Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tosca for Today

Any conscientious string player strives for a bel canto style and the naturalness of phrase that characterizes great singing. The Heifetz protege and my beloved violin teacher, Erick Friedman, would encourage all his students to learn from singers and pianists for secrets of interpretation. My personal exposure to singing has essentially been while playing in the pit as an orchestra player. Sadly, one of my most vivid recollections, before I was blacklisted from the local opera orchestra, was performing "Carmen" and being forced to endure, as a stand partner, a violinist with loose lips who pointed to the stage during lengthy bars of rest and laughed. "How could anyone be seduced by that fatso? That's Carmen? I can feel the stage shake with every step she takes—"

To replace those regrettable memories, and enrich my life with a meaningful operatic experience, I now attend Metropolitan Opera at the movies. Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, has been criticized for pandering to audiences but I detect the genetic genius of a Heifetz. "Classical music used to be pop music," says Gelb, and indeed, his maternal great-uncle Jascha Heifetz composed light, popular songs under the pen-name Jim Hoyle, as in one such song: When you make love to me, don't make me believe. During the Great Depression and war years, Gelb's great-uncle Heifetz composed numerous contemporary tunes in keeping with the times. Gelb states that his commitment to the art form is to revitalize opera and make it accessible to the general public; I have no doubt that he's on the right path. I'll bet other opera company general directors are kicking themselves. But then, even if others chose to offer live simulcasts on the big screen, how many companies could compete with the Met?

In the recent production of Puccini's "Tosca", Gelb boldly replaces the definitive Franco Zeffirelli production with a lean version by Swiss director Luc Bondy. Although this interpretation of "Tosca" got a thumbs down from those resistant to change after 25 years of Zefirelli, Bondy makes an honest attempt to emphasize the "true essence of character" through the device of theatrical realism. In the words of Gelb, Bondy's Tosca demonstrates that "our art is not locked in the past."

Puccini's tragic heroine was played by the tremendously beautiful Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. She has been one of the most prominent singers at the Met for more than a decade. Baritone George Gagnidze made his second Met appearance, this time as the evil police chief Scarpia. With Gagnidze's splendid intensity and depth of voice, he suits the part of the despised Scarpia to perfection. In the "Te Deum" scene, I was spell-bound by Scarpia's eyes, crazed and wild; he reminded me of a raving music director from my past; close up at the theater, one can even spot drool on Scarpia's lips as he lusts after Tosca. The role of Tosca's doomed lover, Cavaradossi, was superbly sung by the passionate Marcelo Alvarez, a self-proclaimed Romantic. He has been hailed as a Puccini tenor by The New York Times.

The orchestra, under the direction of Joseph Colaneri, played so rapturously throughout the production that during magic moments, all I needed to do was close my eyes and enjoy.
In pictures: Heifetz, Gelb, Tosca's original poster

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