October 28, 2009
The eroticism of this photograph of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, one of the most beloved of Italian operas, gives you some idea of what it’s like when one of today’s hip nihilists takes over a traditional art form. This production was booed by Met fans on its opening night in September and after seeing it in a movie theater last night, I understood why. The sets are dark, sterile and chilling. The characters depart from the text and the whole thing is perversely sexual. It sneers at the famous romance of Tosca with pornographic embellishments.
In Act I, Cavadorossi, the painter played here by Marcelo Álvarez, works on a towering canvas of Mary Magdalene that sits on scaffolding and dominates the church scene. In contrast to the previous production’s historically faithful rendering of the sanctuary of an ornate Roman cathedral, the interior here resembles a bleak Soho warehouse, perhaps awaiting a few abstract paintings for decor. One of Mary Magdalene’s breasts is fully bared. As the painter and his lover Tosca perform their sumptuous arias, an enormous looming nipple is visible in the background. Tosca, who takes a knife at one point to the canvas, seems mentally unhinged and sexually coarse (for a moment, she grips her lover between her legs). There is another blatant swipe at Christianity when the evil Scarpia takes a statue of the Virgin Mary in his hands and lewdly embraces it.
Three whores are featured in Act II, characters who never appear in the libretto. One has a breast fully bared as the curtain parts and they wear gauzy dresses with no underwear beneath. One woman kneels on a sofa for several minutes with her back to the audience and Scarpia slaps her behind. All three embrace Scarpia, pawing his body, and one of the women performs oral sex on the villain.
I saw a live performance of Tosca at the Met years ago. It was an unforgettable thrill as Tosca leapt to her death from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo. That was moving, while this new version, in which Tosca’s suicide is rendered in a strange abstract gesture, was depressing. The production is the work of Swiss-born avante-garde director Luc Bondy, who spoke dismissively of the negative reaction during an intermission interview and of his urgent desire to get at “truth” in the characters. “Truth” here refers to ugliness and sexual reductionism. He dispensed with one of the most famous gestures in the production: the devout Tosca’s placement of lit candles around the body of Scarpia, whom she has just murdered. Mattila, who was excellent in the role despite the staging, mentioned in her interview that, under Bondy’s direction, she had tried to instill her character with an intensity that comes “from the pubic bone.” (We were treated to generous views of her breasts too as she bent over Cavadorossi with a low-cut gown.)
Peter Gelb has assumed complete control as general manager of the Met for the first time this year. Here is yet another cultural impresario who justifies trashing beauty and form for the sake of attracting the masses. Ultimately, it is not commercial interests that reign here. It is a spirit of hatred against beauty, life, and God. Tosca, with its heart-wrenching call to higher sentiment, must be destroyed.