sant’Angelo with, in the distance, the Vatican and the Basilica of St Peter’s. The first intimate private scene sets up the great hopes for a happy ending which are shattered in the second scene. Tosca leaps to her death in the Tiber after first unconsciously echoing the arm positions of the angel towering over her
Bondy sets both scenes on the vast platform, no statue of Saint Michael anywhere to be seen. His guard and his indifferent Cavaradossi idly pass the time with a game of chess.
One director works to realize the intentions of the playwright and composer. The other snapped an operatic selfie.
So, the overriding question going into the new Met Tosca, was which attitude toward Verdi would prevail – respectful imagination or wanton disregard of the old dead Italian’s ideas.
Happily, Sir David McVicar chose designer John Macfarlane and together they took the mature approach. Their Tosca attempts to honor the composer’s wishes, as well as those of his source, Victorian Sardou. Their leading lady, Tosca, as interpreted by Sonya Yonechva is a classic, presenting the character’s contradictory traits in a knife’s edge balance. Yoncheva’s Tosca is both determined and shy, insecure and bold, devout and flirtatious, worldly and innocent. The actress and director seem to have heeded Floria’s important backstory, which most interpretations downplay or ignore completely
And this exquisite creature had been found in the fields, completely wild, herding sheep. The Benedictine monks of Verona, who had taken her in for charity, only taught her to read and pray a little: but she is one of those who soon realize how much they don’t know. Her first music teacher was the convent organist. She did so well at her lessons that at sixteen, she was already a local celebrity. People would come to hear her on holidays. Cimarosa, who was sent there by a friend, decided to challenge God for her, and to have her sing opera. But the Benedictines did not want to give her up to the devil. There was a great fight
Cimarosa conspired, the convent plotted. All of Rome took sides, for or against, to such a degree that the last Pope had to intervene. The young girl was presented before him, he listened to her, was charmed, and, tapping her on the cheek, said: “Go freely, my girl, you will cause all hearts, like mine, to shed sweet tears…and that is also a way of praying to God. “Four years later, she debuted triumphantly in Nina and afterwards at La Scala, at San Carlo, at La Fenice, everywhere there was only she.
Yoncheva’s Tosca is, at her core, devout. In Act I she honors the Virgin whenever she has the opportunity. In Act II her killing of Scarpia causes her to recoil in horror and shame at the realization of what she has done. Her Act III death is less suicide than an attempt to seek comfort with God himself.
Young actresses should study Ms. Yoncheva’s performance.
Her brilliance is, in part, due to the beautiful performances which surround her. Christian Zaremba’s Angelotti gets things off to a dazzling start with perhaps the most thrilling zigzag entrance the character has ever made. And he and director McVicar certainly demonstrate how to fill musical interludes with dynamic pantomimic dramatizations. His search for the key kept the audience rapt. Patrick Carfizzi invented a quirkily effective characterization for the Sacristan, though he occasionally fell to mugging for the audience.
Vittorio Grigolo seems born to play Mario Cavaradossi. While mentoring the young teenage Vittorio playing the shepherd in his Roman production of Tosca, Luciano Pavarotti may have prophesied this performance when he urged the young boy to aspire to sing Cavaradossi some day. Youthful passion pours out of Mr. Grigolo’s magnificent performance, along with a voice which knocks one back at its glory.
Finally, Zeljko Lucic knows Scarpia needs no additional bells and whistles. Having seen Mr. Lucic as both Nabucco and Macbeth it is clear he knows that Verdi has provided all these baritones need. Add to that Lucic’s cool, calm demeanor, and one has a terrifying stage presence. This Scarpia knows he not only holds all the cards, but he owns the card manufacturing plant itself. His control balances well the passions of the lovers he torments.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume was a welcome site on the podium. Mr. Villaume knows, almost instinctively, how to time Verdi’s music with the stage action for maximum dramatic and emotional effect. His conducting is always a treat.
It used to be called “Grand Opera”.
Feel free to use the term again, at least for this wondrous production.