Modern Stagings, or, You Can Have a Good ‘Tosca’ and Make it Modern

The Metropolitan Opera debuted its new production of “Tosca” on New Year’s Eve, marking what appears to be the end of the saga of what is quite possibly the most troubled production in the Met’s history. The production is likely one to please Met audiences for years to come based on the rapturous response from the audience at the Saturday evening performance I attended.

Outside of the news regarding how many principal people have had to be replaced for this production, this “Tosca” carries the noteworthiness of being a new production of “Tosca” a little more than eight years after the Met debuted another version.

The 2009 production was done by the late Luc Bondy and was famously met with boos from the audience. The production contemporized the opera, set in 1800 Rome, but also vulgarized it with aspects such as Scarpia feeling up a statue of the Virgin Mary. Although not the most controversial production the Met has done during the tenure of Peter Gelb as General Manager–that title would go to 2014’s “The Death of Klinghoffer”–it was one that became noteworthy because of the response from the Met’s audience.

In the program notes for the new production, Gelb addresses the reason for going with a new, more traditional production of “Tosca”:

The Bondy production taught me a significant lesson in what Met audiences want. When it comes to a classic like Tosca, they want beautiful scenery.

“Tosca” is undoubtedly a classic, largely because of the legendary 1953 recording with Maria Callas performing the titular role. Like two other Puccini operas–“La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly”–and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, it is an opera a person who has never attended the opera has likely heard of.

The underlying issue with Gelb’s comments regarding his mea culpa for the Bondy production is he seems to miss what people want when it comes to the classics, overlooking the repertory of his own company.

There is a very good reason why I mentioned “La Boheme,” “Madama Butterfly,” and The Ring Cycle a couple of paragraphs earlier because they are operas that are done many times by opera companies. If you look at The Met’s season, they will likely have “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” every year because those are operas people like attending. The current production of “La Boheme” has been around for decades and was done by Franco Zeffirelli, who did the production of “Tosca” that had been in the Met’s repertory before they decided to give it a gritty reboot in 2009. You might also recognize Zeffirelli’s name because he directed the 1968 film version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is probably still shown in freshman English classes. Zeffirelli is a director who sticks to the original setting and is very ornate in the production design. If you see something that was directed by Zeffirelli it will be very beautiful to look at in a way similar to a Renaissance painting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t work for everyone, possibly even feeling a little shallow.

The current production of “Madama Butterfly” done by The Met was overseen by Anthony Minghella and premiered in 2005. In this production, the opera starts off with two performers on stage appearing to raise the curtain, revealing the stage flooded with red light. A woman ascends the stage, a train of multiple fabrics trailing behind her, and she raises a fan aloft before beginning a pantomime incorporating a second fan. She performs in silence for nearly 90 seconds, coming into the light, before the action of the show really starts as Lieutenant Pinkerton is to marry Cio-Cio-san. The image of a woman standing at the top of the very modern, almost metal, staircase, her fan held aloft as we see her silhouette surrounded by red light has become an image not just used to advertise “Madama Butterfly” at The Met, but to advertise the institution itself beyond the annual marketing campaign. (The current one is “The Voice Must Be Heard,” which I like, even if nothing will top Lyric Opera’s “Long Live Passion” campaign.)

The Met has quite a few productions that are modern takes on classic works. Be it their productions of “Madama Butterfly,” “Elektra,” the surrealist take on Humperdink’s “Hansel and Gretel,” or Julie Taymor’s uniquely Julie Taymor version of “The Magic Flute,” the last two of which are performed every year as the “family operas” during the holiday season. Anything that is a classic can evolve with the time and be adapted to fit a director’s vision, as long as they understand and respect the text. This is often seen in the theater where you can have revivals of plays where a production can shine a light on a text in a new way, or the intent of the author is vulgarized. One of my favorite theatrical productions of this decade was Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s “Othello,” which set the action of the play within a motorcycle gang. As a direct result of Mark Clements understanding and revering the text, the concept worked very well, resulting in a production that was particularly haunting and moving.

The trouble with the performing arts is walking a fine line between boldness and satisfying donors and subscribers and respecting a text to the point it isn’t allowed to breathe. In Sir David McVicar’s “Tosca” at the Met, the grandness of the set almost suffocates the emotion of the production, particularly in Act One. McVicar understands how to stage “Tosca” and the production consistently proves it understands how to have the performers move around the stage at the right musical cues, but the production ends up having the problem of being very pretty to look at. This shifts in act two when Sonya Yoncheva sings “Vissi d’arte…” because of her incredible vocal performance and the fact she can act. Act three is when the production really succeeds and it is aided by the scenic design. The design of the Angel Terrace at Castel Sant’Angelo helps add to the gloom of the act–opera is rarely subtle. It also helps this evokes an open space, which honestly allows what is occurring to be emotionally effective, filling every part of the space.

This isn’t a criticism of McVicar in general as I found his staging of “Elektra” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with Christine Goerke singing the titular role to be utterly stunning. The problem is the Met, particularly Gelb, thought the way to rectify the misstep of Bondy’s staging was to go with a production as traditional as possible. The result is a production that can be performed for decades and will please subscribers and donors. It’s not bold, it’s not something to make you think on the subway ride home, but it will provide for an enjoyable evening at the opera.

There is a reason to be concerned opera might become too traditional and shy away from more daring productions. There will be missteps–I’ve seen plenty of modern interpretations in theater that have missed the entire point of a text–but those must be made in order to find something that works. The Met’s current version of “Madama Butterfly,” an opera that is enough of a classic to result in scores of adaptations, could have failed, but it has instead become a production audiences can see over and over.

As opera finds itself trying to move towards the future, particularly as the Met itself struggles financially, a compromise must be made in order to attract a new, younger audience. The question comes as to if you have a very lovely production that will please your current audience, or if you go out on a limb and create a new vision in order to make a classic survive for decades to come.