Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Tosca
Aleksandra Kurzak, Roberto Alagna Shine Despite Dirge-Like Musical ApproachBy David Salazar
This review is for the March 9, 2022 performance, the third of four in the run.
Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak.
At this point in their careers, the two opera stars are intrinsically linked, not only as a real-life couple but as an artistic duo, performing together all around the world. A few years back, they came to the Met for a production of “Pagliacci” (Alagna also performed in “Cavalleria Rusticana”) and this season the duo returned to the Met to take on a very different opera – “Tosca.”
There’s always an allure about seeing a real-life couple bring their chemistry on the stage and Alagna and Kurzak, undeniably two of the most exciting performers working in the opera world today, upped that ante considerably with this run of Met performances.
Ultimately, this was a night to remember, though not always for the reasons you’d want to.
Forest from the Trees
Before we go into Alagna and Kurzak however, it is important to discuss the matter that cast a pall over the proceedings – Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The Met Opera music director is a very popular figure (people were already bravoing him before he’d given a single downbeat) and he’s done a considerable amount in broadening the Met Opera’s repertory since taking over his post.
He’s also a very diligent musician, mining every work he takes on for every musical detail he can find. And this results in the Met Opera Orchestra always sounding good under his baton. You can’t take that away from him – the orchestra responds very well to what he wants and if you go to a performance and simply take in the orchestral sounds, you won’t be disappointed. If you pull up some of his recordings of symphonic works, you’ll also be quite pleased with the results. I would even go so far as to say that Nézet-Séguin’s musical highs are far stronger and better than most other living conductors out there
Where Nézet-Séguin falls short, however, is as a storyteller, especially in standard repertory. He’s always struck me quite well in more modern works and an argument can be made that having Terrence Blanchard or Matthew Aucoin or Kevin Puts by your side to articulate their musical vision likely means that you can simplify the approach. But without a composer by his side, the conductor instead seems to overthink everything to the point of overbaking his interpretations.
“La Traviata” a few years back was one such example, but this “Tosca” is arguably the low point of this approach (ironically he’s doing his best work right now at the Met with “Don Carlos”). I heard his take on the opera in the fall and what struck me about that performance was how slow the tempi he chose were. Somehow, in this latest performance I am writing about, he found a way to make the opera even slower.
Now let’s be clear on a few things. If you sift through the 400+ page score (I’m speaking from experience) you will find something rather interesting – a lot of the major tempo markings are listed as some variation of “Andante” or “Lento” or both together. This struck me as quite surprising given that one could argue this to be not only Puccini’s, but one of the repertory’s fastest paced operas. From the start to the end of Act two, “Tosca” is a torrent of suspense and you as an audience member can’t help but submit to its violent forward movement. “Tosca,” at least for two acts, is one of the most exciting operas ever written. So the preponderance of slower tempo markings was definitely surprising and likely has something to do with Nézet-Séguin’s decisions in this context.
But that wouldn’t be an issue necessarily if not for the fact that his baseline for his slow tempi is so slow to begin with (those opening chords are indicated as “Andante Molto Sostenuto” but somehow the length that Nézet-Séguin imposed on them was overwrought and way slower than the tempo markings indicated in most scores) that when the opera inevitably calls for its myriad of ritenutos or rallentandos, he has nowhere to go but to make it so slow that it becomes shapeless.
Shapelessness seems an adequate word because most of the opera lacked any sense of dynamism or flow, instead often feeling like a bunch of disparate moments strung together. Act one quickly felt like trudging through sand with tempi almost grinding to a halt during a major transition and never quite building up. “Recondita armonia” was so slow, you worried more about Alagna’s air support and whether he’d manage the long phrase than relishing in the musical moment (you’re then left not focusing on the story, but the technical precision of the singer on hand). Ditto for “Qual occhi al mondo” where any momentum built from the preceding section of the duet was utterly zapped out by the sudden shift to a slower tempo where once again Alagna’s breath control took centerstage over the music’s direction (this section is labeled “Andante sostenuto,” just like the opening of the duet but somehow felt markedly slower).
