Ah! finalmente! With Anna Netrebko in another triumphant role debut, the jinx that has long hung over Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera lifted, at least for a few hours. For once, even the critics' attention was squarely on the plight of the diva, rather than on the inadequacies, real or imagined, of the mise en scène.
When aficionados whose memories go back decades wax nostalgic about "festival quality," surely this is the kind of thing they have in mind: a production on which no expense has been spared, cast with international heavyweights at the very top of their game. We attend such events not for the new light they shed on material we already know backwards and forwards, but to revel in our own high standards.
What a relief! For 20 years and 213 performances beginning in 1985, the press used to batter the bombastic photorealism of the Franco Zeffirelli production, never mind that the public adored it—especially the cinematic open scene change from Cavaradossi's prison cell in Cast Sant' Angelo to the rooftop terrace at sunrise. In search of something bolder, the company opened the 2009-10 season with a stripped-down staging by the critics' darling Luc Bondy, a coproduction with the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, and the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Alas, the show proved too "European" for American tastes and too lacking in point of view for the Europeans. In New York it limped along for 58 performances through 2015, a discouraging run for so surefire a title.
As they say in "Chicago," he had it coming. First-timers Netrebko as Tosca, Volle as Scarpia. Photo/Ken Howard
The cardinal virtue of a robust, traditional production, of course, is that it never gets in the way of confident artists who know what they are doing. As the reigning prima donna assoluta of her generation, Netrebko has proved herself such an artist time and time again. As Tosca, she has created a thoroughly contemporary diva in her own image. Generations of Toscas have played the part like stars in a silent movie, freezing each key moment into a sharp look or gesture. Apparently as indifferent to psychological analysis as to the clockwork mechanics of the plot, Netrebko abandoned herself to the flow of the romantic melodrama. "Mia sirena," Cavaradossi calls Tosca, and Netrebko brought to life an elusive fantasy creature constantly in motion, who never stops to reflect. Leaving the church in a cheerful mood at the end of her first scene, she skipped past the Madonna with the teasing grace of one of Balanchine's teenage ballerinas. Stabbing Scarpia, she struck like a tigress, her face ablaze with tremendous but strangely fleeting fury. She hurled herself from the parapet without a nanosecond's hesitation for the sake of a tragic pose.
Vocally, Netrebko was in her element. In the pandemonium of the second act her high notes blazed with lustrous assurance, but perhaps even more striking was the forceful projection of her middle and lower register. Listening to Netrebko, one could hardly fail to notice how remarkable a proportion of Tosca's music lies in just this region. Her timbre there was dark and sensual yet never heavy, blessedly free of the booming low notes, histrionic sobs, and excessive verbal inflections ("perché me ne rimuneri..."—fermata, gulp—"...così?") characteristic of Golden Age sopranos with a husky chest register.
The Cavaradossi was to have been Marcelo Álvarez, a veteran of the Bondy Tosca. Days before the performance, without explanation, the house announced that Netrebko's husband, the rising powerhouse Yusif Eyvazov, would appear in what amounted to his official house debut. (His two mid-season performances as Calàf in 2015 passed without critical notice.) As an actor, Eyvazov showed scant art but much honesty, a quality that suits the impulsive Cavaradossi very well. His dark, heroic phrases filled the Met's vast auditorium easily, with full-blooded expression. He flung out his high notes with a lusty brilliance, and where appropriate with manic ferocity. As for the requisite melancholy and tenderness for "E lucevan le stelle," they were not lacking, either.
In a role debut as audacious as Netrebko's, Michael Volle stepped out as the sadistic police chief Baron Scarpia. Previously seen at the Met only as Mandryka, Hans Sachs, and the Dutchman, Volle cut a terrifying figure. Towering of stature, steely of demeanor, he declaimed in lean, jet-black tones of savage impact. Many have commented that Scarpia, like Don Giovanni, is an aristocrat who gets his way as much by silken manipulation as by overt menace. To judge by Scarpia's gallantries with Tosca—toying with her shawl, encircling her neck with his hands, yet so lightly that she scarcely seemed to notice—these are ideas McVicar wished to explore. As an actor, Volle went through the motions, but in his singing, his hallmark throughout was brute force. Of italianità, there was nary a flicker. In color and attack, with minor adjustments for tessitura, Volle might have been channeling Hagen—hardly the ideal role model in Puccini, but the public cheered him to the rafters.
Conducting his first New York Tosca, Bertrand de Billy paced the drama with a skillful hand. His reading was for the most part also very, very loud, releasing a Niagara of adrenaline on both sides of the footlights. Ironically, the only voice somewhat lost in the shuffle was that of the Shepherd Boy (Davida Dayle), singing offstage from what must have been a dead spot in perhaps the quietest episodes of the score.