Tosca

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: March 1, 2005
(also includes an interview with Zeffirelli in Rome)
Death doth become her

“[It is the] accumulation of … correct things that make a production respectable.”

—Franco Zeffirelli

As the curtain rises on the Met’s 1985 production of Tosca, the audience cheers enthusiastically because Zeffirelli’s attention to detail and design savvy have brought Rome to the Lincoln Center stage. The towering columns, arches, metres-high windows at the ready for his heavenly apricot light are a spectacular recreation and convincing testament to the notion that religion is bigger than all of us.

Yet even with its grandeur, the master director (cross-references below) has collaborated brilliantly with Kirk Browning, providing viewers with many insights into Puccini’s compact drama that those in the hall could never see as clearly, if at all.

The twin techniques of literal direction and body language add depth and subtlety that easily dispel any of the musical shortcomings (particularly from the pit where the very close microphone placements yield extra-musical contributions—including a wayward open string—and cannot hide the many stage/pit ensemble problems that resulted from Giuseppe Sinopoli’s uneven ministrations, which too often produced a brittle edge rather than firm warmth). On-stage sounds, however, had an intentional role to play: the Sacristan’s key ring in Act I; the fabric of Tosca’s simmering red gown and matching wrap in Act II gave the listener a “you-are-there” sensation.

Like a giant chessboard, Zeffirelli moves his players and props in ways that reward a tight camera shot (Tosca framed by lit candles is a real gem) and also adds to the unfolding tragedy. The Act I statutes—except the Madonna—and the portrait-in-progress all look up and away from the action, making the stage seem still larger than it is; Scarpia (Cornell MacNeil) likewise stares out at the construction of the gallows as the camera (tellingly, and for the first time in the production) dissolves from his evil countenance to Tosca’s huddled form where—kneeling in front of fireplace flames—she is afforded a visual aside to struggle with her moral dilemma.

Throughout the production, everyone’s hands are put into the service of subtext. During Mario Cavaradossi’s first interaction with Tosca’s jealousy, Plácido Domingo (a frequent partner with Zeffirelli) sculpts his hands to evoke trust, passion and love even as hers remain clasped. Then, momentarily reconciled, their arms support each other as their hands become one.

Similarly, MacNeil uses his remarkable visage to paint himself as a bloodthirsty lecher who makes Dracula seem merely evil. The numerous close-ups of eyes full of menace and then an open mouth—teeth glimmering eerily—that most certainly will soon be populated with maggots as he lies dead on the stage are—again—sights unseen by the audience.

It falls to Hildegard Behrens as Tosca to deliver the double-seared punch of vocal artistry and dramatic depth. Her final descent into darkness unleashed by Scarpia’s lust-filled fingers slipping off a shoulder strap, finds its embodiment as she stabs him to death. Her obvious enjoyment of blood is equally matched by her reluctance to put the gown to rights, leaving everyone wondering just what does turn the voluptuous diva’s crank.

The production’s preponderance of personal character development and revelation is effectively foiled by supporting characters (Italo Tajo as the Sacristan has an exceptional “old-man” walk and delivers his mischievous role with panache) and the grand Act I finale—where the stage is suddenly a throng of the faithful—is spectacular in its detail (from regal flags to trailing smoke to gleaming helmets) and the engaging battle amongst the boys’ chorus using their rolled up music as swords. (This scene faintly echoes Romeo and Julietcross-reference below—and is equally compelling.)

The switch from Act III’s ramparts to the jail cell below turns the live-crowd/TV audience tables: those in the hall see the transformation, while viewers are transported to the pit where Sinopoli (more convincingly here) cajoles his charges through the magnificent opening to Domingo’s showstopper, E lucevan le stele. He renders it with aplomb, but (similar to Act I) is just a hair under perfection, soaring through the top more surely with Behrens in their duets than when on his own. Yet, once more, Domingo’s traversal of the set—first at jail bars, then standing “to die” before finally collapsing at the base of the column—magnificently shrouds the movement with the garb of his fate.

The drama’s many keys unlock doors, but not the mysteries of the heart; how aptly that is reinforced by Tosca’s moment with her doomed lover in his cell. She wears a blue cloak, but its fabric makes her—initially— appear one-handed, until she reveals herself as murderer and “my hands were soaked with blood.”

Details like these, once again, show that the addition of “correct things” can’t help but prepare the way for artistic greatness. JWR

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