The “Te Deum” was arguably the worst offender. It’s a slower piece and, in Nézet-Séguin’s defense, most interpretations do hue toward faster tempi than the “Largo Religioso” that is marked. But when you’ve been driving a slower tempo for almost 50 minutes, you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns where not only does your suddenly slower tempo at the climax lack the impact it could have if there was more variety in the chosen tempi, but the choice to somehow continue to slow it down throughout the entire piece simply comes off as indulgent. Speaking of indulgent, that “Te Deum” was a textbook example of another of Nézet-Séguin’s storytelling shortcomings – instead of the climaxes with a wider palette of sound, every fortissimo was the same level of intensity, every single hammer blow in the orchestra was delivered with the same accentuation; again – the ending of the piece, instead of cathartic came off as exhausting with the final hammer blow simply feeling like one two many. And that’s not on Puccini.
And this was just Act one. Act two fared no better in terms of pacing and felt like stitched together moments lacking in any cohesion. Nézet-Séguin’s fortissimos all built up to the same intensity and he further indulged in grinding transitions to a halt. This was quite noticeable right before Scarpia’s solo at the end of the Act, “Già, mi dicon venal, ma a donna bella…” where the tempo slowed and slowed as Scarpia seemed to luxuriate in a moment he himself professes to having been waiting for. Under normal circumstances, this sudden expansion of time and space would have been welcome (as was a similar suspension of time when Tosca has to make her fateful decision, another moment where the music stopped and silence took over), but again, when the opera seems to come to a screeching halt at every transition, this well-placed one is -also sacrificed by diminishing returns.
Then there were moments where textural issues arose in the orchestra, particularly during the crescendo on “Orsu, Tosca parlate” leading to an orchestral outburst and Tosca’s “Ah! Più non posso!” The entire orchestra is working toward that build, but Nézet-Séguin gave a preponderance to the brass instruments, undercutting the overall effect and even leaving those instruments feeling somewhat naked and out-of-place in the sonic wave.
Act three is the most challenging of the opera. The tension has somewhat evaporated with the death of its chief antagonist and all that’s left is for an execution to be carried out. That said, you have some of Puccini’s most devastating music to perform. When I saw the December performance, the opening of this act was the one that stuck out to me for its languid, dirge-like tempo (marked “Lento”), the entire section of music, preceding the string introduction of “E lucevan le stelle’s” theme seeming endless and disconnected from the piece. That first introduction of that iconic theme is meant to be slower (marked Largo with quarter notes now equal to the preceding half note of the “Lento” tempo) but the aria proper is labeled as “Andante Lento appassionato molto,” a far cry from that initial tempo. And yet, Nézet-Séguin managed to make the opening clarinet solo feel not only slower, but almost unrecognizable rhythmically.
Which leads us to another point in Nézet-Séguin’s performance that was problematic – his work with the singers. As noted above, the first act was full of moments, particularly for Alagna, where he was pushed to sing on the edge. And while it would be easy to blame it on the tenor, you can’t when the other soloists are struggling under similar circumstances. The “Te Deum” was so loud so quickly (and so slow at the same time) that baritone Zeljko Lucic lost his line at one point and went flat, struggling to keep up. In the past, he’s imported a nice portamento into the D flat “Ah, di que gliocci” as a transition from the preceding C sharp; he couldn’t do it comfortably on this occasion.
Aleksandra Kurzak seemingly shifted her approach in Act two from a rounder sound to a more pointed one just so she could project through the orchestra and its over-the-top fortissimos; Nézet-Séguin managed this use of excessive orchestral force in the December run because he had Sondra Radvanovsky’s titanic instrument to work with; Kurzak is a different kind of singer and the fact that there was no adjustment to the approach highlights the maestro’s shortcomings as a collaborator on this evening.
This was even more potently on display during the opera’s two big arias – “Vissi d’arte” and “E lucevan le stelle.” For once, someone (Kurzak) other than Nézet-Séguin wanted a more expansive tempo, but the maestro seemed relentless in pushing forward; it got to the point where you felt the disconnect and wondered if they’d get to the end in one piece. Ditto for the second aria where Alagna, after some slower opening phrases, opted for pushing the tempo forward. The conductor lagged behind, not quite able to keep up. To call it messy is an understatement. This was the third performance in the run. Maybe rehearsal time was short (the conductor is doing a separate run of “Don Carlos” and preparing “The Hours” in Philadelphia, while also taking over three concerts at Carnegie Hall for Valery Gergiev over the last two weeks), but at the end of the day, it speaks volumes that the two most renowned pieces in the entire opera still came off so sloppily from a musical perspective.
