October 10, 2009
Met HD
Cinemark, Palo Alto, CA

No question about it.  Tosca is my favorite opera (at least until the next time I see Rigoletto or Carmen or La Boheme or Tales of Hoffman or Barber of Seville or Figaro or Mephistopheles or  . . . ).  It has everything. 

In all other operas that I know of, the heroine has things done to her; the drama and appeal of the plot are centered on how she copes.  Tosca does something.  Musically – and the music alone is enough to justify the opera – musically Cavaradossi, the hero, is a close second in importance.  But he is the one to whom things happen, and dramatically he is a distant third to the villain, Scarpia.

I am amazed at how different one Tosca can be from another.  After all, the same music and the same words are written down.  The director-producer can take some liberties with them, but except for some extreme nuts he/she is limited to shifting an aria from one act to another or imposing a few cuts.  But the setting, the costumes, and the lighting can be so different.  The nature and quality of the singing and above all the acting can vary so widely.  Oh, and let’s not forget the size of the stage, cast, and theatre, as well as if you are seeing it on TV, in a theater on HD, or live (including where you are sitting). And finally, the mysterious whole that arises from all these ingredients has its own essence which may even change from one performance to another of the same cast in the same production depending on such immeasurables as the digestive state of the audience.

Over the years I have seen many, many productions and performances of Tosca.  Three of them stand out in my memory as the “best” – and for quite different reasons.

The most recent is the Met HD Live performance that I went to at 10 am Saturday and hope to go to again for the Encore performance on Wednesday, October 28.  The other two are by Pocket Opera in 2004 and by West Bay Opera in 2002.  Here is what I wrote about that performance in my 2003 Groundhog Day letter:

I have to tell you about Julia Kierstine as Tosca with West Bay Opera last October.  I may have mentioned before that my ear is incapable of distinguishing between great singing and very good singing.  There have probably been stars in big companies who have sung the role even better that she did – I wouldn’t know.  But no one could possibly act it better.  The plot of Tosca has no surprises for me by now.  In the second act I know she is going to pick up a knife and stab Scarpia.  But I was on the edge of my seat watching and listening to her.  Every line in her face, every muscle in her body showed her going from horror at having to accept Scarpia’s proposition to the final resolve to kill him.  Her eyes  moving like those of a trapped animal passing over the knife on the table without seeing it; returning to it.  Her two hands, white-knuckled, gripping the wine glass as she takes a desperate sip; again reaching towards the knife and withdrawing; reaching again; putting down the glass and picking up the knife. . .  Even now, I get goose bumps writing about it.

Two years later I sat in my usual front-row seat as Shouvik Mondle sang the role of Scarpia.  When he first came on stage, before he even opened his mouth, there was something about his stance, his stride, his face, that simply oozed menace.  The most frightening Scarpia in my experience.

Most dramatic operas have a single climax at the end where the hero and/or heroine die.  A few, such as Lucia have two. Tosca certainly has dramatic death climaxes at the end of Acts II and III.  But at that Pocket Opera performance I realized that it also had a great musical climax at the end of Act I.  Scarpia is singing about his lust for Tosca while the choir in the background is singing a beautiful solemn Te Deum.  In almost all other performances the large choir and orchestra dominate the sound and I am peaceful.  But somehow Pocket Opera’s 8-piece plus piano orchestra and choir of less than a dozen was in perfect balance with Mondle’s magnificent baritone, and the resulting tension left me limp as the Act ended.

Interestingly, the HD performance yesterday was the reverse.  With the camera mostly showing a close up of Scarpia (and possibly with some sound engineering taking place) the baritone dominated the scene and the enormous choir just provided background music.

Then, there is the final climax at the end of the opera when Tosca flings herself off the tower rather than be captured by Scarpia’s henchmen.  There is probably no other one scene in all of opera which has provided so many anecdotes, both comic and tragic, from real life performances.  But I’m just writing about performances I have attended, and the one most dramatic ending I have witnessed was in 2004 by Julia Kierstine.  Defiant literally until the end, she faced her pursuers and fell off the tower backwards!  I only saw her do that once, and part of my gasping reaction was undoubtedly due to surprise.  In the long run, Karita Mattila’s leap yesterday may be even more dramatic.  Most sopranos disappear behind the tower where invisible stagehands can catch them after a short drop, Mattila leapt more to the side of the stage where we would have been seen her fall a much greater distance before being caught out of sight.  BUT.  The instant her feet left the tower all of the lights went out.  Her final cry and the last few notes of the orchestra were here in total darkness.  Wow.

