“[It is the] accumulation of … correct things that make a production respectable.”
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 statues—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 Juliet—cross-reference below—and is equally
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