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New York Report (Part 1): 'Tosca' and 'Aida' at the Met, a study in contrasts

Two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season to the one sound that no one really wants to hear in such an august house -- booing. The cause was a production of Puccini's evergreen "Tosca" in a staging that took the polar opposite view of what Met audiences had seen and relished for years.

Gone was the monumental design of Franco Zeffirelli that did everything but relocate the entire audience to the opera's actual historic settings in Rome. In its place, you might say defiantly, was a darkly minimalist design by Richard Peduzzi and  direction by Luc Bondy, who didn't hesitate to ignore stage directions or traditional bits of stage business. I gather the opening night boos could be heard in New Jersey when the production team came out for a bow.

I finally got a chance to check out what the fuss was all about over the weekend, when the only disturbance I noticed was at the first intermission, when it appeared that an outraged patron was loudly complaining to an usher as he departed in disgust. "This is not good!" he shouted, before a security guard motioned him to the door. Of course, maybe he was really complaining about something else entirely. I was primed to expect trouble, after all.

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This "Tosca" is apt to have people talking longer than they do about most performances of the work encountered these days. And you can bet there will be a lot of heated discussions at the popcorn stand during intermissions on Oct. 10, when "Tosca" opens the Met's HD broadcasts season at scores of movies theaters around the country.

Perhaps because of all the fuss -- the media had a field day with the opening night protest (Alex Ross' review in the New Yorker carries the stark headline "Fiasco"), and even the tenor in the cast publicly dissed Bondy -- I was not particularly surprised and certainly not outraged by what was happening onstage. Instead, I found myself enjoying most of it immensely, and admiring Met general manager Peter Gelb all the more for his willingness to shake things up a little.

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I understand the disappointment people might feel about the lack of visual opulence, especially in the opening scene, where the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle looks more like a brick prison. But by removing the typical trappings of "Tosca," Bondy has made a world where the characters seem more important, more central than ever. And in that first act, the director has encouraged a remarkable level of playful intimacy between Tosca and Cavaradossi, who sit next to each other at one point (no pews in this church, just a few chairs), looking like lovestruck high school kids. Quite charming.

Tosca is an awfully volatile woman, prone not only to jealousy, but also to conclusion-leaping (leaping, of course, is a particularly unfortunate trait for this character). The Tosca portrayed by Karita Mattila in this production reveals the full extent of that mercurialness in several telling incidents. After Scarpia plants the seeds of doubt over Cavarodossi's faithfulness, she rushes to the portrait her lover had been painting and stabs it right through (a violent impulse that will overtake her in Act 2). The way she collapses in a heap after that act says something, too. This Tosca cannot control her temper, and she is physically drained by each flare-up.

Cut to Act 2, and you've got

Tosca impulsively deciding early in the game to murder Scarpia (this premeditation has bothered some folks), but, once she carries through, she's wasted. Rather than the usual stage business of laying a cross on Scarpia's body and two candlesticks at either side, Tosca -- impulsive as ever -- climbs up on the windowsill and nearly jumps, before easing herself back down, and, in a daze, lying on a couch, slowly fanning herself as the curtain falls.

OK, I can hear you booing, but I think that Bondy -- with the help of Mattila's considerable acting skills -- makes this all quite tense and visually striking: two giant red couches on either side of the window, Scarpia's body half dangling from one, Tosca's oddly reclining on the other. To me, a very theatrical look, and a plausibly theatrical situation. Having established the heroine's traits earlier, Bondy can have her stay in place to ponder what she has done, what she should do next, rather than depart the murder scene as soon as she can.

Yes, I know that's not what Puccini called for, and not exactly what the music suggests. But I wonder if people miss the candles and crucifix because they want to believe that Tosca is a good religious, moral girl at heart, even if she's living in sin with her boyfriend, betrays his trust (the location of the escaped prisoner), and commits murder. Well, maybe she's not so pure and simple after all. Maybe her first thought is not religion and expiation, but just how to survive the whole messy business with her life and lover intact. Or maybe she can't even think straight at all about anything, and essentially zones out, as if not even really conscious. All plausible, it seems to me.

