Zeffirelli's breathtaking version of the Met's `Tosca'

The New York music press has declared open season on Franco Zeffirelli because the noted Italian stage and film director/designer has dared to give Puccini his spectacular due at the Metropolitan Opera House. Simply stated, his new ``Tosca'' production is breathtaking in its splendor and theatrical impact. (It will be telecast tonight, ``Live From the Met'' on the PBS network, simulcast in most areas -- check local listings.) It is, in so many right ways, larger than life. For this he has been lavished with such epithets as ``vulgar,'' ``heartless'' etc., etc.

Yet this sould come as no surprise to Zeffirelli or the Met: His superb 1982 production of ``La Boh`eme'' was dismissed for the same reason, fundamentally a lack of intimacy. No matter that the Met seats 3,800 spectators, or that the lovely sort of intimacy you could get in a 200-seat theater would be preposterous in so large a space -- space that demands a scale larger than life and which, in these bland, small-scaled days, so rarely gets. But Zeffirelli easily demonstrates his grasp of this fact, and for this he is vilified -- in his ``La Boh`eme'' by a few critics, in the ``Tosca'' by a majority of them.

Puccini's opera takes place in a bustling, hyperactive city -- Rome -- in a specific time -- 1800. It takes place in three very specific settings -- the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Farnese Palace, and atop Castel Sant'Angelo. And it concerns three very specific Roman personages -- the most famous woman of the theater (Floria Tosca), the most powerful political/authoritarian figure (Baron Scarpia), and a talented, politically active painter (Mario Cavaradossi).

``Tosca'' is not a tract on the human condition, not a lofty drama of ideals and issues. It is a cleverly conceived, superbly executed melodrama. To change anything about the literalness of ``Tosca'' is to dismantle the machinery of the melodrama and render it trivial and, at times, trashy (as demostrated by the tawdry Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production seen regularly in San Francisco).

Zeffirelli understands this opera. He also knows that in a large house you need large sets, large gestures, large performances. His sets and direction here are thrillingly re-creational, particularly breathtaking in the church: The pandemonium of the unexpected ``Te Deum'' that ends the first act is dizzyingly well handled. Zeffirelli's rendering of Scarpia's room in the second act is, for once, a functioning home and office in one of the huge, austere rooms of the palace, rather than merely a set for Act II, with ungainly furniture placed because the action says it must be there.

The third act becomes a three-scene affair here. Just as Cavaradossi's entrance music begins, the front part of the evocative set rises to reveal prison arches under the rooftop. It is not a necessary insertion, though it does add an interestingly dark and oppressive visual counterpart to the black in the orchestra.

Zeffirelli has also been blamed for not making Hildegard Behrens a great Tosca. But how can this be his fault? The soprano at her best is a vivid actress. Her stage presence is not rooted in the traditions of the Italian (or at least Italianate) opera diva. When Behrens walks on stage, one does not instantly sense the essence of a Tosca -- the fame, the passion, the artifice, even the sense of one who has lived in that style of clothing all her life. One senses rather, the bewilderment of an often imaginative singer ill at ease.

At the third performance, she unfolded a very good Tosca -- at times oddly, raucously sung, at other times hauntingly, beautifully put forth. Many moments in the second act flashed out with the right sort of animal brilliance. Other moments passed by with little sense of their dramatic potential. Most of the high notes were unfailingly secure and penetrating. Some of the quiet singing proved unexpectedly lustrous. That said, it seems doubtful she will ever be a great Tosca. And at no time did her performance really justify the honor of being in this new production.

Pl'acido Domingo has internalized the role of Cavaradossi, and Zeffirelli has coaxed some insightful things from the tenor. Domingo offered a superb opening aria at the performance I attended -- some of his strongest singing in recent memory. Occasionally thereafter, he achieved the same vocal heights, and remained unusually involved and specific histrionically. Cornell MacNeil's Scarpia, unfortunately, indicated the continued deterioration of his singing each succeeding year.

Giuseppe Sinopoli made his Met debut conducting the Puccini score. It was symphonic in approach, rather subdued in the first act, erupting with suitable fire in the second, and positively passionate, ominous, and electrifying in the last.

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