And this kind of sums up the experience of this “Tosca.” The conductor’s choices often overpowered and overshadowed everything going on on stage to the point that it was hard to concentrate on the drama and maintain any momentum with the story. Nézet-Séguin is the chief musician in this performance, but he is also it’s main storyteller, the one who needs to ensure that all the pieces of the puzzle cohere into a potent dramatic whole. And because of his musical choices, he fell quite short of this mandate.
I’d like to reiterate that the orchestra sounds really good under the maestro’s baton and there are definitely moments where certain musical details surface that refresh the piece for the listener. That is definitely something that you respect and appreciate as someone who has listened to “Tosca” hundreds of times. It’s also admirable to try and find new ways to present a touchstone opera, especially when you know that audiences will be hearing it every single year. And you can tell that there’s been a lot of painstaking study put into it, so it is difficult to write this. But it doesn’t cohere in the bigger picture aside from the argument that everything feels uniformly slow and lacking in momentum.
Ultimately, Nézet-Séguin’s approach at this point with Puccini (and honestly most repertory staples, except that “Carmen” he did early on in his Met career and the top-notch “Don Carlos” he is currently doing) feels like a chef who has spent so much time agonizing over how many ingredients he can stuff into the cake that he’s lost all sense (or concern) of how it’s going to taste at the end of the day. He’s someone lost in the forest because he only sees the bark on the trees.
While Alagna is a veteran of the work, having performed it on the Met stage back in 2013, this would be Kurzak first go at the role, one which she will return to next season on that very same stage (the duo will also be appearing together in two performances during that fall run). And it was fair to wonder how she’d manage one of the repertory’s iconic roles. Tosca, especially on the Met stage, has been a vehicle for sopranos with massive, weighty voices; Kurzak’s instrument, which by no means small, is not a brassy and big but more admirable for its flexibility and gentle nature.
She used this to her advantage throughout the first-act, a section of the opera where Puccini doesn’t require the soprano to have to project over a bombastic orchestra. Instead, he gives her fluttering lines as she flirts with Cavaradossi throughout their duet. This vocal writing suited Kurzak to perfection and her sound floated seamlessly and flexibly throughout “non la sospiri la nostra casetta,” apexing in some glowing high notes. It gave her Tosca an initial innocence that isn’t usually present in most interpretations, but makes sense when you consider her religious devoutness and especially how she acts in the opera’s final act. Giving her this naivete from the get-go inevitably makes her tragedy all the greater.
But Kurzak also imbued Tosca with fire which was most noticeable when she came across the painting of the Marchesa Attavanti. She grabbed the painting from the easel, studied it, and in a moment of frustration, smashed it into the ground with such force that it was surprising the prop didn’t break then and there. This set up her potential for violent outbursts later in the opera quite well.
Kurzak also managed a very layered interaction with Zeljko Lucic’s Scarpia in this first act, distraught by her lover’s potential infidelity (her voice soared in lament throughout “Ed io venivo a lui tutta dogliosa,” climaxing in a grief-ridden, pianissimo high A) and then, if only for a moment, finding some comfort in him. However, when he pulled on her shawl, Kurzak’s Tosca locked eyes with Scarpia, a blank stare on her face that was full of confusion and disgust all the same.
This same level of disgust would transfer into her entrance in Act two as she strode in like a diva taking up space before isolating herself on the couch. You could immediately sense her discomfort and couldn’t help but admire the composure she instead chose to portray. As noted, Kurzak’s vocal approach changed throughout this Act in order for her to manage the oppressive waves of sound from the orchestra. Instead of the round high notes from the opening act, you ended up with something pointier and edgier. Sometimes, she’d come in late on some of those to avoid the initial orchestra accents; this was particularly noticeable on the high C natural that followed “Vittoria! Vittoria!” In other instances, especially in passages that required lower notes and passages, her singing took on a more parlato approach; it definitely heightened the intensity of the insults she hurls at Scarpia throughout. But ultimately, the soprano managed to cut through the orchestra all while maintaining the integrity of her singing in this most daunting of acts.