Well, after three+ pages of mostly other Tosca‘s, let’s talk about the Met HD.  (I think it was Voltaire who first said, “Forgive me for writing you such a long letter; I don’t have time to write a short one).  I approached yesterday’s performance with mixed feelings since I had heard about the boos that had greeted producer Luc Bondy’s curtain call on opening night (go to Music Review:  At the Metropolitan Opera, a Kinky Take on a Classic for the NY Times review).  Being prepared for the worst, I was delightfully surprised by a great performance of a fascinating production.  All three of the principals were fantastic.  Mattila  dominated whenever she was on stage and maintained a fiery intensity throughout all three acts.  George Gagnidze’s Scarpia was frightening as an all-powerful dirty old man.  And Marcelo Alvarez had me thoroughly convinced that Mario Cavaradossi was a real live vital person.  I cannot recall seeing or hearing a better Mario.

So here’s my final verdict (subject to revision every time I see Tosca in the future):

Best overall
Best Tosca
…..Close second
Best Scarpia
Best Mario
Best Act I Finale
Best Act II Finale
Best Act III Finale
2009 Met HD
2002 Pocket Opera
2004 West Bay Opera
2009 Met HD


Ciao – – Philip

PS  Sound for all the action was wonderful, but as was the case for La Rondine last year, the sound system was too faint to be heard for all of the backstage interviews.  Last year the problem was so basic that it was still there for the Encore presentation.  I can think of all sorts of human or mechanical error which might cause a problem as the broadcast started.  I can even believe that it was too complex to be corrected during the first intermission.  But I just don’t understand how, with all the money and resources of the Met, it could be present during the second intermission.  Very frustrating. – – ph

PPS  Here is a copy of a little exchange I just had with the NY Times reviewer. – – ph

Dear Mr. Tommasini:

I thought your review of the Met’s opening Tosca was a very fair one.  I was not there, but I have just seen the Met HD Live performance at my local theater.  You complain that, “Mr. Bondy places crucial moments deep back on the stage and keeps the lighting oddly dim”.  I suspect that had I been at Lincoln Center I would have agreed, but for much of the HD, the camera showed close-ups for which the lighting was sufficient and the dimness of the rest of the stage was entirely consistent with the over-all mood.

Does the Times publish a separate review of the HD?  If not, I think they should,


Philip Hodge 

Dear Mr. Hodge,

We don’t routinely publish separate reviews of the HD screenings, but we have written quite a bit in general about the HD project, and I have commented in detail on several of the shows.

All the best,

Anthony Tommasini

October 29, 2009
Met HD
Cinemark, Palo Alto, CA

No question about it.  Tosca is my favorite opera (at least until the next time I see Rigoletto or Carmen or La Boheme or Tales of Hoffman or Barber of Seville or Figaro or Mephistopheles or  . . . ).  It has everything.

Yep, I concluded my 5-operas-in-6-days opera marathon with the Matinee Encore perfornance of Tosca last Thursday.  It was wonderful – even better than the first time.

For one thing, the sound system was finally fixed and I could hear the interviews of the three stars and the director.  Luc said that the primary thing he tried to achieve was emotional realism.  He wanted each of the singers to feel, to respond, to act as if they really *were* the character.  They all succeeded so well in achieving that aim that I can easily forgive Luc for the various excesses he committed with some of the details.  All three of the singers agreed that with Luc’s help they were able to really identify with their characters; as Karita (after the intimate interviews I feel that I am on first-name terms with the singers) said, “Deep down, I AM Tosca – from the pubic bone on up.”

As I said, I enjoyed it even more the second time.  Knowing how powerful the overall effect was going to be, I could view the three half-clad young women at the beginning of Act II as just a minor distraction.  Indeed, I could observe that Scarpia himself seemed to treat them that way.  A trio of puppies would have been equally satisfactory to  him.

That’s it as far as the announced ‘casts of Tosca are concerned.  If you saw it, I’d be interested in your reactions.  If you missed it, I’m sorry for you.  Keep your eyes open for any possible Encore performances next summer or next year.

Ciao – – Philip

PS   To date I  have received zero response to the musical riddles I appended to my AIDA letter.  Too tough for you?  Or was that letter so long you gave up before you got to them?  Anyhow, I repeat the riddles below.  To give you a start, the answer to #9 is Copeland (co-planned).  Good luck on the others!

Identify a well-known composer with each of the clues:

  1. Frequently at the rear
  2. The majority of the paintings
  3. Exhibit kitchen utensil
  4. What to do when a bowl is thrown at you
  5. Composed before the Mass in B
  6. Scram, fellow
  7. Hut where marriages are dissolved
  8. Half of a child’s game
  9. Jointly designed
  10. What to do after you aim
  11. What to tell a tired hog
  12. Knock the bread baker about
  13. Stout and sturdy wizard
  14. Over there, a bank draft
  15. Not on

If I remember I’ll send you the answers next time I write, along with recognition of anyone who sends me 8 or more correct answers before then. – – ph

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