The Guilted Age of Opera

On a September evening of the late aughts, Karita Mattila was singing in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera House in

On a September evening of the late aughts, Karita Mattila was singing in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

Fifty years from now, the next Edith Wharton, if she could have seen the crowd that gathered to see Ms. Mattila on the evening of Sept. 21, 2009, could easily begin her great novel of New York exactly the way the last one did. So little has changed.

Here’s another lightly adjusted Wharton sentence that still works: “It was Madame Mattila’s first appearance that fall, and what The New York Times ArtsBeat blog had already learned to describe as ‘the wealthy in our society’ had gathered to hear her.”
There was Henry Kissinger! Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg! Charming young LeeLee Sobieski! Billy Joel and his new girlfriend! The mayor, of course, and … everybody else.

There is always a relationship between the city’s elites and its largest cultural institutions. We are normally taught to emphasize how much, and how quickly, those relationships change. But opening night at the Met runs counterclockwise.

Women of a certain age still glide across the plaza and into the theater to their boxes. Behind them still sail their tall, willowy, marriageable daughters. People still greet each other saying things like, “Ah, yes, I sat next to you at that dinner.” They catch each other’s eye across the auditorium, and smile and nod their heads.
Karita Mattila, along with Natalie Dessay and Renée Fleming, is the diva who defines today’s Met. As an Associated Press review put it after her 2004 performance in Kat’a Kabanova, “When the history of the Metropolitan Opera around the time of the millennium is written, Karita Mattila will deserve her own chapter.”

And now she’s had her first opening night with the company, performing Tosca, that part of parts, for the first time outside her native Finland. The new production, by Luc Bondy, replaces one of the supersize Franco Zeffirelli stalwarts that keep Peter Gelb up at night with anxiety and that he is, little by little, getting rid of. (Richard Eyre’s Carmen will supplant Mr. Zeffirelli’s in a New Year’s Eve premiere this year. Two down; many, many choristers and goats to go.)

The Zeffirelli Tosca was one of the better liked of the Master of Excess’ Met offerings. The hulking but attractive sets were closely modeled on the real Roman locations described in the libretto. The use of the Met’s hydraulics system, which allowed the entire third-act set to distractingly lower halfway through, was eventually dropped, and in recent years the result was big but lovable, and actually somewhat illuminating. The opera and the Sardou play on which it’s based are both set in a very specific time and place, and the drama of the piece is directly tied to the situation in Italy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. This is not to say that there aren’t other, and even better, ways to do Tosca than Mr. Zeffirelli’s. But once the production was streamlined a bit, it was clear that there were certainly worse ways.

When the curtain opened on Act I on Monday night, it seemed as though Mr. Bondy’s production, surprisingly for those in the audience expecting something zany, would be as traditional, in its way, as the one it was replacing. Indeed, while the old production’s elaborately Baroque Sant’Andrea della Valle was replaced with a much starker Romanesque interior—as if everything had been stripped from Mr.

Zeffirelli’s walls—the new set’s massive scale felt familiar.

But the realism at the beginning turned out to be misleading. “Our Tosca is set in the time of Napoleon,” Mr. Bondy says definitively in the Met’s season book, and this was plausible until the arrival of Scarpia and his henchmen, who were dressed like ominous Victorian types out of a Dickens novel, though Scarpia’s coat was made of a distinctly fascist black leather. Things got even more complicated in Act II, with Scarpia’s room in the Palazzo Farnese done up with mid-century (20th century, that is) modernist furniture and vintage maps of Italy hung on the walls as if to remind the singers and audience where the action is actually taking place. Then for Act III it was back to stark stone, a gorgeous re-imagining of the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo as a precipice overlooking the sea.

And here, another Wharton quote comes to mind: “An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”

Only instead of translating languages, it’s resetting the history that seems to be the new obsession.

It’s possible that with all the cross-temporal stylization around Scarpia and the act he dominates (the second), Mr. Bondy is making a point about how his evil—the torture and police deceptions and craven backroom deals, found mostly in Act II—transcends time and place. As he says in the season book, “Cruelty is not specific to a certain time or era.” Indeed, comparing older versions of the set designs to the end result shows that the Act II set was changed to make it less abstractly timeless and more explicitly modern, as if to place as close to our own time as possible the scene in which the torture of Cavaradossi takes place. All this is well and good, but it strands the two protagonists, Tosca and Cavaradossi, in comparative irrelevance; if Scarpia’s part of the story is the part that’s interesting and topical, there’s less reason to care about the part that’s merely traditional.

Making Scarpia and his surroundings stand out also creates an odd imbalance in an opera so focused on its diva. Puccini provided in Tosca a character—an opera singer herself—who embodies the medium: Her intense emotions are constantly kept in check by a corrective sense of restraint. It’s the effort to restrain her emotions, and not the emotions themselves, that makes the tension almost unbearable.

Both the music and libretto indicate that Tosca’s fury and jealousy are always checked almost immediately after they flare up. In Ms. Mattila’s and Mr. Bondy’s conception, though, these emotions are worn far too much on her sleeve. This was Tosca on the warpath from her first entrance, tearing sheets off benches, throwing chairs, stabbing paintings, noisily collapsing to the ground at the end of her big Act II aria.

There was little sense of her religiosity, her modesty—the things that make her great act of violence so shocking and devastating. Tellingly, after killing Scarpia, this Tosca didn’t arrange candles and place a crucifix on the body; she lay down on a couch and slowly fanned herself, as if the murder were all in a day’s work. Ms. Mattila was physically fearless throughout, as always, but for once that wasn’t what she needed to be.

And she sounded uneasier in the part than she looked. She did some lovely soft singing, but especially in the last two acts, her voice spread under pressure at the top of her range, and the end of “Vissi d’arte” was rough going. But she was certainly spared the boos that were accorded the production team during their bows, which were spurred perhaps by loyalty to Mr. Zeffirelli, or perhaps by the simulated blow job given to Scarpia in the second act. Mr. Bondy seemed pleased by the catcalls; though much of the production ended up being rather conventional, the boos proved that he had done something “controversial,” “provocative.”

Yet controversy and provocation—indeed, everything on stage—take a backseat on opening night, which is really one of life’s great pleasures. An immaculately dressed young man seated in a box, hair swept back and gold scarf tight around his neck, perched on his chair and eagerly scanned the other boxes. He gesticulated and pointed and whispered to his friends about the people he had identified. He looked just like Wharton’s Larry Lefferts, “the foremost authority on ‘form’ in New York.”

Meanwhile, on Times Square, thousands of people (from the looks of it) gathered to watch the show on the NASDAQ jumbotron, in folding chairs that have been put out in the street to improve the cultural condition of the city. That’s democracy—or at least, noblesse oblige.

The Guilted Age of Opera