“Vissi d’arte” was a gem and even though she was seemingly in conflict with the conductor throughout over what the tempo would be, the soprano ultimately managed to find her way through it unscathed, building one succulent legato line into the other seamlessly. Her voice’s texture harkened back to the purity it displayed in the first act, round and vibrant. The climactic high B flat on “Signor” was delivered with an endless pianissimo that dimuendoed beautifully into the ensuing high A flat. This was pure singing that was all the more impactful for the simplicity of its approach and overall lack of affectation.
Act three saw the soprano mix her approaches to both acts a bit, though it was clear that by the climax of the duet, with the orchestra pouring it on, both her and Alagna were a bit overwhelmed.
Speaking of her rapport with Alagna, their chemistry was electric in the first Act, the two flirting and playing off each other splendidly. When she repeatedly insisted that he paint the eyes black, he eventually threw up his shoulders, walked over to his paints, and did what she commanded. It was an obvious gesture, but their rapport throughout this quick exchange spoke to an intimacy and understanding that few stage partners have shown in this production. Ditto for their final moments in Act three as they touched and held one another with similar sense of comfort.
There were some dramatic misgivings in Kurzak’s performance, some the result of the staging itself and one that was her choice. The first two are staging decisions that have always been problematic and, in the case of the first one, laughable. When Tosca stabs Scarpia, McVicar opted for having her run around a table to stab him again. Not only does the moment feel false given the dramatic stakes (if she sees him run for the door and the intention is to stab him again to stop him, why run around a table to do that when you can just stab him in the back!), but it puts every single performer into the uncomfortable position of having to time their particular runs to get the stab in at the right moment; it always comes off as quite humorous and sloppy and it continues to baffle me that no one has thought to change it in subsequent revivals (with the exception of Anna Netrebko who, as she often did, changed that direction and made it work dramatically).
In the final Act, Tosca’s arrival is completely undercut by the staging’s decision to have her walk to the side of the stage to drop off her purse before rushing over to hug her beloved Cavaradossi. Why is her first instinct to drop her purse off given the circumstances? She’s just murdered a guy and is seeing her lover, the only person who can give her any hope and comfort, for the first time since he’s been sentenced to death (obviously she doesn’t think he’s going to die anymore, but still, he’s safe and sound and it would make sense for her to rush over to him the moment she sees him). The dropping off of the purse is simply distracting and nonsensical.
Then there’s the ending of the opera when Tosca discovers that Cavaradossi is dead. Kurzak’s choice was to react upon initially pulling off the blanket. Something about the quickness with which she reacted made it feel premeditated; it didn’t truly feel like she’d actually registered that he was dead before she was already crying about it.
But these gripes aside, Kurzak delivered a fantastic turn as the starry diva, especially in the opening act of the opera.
Alagna is like fine wine – he gets better as he gets more experienced. His voice has a very unique, nasal-like quality, but over time, he’s managed to hone that particular sound and build an arsenal of vocal colors around it. Moreover, his technique has simply gotten better as time has gone on and this was most noticeable at the outset of the opera.
“Recondita armonia” is not the longest aria, but there’s no doubt that it’s a challenge for any singer to walk on stage and have to deliver a touchstone aria without much time to warm up. And given the circumstances of having to cater to an insanely slow tempo, Alagna’s vocal mastery was all the more impactful. The aria itself felt shapeless musically because the slow tempi sucked its sense of build dry, and yet the tenor still managed to make something out of it, managing long lines with seemingly endless breath support; even if you wondered whether he’d make it through to the end, he never wavered and instead seemed to grow sturdier and more secure as the aria built to its climax. There was no choppiness in his phrasing and that high B flat on “Tosca” was delivered with tremendous aplomb. But that wasn’t even the most impressive part of the entire thing – at the close of the final phrase, Alagna somehow managed a lengthy diminuendo on the final note.