Bondy has been accused of messing up this scene or totally lacking imagination, but that's not how it came across Saturday afternoon. It seemed oddly more natural than the usual business with the candles, and just as oddly riveting. That said, Bondy should have paid greater attention to the score, and come up with more in the way of action to justify his approach and to gain musical grounding for it.

Likewise, his concept for Tosca's suicide -- a freeze-frame device involving a body double who jumps, but is stopped midair -- needs to be better timed and keyed directly into the music. (Still, on Saturday, the effect produced an audible gasp in the house, and you could easily sense how powerful this could look with a little tweaking.) Other questionable elements: Scarpia doesn't need three -- count 'em, three -- hookers to service him at the start of Act 2. (Bondy isn't the first director to give an opera character an audience during what is normally a soliloquy, but this is piling it on a bit thick.) In Act 1, the painting of Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi has been working on is revealed to be about as likely to be hung in a church as an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. And the firing squad practice is a pretty lame time-filler during the orchestral opening of Act. 3.

But back to the good stuff. Many deft little strokes occur, from the Sacristan dumping a pail into the holy water font to Cavaradossi crumpling up the letter he tries to write Tosca while awaiting execution. The Te Deum scene is quite potent, and not just because Scarpia gets carried away with a statue at the end of it. There is something wonderfully spooky about the advancing crowd of clerics.

In the end, this is not the wildest, strangest, silliest "Tosca" you could conjure up. Costuming is basically normal (I rather liked the vampirish get-up for Scarpia's goons), and nothing critical to the opera is removed or rendered entirely senseless. It's simply a different telling of a familiar tale. Bondy's "Tosca" may not be one for the ages, but, as Alex Ross and others have noted, the production could probably be finessed in the future by other directors to smooth out or refocus some things.

Musically, I suspect better performances will come along, but Mattila makes a valid stab not only at portraying the title role, but giving it vocal power to match. She did some beautiful singing on Saturday, and some not so beautiful (a note that went astray at the end of Vissi d'arte was nonetheless so intensely dramatic that it somehow worked to her advantage). Marcelo Alvarez belted more than he needed to, but there was enough poetry mixed in to make his effort effective. George Gagnidze was a little low on vocal wattage as Scarpia, yet still sufficiently commanding. Joseph Colaneri (subbing for James Levine) led a sure and sensitive account of the score, generating a lush response form the justly hailed Met Orchestra.

For a complete contrast, I attended the company's revival of "Aida" Friday night and found myself thinking that it could use a daring directorial flourish or two. Sonja Frisell's grandly scaled production -- massive sets (Gianni Quaranta), brilliant costumes (Dada Saligeri), several horses -- is everything that Bondy's "Tosca" isn't. It also seemed ever so slightly dull, since all that visual splendor didn't translate easily into human drama. The principals rarely interacted with each other in any involving manner; the millions of excellent choristers stood oratorio-style through their big numbers.

The star of the evening was Daniele Gatti, whose warm, artfully nuanced conducting had Verdi's music sounding richer than ever. (I didn't hang around for all the bows, but I learned from Jim Oestreich's review in the Times that Gatti was booed when he took his Friday night. Is this some stupid new fad in New York, or an honest reaction by genuine opera fans?)

As Radames, Johan Botha produced clarion tone and some notable nuances, including a welcome diminuendo on the B-flat at the end of Celeste Aida and gentle phrasing in the final duet. A rough top note or two aside, Violeta Urmana sang nobly as Aida. Dolora Zajick, as Amneris, caught fire in the third act. Carlo Guelfi was a sturdy Amonasro. The Met ballet excuted Alexei Ratmansky's stylish choreography with flair.

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Even before I saw the "Tosca," this "Aida" seemed a bit too square for its own good, for all of it's musical values. Still, it was a hearty reminder that the Met can still deliver old-fashioned opera values in abundance one day, and provocative departures the next. Isn't that a good thing?

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PHOTOS OF TOSCA BY KEN HOWARD; PHOTO OF AIDA MY MARTY SAHL; COURTESY OF METROPOLITAN OPERA

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