There has been many musical events last year: the confirmation of some emerging talents (watch out for a conductor named Robin Ticciati by the way), the inauguration of the Alan Gilbert/Gustavo Dudamel eras in New York/Los Angeles, Maurizio Pollini, finally returning to Bach, Domingo reinventing Simon Boccanegra, … but it is likely that future generation will be more remembering this year as the one when the Met replaced the 20 plus year old production of Tosca by Franco Zeffirelli with a new one by Luc Bondy.
What a stir this created. The glitzy crowd at the opening night booed the director in front of cameras “live from Lincoln Center”. This is a unique situation where nearly all American critics were negative (including ConcertoNet’s reviewer Arlene Klotzko). Have a look at the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross’s entry in his blog as well as at Jay Nordlinger’s comments for those who can have access to the print edition of the New Criterion. Alex Ross is the writer of the outstanding 20th century music history book The Rest is Noise whereas Jay Nordlinger is at the other extreme a self-admitted traditionalist. I have huge respect for both critics. Both disliked Bondy’s production but for different reasons. Ross felt that too many liberties were taken with the work and took the example of the ending of act 2, where Bondy scrapped the tradition which has Tosca laying candlesticks around Scarpia’s body. Nordlinger disliked what he saw as the director underlining the “ugly side” of Scarpia enjoying companies of prostitutes at act 2 and embracing the statue of the Virgin Mary at the end of the act 1 .
I was not in New York when Tosca was on at the Met but was able to catch it on the TV station PBS. As Jay Nordlinger outlines it, there are far more radical restagings in European opera houses. This Tosca had no Neunfels-like histrionics, no resetting of the work in modern days, no naked figurants… and Nordlinger rightly outlined that Met audiences have in the past been able to get and appreciate recent production by the likes of Wernicke or Carsen. Bondy’s reading was a fairly classic one but it had a cardinal flaw: it was not a Zeffirelli production. The Italian director had the Met audiences used to gigantic settings, lavish costumes, with singers posturing and acting with a style dating from silent movies. For many New Yorkers and many opera audiences, Zeffirelli is the essence of what opera is about: an art form where extremes passions are set on extreme settings… They go to the Met to experience this feeling of extremeness, from Tosca’s extreme jealousy, Cavaradossi’s extreme heroism and Scarpia’s extreme sadism.
If you go through ConcertoNet’s archives, you can see that Zeffirelli’s stagings had all of us disagreeing on their merits. I along with Fred Kirshnit disliked the classic Zeffirelli Harry Rolnick was much taken by it. Regardless of their merits, how old are these productions? Is Zeffirelli himself coming back to revive them and do they really reflect what he wanted? Zeffirelli likes to have lots of action on stage. Maybe, all this activity was well coordinated when he himself directed them but they now feel obtrusive and are drowning the work’s central impact. Maybe they were modern in his days but what we see today is substandard.
Back to Bondy’s reading of Tosca. We have here a more focused reading and more intimate which uses far less colors and canvas compared to Zeffirelli’s massive baroque overcharged means. Action is far easier to watch and there are far more characters developments. Scarpia is definitely perverse and dangerous, Cavardossi is stuck in the middle and Tosca’s personal journey becomes the center of the work. Bondy had her emotionally exhausted lying on a couch trying to recover from the days’ events at the end of act 2. The trauma of her day is thus much better outlined than any candlestick gimmick would ever do. This is a typical Bondy moment, where he finds a gesture that illuminates so well the spirit of the work. Why did people booed? No objective reasons apart from the fact that this was not the old Zeffirelli one. As Mahler said, tradition is just what people remember of the last bad performance.
The Met organized a conference at New York Public Library where Luc Bondy was invited along with the Met’s new director Peter Gelb, Patrice Chéreau who is doing his Met début with Janácek’s From the House of the Dead and Bartlett Sher in charge of the new Tales of Hoffmann. The conference can be seen and downloaded from the NYPL site and I would recommend its viewing to our readers (for those who have not yet seen the Janácek’s production, skip the excerpt, since, as Chéreau drily points it out, it gives away one of the key surprise in his staging). Surprisingly, it shows that New Yorkers are convinced that directors are purposely trying to generate booing at premieres and furthermore that this is a typical European attitude.
But the main interest of the conference is to watch and listen to Peter Gelb. There was some apprehension when he was appointed that it could mean a downfall for the Met. Some critics expressed doubts as to his artistic vision referring to the fact that he pioneered some cross-over material while at Sony and also because he had not run a place of the size and scope as the Met. There was also concern as James Levine was starting to spend more time in Boston. A few years after, Gelb can really be proud of what he is happening there. In the past, Carlos Kleiber accepted to come and conduct only if he were given enough rehearsals. Today, Chéreau or Bondy would not come at the Met if they would not find the working conditions they want. Levine is still there and is spending time in Boston but the Met has invited new names like Barenboim and Salonen. Listen to Gelb during the conference. He has to walk a fine balance in between the audience, the sources of funding, the artists, probably the Met board… He knows what he wants to do and he is making sure this is happening. There is artistic leadership here.
Do go to the Met next time you are in New York and if we have to use candlesticks, let it be to pray for a Bondy directed Bohème very soon for another opening night at the Met.