He did something similar during the duet when confronted with the slow tempo on “Qual occhio al mondo,” the dolcissimo on the final phrase of that opening melody delivered pianissimo in his voice, floating into the Met hall; I might add that he managed this lengthy passage while on his knees, making the vocal feat all the more impressive.
During Act two, his voice was resplendent and brilliant; of the three soloists he was the most consistently able to manage Nézet-Séguin’s aggressive orchestra outbursts without much trouble. “Vittoria! Vittoria” was another major moment for the tenor as, from his knees, he delivered a very extended rendition of the high A sharp before falling to the group and delivering the ensuing section (all in a very low tessitura for the tenor) with great clarity. Most tenors jump up and deliver the high note from the center of the stage. It’s understandable to do this, but it doesn’t always ring true from a dramatic standpoint when you consider the hell Cavaradossi has just been put through. Alagna’s choice, while obvious, was effective for how truthful it felt dramatically.
Which brings us to the end of the opera and the tenor’s big shining moment. I’ve already noted how, like with “Vissi d’arte” this aria lacked cohesion between conductor and soloist. But Alagna still managed to pull out a rather breath-taking interpretation out of it. He sang the opening stanzas softly, emitting a pianissimo gorgeous and expansive high G sharp on “le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!” The note was a bit long and, considering there’s no fermata (Puccini did write for that phrase to be sung “con grande sentimento vagamente”), it felt a bit indulgent; nonetheless, it was a brilliant vocal technical display that launched the ensuing section of the aria into a propulsive forward movement. This is where things came undone with Nézet-Séguin as Alagna pushed forward throughout the rest of the aria, only to be met with an orchestra lagging behind. He ultimately climaxed on a gloriously potent high A natural and a forceful delivery of the final notes of the aria; he would garner a very warm and deserved ovation from the audience after this.
Full admission, I haven’t been a major fan of Zeljko Lucic’s Scarpia over the years. His voice, while round and opulent, doesn’t necessarily have the varied color palette for a character as complex as Scarpia who is a shapeshifter throughout the opera. He enters as a bull, transitions into a slithering snake in his scene with Tosca, and then blends those two and many other characteristics throughout the second Act. In past performances, I found Lucic’s Scarpia rather one-note, making him rather uninspiring as the chief antagonist of this opera.
But people can change. Interpretations can deepen. Performances give artists a chance at experimentation. And Lucic definitely delivered a far richer Scarpia than I’d remembered. Yes, the “Te Deum” wasn’t a strong point for him vocally or dramatically, but everything that preceded it was top notch, especially his exchange with Tosca in which he plays the pious do-gooder. Here his voice was gentle and fluid, the baritone softening his timbre. It contrasted nicely with the more blunt instrument he used during his entrance; he doesn’t have the most potent or resonant sound, which diminishes his potency in the role, but it seems that he’s carved out a way to overcome that. This was on full display during those opening moments where he relished in bite and accent to get Scarpia’s aggressive nature across.
But I think Act two is where he really came alive as the character, his voice shifting its tone rather easily; you could feel him as a master manipulator, ready for whatever the occasion called for. If he needed to be gentle with Tosca early on, he was more than privy to it. If he needed to up the ante and bark a bit to scare those around him, he managed quite formidably. For me, the moment that most resonated was following “Vittoria! Vittoria!” wherein Scarpia has the upperhand. This was one of Nézet-Séguin’s more insightful tempo slowdowns and Lucic relished every moment with a very gentle, slithery voice; he took his time to enjoy what he believed to be his victory and as a listener, you never felt more disgusted or overpowered by him.
The remainder of the cast was quite strong with Patrick Carfizzi bringing a lighter vocal touch as the Sacristan; contrasting him with a richer baritone as Angelotti was Lucia Lucas, the first transgender singer to perform a lead role at the Met. As Scarpia’s thugs, Tony Stevenson and Christopher Job were solid.
Ultimately, those who wanted to see Alagna and Kurzak shine would have been more than happy with the climactic vocal moments they delivered on. But to call this dramatically fulfilling would be wrong. To paraphrase a quote by Rossini in reference to Wagner, for every beautiful moment delivered by the vocal soloists, there were rough quarter hours of Nézet-Séguin’s languid tempi to suck away any dramatic momentum.