Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Tosca  

Elena Stikhina is a Tosca for the Ages in David McVicar’s Legendary Production

By Thaddius M. Banks
(Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Despite the monumental challenges of navigating the quagmire of pandemic era restrictions and precautions, the Metropolitan Opera offered a triumphal revival of McVicar’s opulent production of Puccini’s beloved masterpiece Tosca.

Remarkably, there were no replacements for this performance, a real treat during this time where illness and travel restrictions plague the classical stage. This was a welcome retreat from the world outside of the opera house that further cemented the Met’s role at the forefront of logistical and administrative innovation in an ever-changing environment. An all-star cast of Met favorites and interpreters of Puccini’s work known the world over gathered, in spite of it all, with the world class orchestra, chorus, and maestro to fulfill any opera lover’s long unfulfilled fantasies of being catapulted out of New York in 2022 and into the grandiose, scandalous, and treacherous world recreated by Puccini and his collaborative librettists Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa in 19th century Rome.

David McVicar’s production stands out as one of the most fantastical in the world today since its opening in 2017. It is truly a spectacle that any opera lover would fall in love with. 

Another Look at McVicar’s Production

David McVicar’s production of “Tosca” is known for its extravagance and historical accuracy. The setting of “Tosca” is as specific as any. The church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant’Angelo are all famous buildings that have played important roles in the cultural and political history of Rome. In many other productions of ‘Tosca,” simple approximations of these locations have sufficed to contain the plot within the archetypal locations that create the circumstances where intense melodrama can take place. Lust, passion, and politics in a church. Extortion, attempted rape, and murder in a government building. Betrayal and suicide atop a building where justice is supposed to be pursued. But in resting on the musical excellency of the score and the prowess of the performers you miss a chance at tapping into the nuances that Puccini and his librettists incorporated into the plot.

McVicar’s set beautifully portrays the events of ‘Tosca” as private encounters between public figures in public spaces. The historical accuracy of the set in Act one presents Cavaradossi as not just a painter in a church, but as a successor to the titans of Italian painting who had the luxury of papal support in the creation of Italy’s famed frescos. By capitalizing on the use of the intended effect of Rococo architecture McVicar reminds us that the cast is just a small piece in the overall scheme of things, just another cast of characters in the eternal city. It challenges the cast to draw our attention from the decadence of the setting we encounter them in by becoming larger than life characters.

Act two brings us to the offices of the dreaded Scarpia, Rome’s corrupt and deplorable chief of police, in the Palazzo Farnese. Luc Bondy’s production, the last iteration of the opera at the Met, presents Scarpia’s office as a massive sprawling space with a clear view of the public outside that fills the entire stage. It gave the performers a great deal of space in which to engage in elaborate blocking and reinforced the notion of Scarpia as the all powerful despot with nothing to hide and no one to answer to.

By contrast, McVicar presents the office as a poorly lit room connected to torture chambers deep in the bowels of Palazzo Farnese. In lowering the lighting, McVicar introduced the eerie glow of a fireplace and increased the impact of the bright lights that reveal the torture chambers where Cavaradossi is revealed to Tosca in Scarpia’s scheme to coerce her into making the ultimate mephistophelean bargain. McVicar created a trap for our title character far away from the shimmering church of the previous act, where his insidious goals could be met in secret with only his co-conspirators as witnesses, a notion supported heavily by the libretto that reveals the limits to Scarpia’s powers again and again.

The third act brings us atop the Castel Sant’Angelo, the place where our story meets its tragic end. Once again, the use of generic battlements has been used to illustrate the setting with the action and drama dominating the scene. McVicar reminds us again not only what is happening, but where and when this is taking place. The Castel Sant’Angelo is one of the most ancient and foreboding structures in Rome. First a  mausoleum for the Roman emperor Hadrian then repurposed to be a prison for the papacy, the building has been synonymous with imprisonment and death to those who dared to oppose the authorities that have held power for nearly two thousand years.

To ignore the symbolic importance of the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Italian people and therefore the author of the source material, the librettists, Puccini, and the characters in the story are wrong that has been done time and time again. McVicar remedies this with a clear depiction of the ancient structure- the site where our heroine commits the ultimate sin in Catholic doctrine atop what was for centuries the tallest building in Rome with a direct line of sight to the Vatican itself.

Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

A Cast of Greats 

Elena Stikhina, Joseph Calleja, and George Gagnidze portrayed the career-defining title roles, Cavaradossi and Scarpia, respectively.

Stikhina, a relative newcomer to the Met’s stage, can surely be counted among the great Toscas of modern history. Her voice is rich and warm with a consistency of tone and power seldom seen in even the greatest opera stars. She extracted every ounce of drama from the score with everything from near inaudible pianissimos to thunderous fortes. “Vissi d’arte” was met with such applause that, for just a moment, I anticipated an encore. She was an explosion of virtuosity, a bolt of lightning to the heart that took the audience away from the troubled times we find ourselves in.

I have often attributed the jealousy of Tosca to the fact that she was a famous, well-respected woman of the stage concerned with being left for a younger woman by her lover Cavaradossi. With Stikhina’s portrayal of the role, I, for the first time, saw a young woman caught in a society where she has to contend not only with the unwanted advances of villains like Scarpia, but must go to extreme lengths to present herself as a pious, god-fearing woman to her adoring fans while maintaining an extramarital affair with a high profile artist who doesn’t have to face the same moral scrutiny as a man.

As Cavaradossi, Calleja delivered the much anticipated “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle” with a sensitivity not often seen in this repertoire. His use of falsetto during the high pianissimo passages provided a welcome tenderness to what can often be a role dominated by intense erotic passion. Calleja was accompanied in the first act by the Sacristan, played by Patrick Carfizzi, a regular fixture at the Met and interpreter of the role. 

Carfizzi’s performance was light and whimsical with vocal excellence. 

Gagnidze, another seasoned veteran at the Met, portrayed the insidious Scarpia with all the dramatic flair that the corrupt, sacrilegious, and perverse antagonist demanded. Gagnidze’s voice was rich and powerful yet full of precision as he delivered with unmistakably fabulous Italian diction every meticulously chosen word from the manipulative despot’s mouth. Fully committed to the role, he was both inspiring and horrifying. A master of stagecraft, he was able to capture the manipulative nature and malignant genius of a character somewhere between Nero and Sherlock Holmes.

Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

A Maestro of Superior Quality 

Maestro Carlo Rizzi led the star-studded cast with the artistry and prowess of a conductor at the height of his powers. Rizzi, undoubtedly an authority on verismo performance practice, navigated Puccini’s breathtaking score with a freedom and confidence that only comes from decades of experience. He captured the ebbs and flows of Puccini’s intricate compositional style that seeks to embody the fantastical heights of melodrama coupled with the mundane pleasantries of everyday life.

Rizzi was so physically connected to each line and pause, I would be hard pressed to believe he had not committed the entire opera to memory. With his understanding of dramatic timing, a necessity when working in the verismo style, Rizzi was able to grant the singer something often lacking in operatic performances today- freedom. 

When his leadership of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus joined with the breathtaking grandeur of McVicar’s 2017 costumes and set, the audience were teleported, body and soul, into a Rome on the edge of Napoleonic conquest.

Puccini’s unforgettable score and McVicar’s awe inspiring production remain examples of a Metropolitan opera at the height of its dedication to the continued existence and excellence of the most cherished works in the operatic repertory. The Metropolitan Opera was able, after over a hundred years and 983 performances to breathe new life into one of opera’s crown jewels with a cast of profound talent, a brilliant maestro, David McVicar’s visionary staging, and an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists without rival.

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