Kurzak provides most of the heat in the Met’s simmering ‘Tosca’
Tosca is not just an opera – the title itself is a nutshell substitute for how opera is imagined in popular culture.
Like Miles Davis kind of blue, it’s the opera that people who aren’t interested in opera go to see. Beyond the gorgeous score, it’s a sure hit for the theatrical crowd.
It’s the most useful way to watch the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of David McVicar’s 2017 production, which opened Tuesday night. This is a solid and decorative period setting that provides everything the musical drama needs. This means that it depends on the singers, the conductor and the orchestra to set the fire and create a memorable evening at the opera. But for this opening, at least, Tosca mostly just simmered.
In the title role is soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, with tenor Michael Fabiano as her lover, painter Mario Cavaradossi and baritone Luca Salsi as the evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia. In the pit was Carlo Rizzi, completing the main ones for this fall race (Tosca will return in early spring with a different cast and conductor). Of these, Kurzak was outstanding and consistent throughout the night, while the supporting cast and bandleader had some inspired moments, but also some hazy ones.
The watchword all evening has been modulation, moving from one dynamic level to another, changing tempo, even the rise and fall of emotional heat. Kurzak did this elegantly all night. His voice was clear, full and resounding from the first note, his demeanor poised and at ease. With her voice and her stage presence, she passed so easily from serenity to agitation, from happiness to despair, that one only had to watch and listen to her. Tosca is a figurehead of the hyper-emotivity that draws so many to opera, and it’s easy to dress simply; Kurzak nailed the role with no sense of end or waste.
It began and ended with his singing, and “Vissi d’arte” was a shining example. There was a sense of understatement in the opening sentences, Kurzak keeping both the dynamics and the size of his voice slightly lower than usual. She let the character’s inner beauty shine through by smoothly modulating every detail, heightening the passion and power, while keeping everything out of the way. With sensitive and responsive accompaniment from Rizzi and the orchestra, it was a magnificent performance, musically beautiful and emotionally real and relatable, with a palpable sense of regret.
The rest of the performance never quite reached that level of polish and significance. Fabiano was greeted with applause before his very first note – and his simple chanting of the word “Vittoria” in Act II brought out “Bravos!” His “Recondita armonia” was strong but uneven, sometimes out of step with Rizzi, rushing with a sense of speed and shifting expression rather than legato. Moments of intensity came with such suddenness that they left the listener trying to catch up to where the performance was.
However, these are isolated moments and “E lucevan le stelle” by Fabiano is excellent. Fabiano has a typical Puccini tenor, warm and rounded and slightly childlike, and his own personal soul is ideal for a character who, like Tosca, is driven by feeling rather than reason. His grief and pride in Act III was breathtaking.
Salsi (who will be replaced by George Gagnidze from October 19) and Rizzi were together and apart, everywhere. There were technical issues in Act I as the singer and bandleader tried to find mutual rhythm as Scarpia strolled through the church. In Act II, the character’s central moment, the sense of Salsi phrasing and articulation seemed both arbitrary and willful, as if he was still deciding how he wanted to sing the part. It also affected his intonation at times, and while a nice timbre could be made out, it was difficult to pin down a focused vocal quality and the character as a whole, which lessened the overall drama.
It was the same in the pit. The orchestra sounded superbly all night long, precise and colorful from moment to moment, but the score remained uneven. The “Te Deum” was lavish, but then, in Act II, the off-stage cantata was so loud it almost drowned out the music in the foreground. The bumpy transitions in tempo meant that some orchestral phrases scatter in random directions.
All of that was largely ironed out by Act III, which was technically deft but also dramatically lean when neither Kurzak nor Fabiano sang. The false brightness in much of the music was there, but there wasn’t enough tension to balance it out.
Patrick Carfizzi has become the Met’s go-to sexton, and he showed why with his signature balance of loud, clear singing and a natural, laid-back stage manner; he was both serious and comical. Bass-baritone Kevin Short sang Angelotti with unadorned vitality. Their performances contributed to some of the most focused parts of Act I’s musical creation.
It is expected that many of these issues, especially the coordination between the singers and the orchestra, will be resolved, hopefully with the arrival of Gagnidze. And the beautiful literalness of the production presents the drama well. Tosca– amateurs, as they were on Tuesday, will be more than delighted.
Tosca continues until November 4, then returns from March 30 to April 15, 2023. Roberto Alagna sings the role of Cavaradossi on October 31 and November 4. Liudmyla Monastyrska sings the title role in the spring (except for Angela Gheorghiu on April 8 and 12) with Yusif Eyvasov as Cavaradossi and Zeljko Lucic as Scarpia; Domingo Hindoyan conducts. metopera.org