An early twentieth-century (historically sensitive?) Metropolitan Opera performance of Tosca (photograph by Boyer, from Wikipedia, public domain)
For several months I have set up my xfinity box to record all new PBS broadcasts of performances by the Metropolitan Opera. Since the San Francisco Chronicle tends not to be the best source for either the time or the channel of these broadcasts, I decided that I would be better off with Comcast technology. Nevertheless, I have to confess that these recordings have been building up at a rate faster than I can work them into my viewing schedule.
Nevertheless, those who know about my current condition can appreciate that I am not in shape to attend concerts these days; so catching up on accumulated recordings seems like a good way to keep my head (and writing skills) in the game. As a result, over the course of the last few weeks, I have watched two of these recordings; and, curiously, both of them are productions created by Stage Director David McVicar, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, which opened the Met’s 2017–18 season, and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which was given its first performance this past New Year’s Eve. McVicar is no stranger to the San Francisco Opera (SFO); and his productions here tend to resonate with impressions of strong opinions strongly held.
The strength of those opinions were displayed unabashedly at the first SFO Insight Panel of the 2016–17, when McVicar was invited to discuss his approach to Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. One of the first questions he fielded was whether his approach to this opera about the French Revolution would depart from fidelity to the period, as had been the case when he staged Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens with pyrotechnics that seemed to owe more to the Marvel Cinematic Universe than to the Homeric bards. This provoked a series of rants over the course of the evening, beginning with the disdainful observation that any opera based on history must be true to the historical setting and that Les Troyens was not such an opera, because it was based on myth.
Whether or not McVicar’s precept is a valid one (and I, for one, do not accept it), it is interesting to consider the extent to which both Norma and Tosca can count as “historical.” They are certainly not mythical, since neither involves supernatural intervention and the only role taken by any deity involves providing grounds for a sacred rite. On the other hand each opera raises its own questions about how a musical drama can take a valid stand with respect to a historical context.
In the case of Norma that context is the Roman invasion of Britain; and the obvious question is “Whose history?” We know at least some of the names of historians that chronicled the age of the Roman Empire, but we also know enough to assume that none of them were writing with any disciplined sense of historiography in mind. Under the Roman Empire a historian had two major priorities: fiscal reward and staying alive. Having their texts is useful; but unraveling those texts to establish “the story behind the story” is a task that has occupied only the most recent generations of historians.
Nevertheless, “history,” whatever it may be, really does not signify in Norma. There is a community of Druids and a battalion of Romans tasked with subduing them. For narrative purposes they could just as easily be Montagues and Capulets, particularly when we learn that the title character, the high-priestess of the Druids, has had twin sons by the Roman proconsul Pollione. Furthermore, to shift the context from Romeo and Juliet to Medea, while Norma has been caring for the children in secret, Pollione has shifted his attention to falling in love with another priestess, Adalgisa. In other words whether or not the opera is “historical” signifies less than its reliance of earlier (and familiar) dramatic narratives.
Ultimately, the weak underbelly of Norma has nothing to do with history and everything to do with the weaknesses of the text provided by Bellini’s librettist Felice Romani. To be blunt, over the course of this two-act opera, Romani’s narrative is beginning to run out of steam by the time of the second scene of the second act; and McVicar appeared to be at a loss when it came to compensating for Romani’s shortcomings. If anything, he seemed inclined to prolong every episode leading up to the climax, when Pollione joins Norma in being burned alive on a pyre. This is when McVicar succumbs to the urge to revive his pyrotechnical tricks from Les Troyens, lighting up the entire stage with images of fire as if Norma and Pollione had ascended to Brünnhilde’s Rock to be consumed by the flames that Wotan ordered Loge to light.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Norma is a bel canto opera. As I wrote on my Examiner.com site when Norma was was given its most recent SFO performances, presentation is all about “beautiful vocal sonorities (bel canto), usually to the exclusion of attaching very much significance to matters of logic, structure, and rhetoric that arise in either the music or the narrative of the libretto.” Thus, what matters most is that McVicar did not get in the way of the display of those “beautiful vocal sonorities.”
Indeed, one of the sources of that beauty was the same one I had enjoyed at SFO, the title role sung by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, perfectly matched with mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa. Both vocalists impressed not only through a thorough command of the text but also a stunning capacity to work a wide dynamic range. This was bel canto in which stillness on the threshold of silence carried just as much impact as a bold fortissimo, if not more so. Furthermore, if their talents as soloists were stunning, then their approach to the rich amount of duo work that Bellini had written was downright transcendent.
To be fair, however, this was a performance that was not entirely about the beautiful vocal work. There was more to the overall show, even if it was not due to McVicar. The other hero of this production was Carlo Rizzi, who was as sensitive to every instrument in the orchestra pit as he was to how the libretto was being sung on stage. Rizzi was able to call attention to subtle mixtures of instrumental coloration in the overture that tend to pass unnoticed while everyone is waiting for the curtain to rise; and those rich sonorities served the singers on the stage as well as they served the instrumentalists in the pit. Rizzi almost (but not quite) made the case that Norma might do better in a concert setting!
Where McVicar may have been closer to his own mark was in his approach to Tosca. The libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa is firmly routed in Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and the impact of that invasion on governance in Rome. McVicar seems to have grasped the role of this context in establishing the character of Baron Scarpia, and the execution of that role by baritone Željko Lučić was definitely the high point of the production. Unfortunately, the remaining characterizations ran the gamut from woefully overwrought (both soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca and tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi) to annoyingly fussy (baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the sacristan). Even when “history matters,” a compelling opera production demands attention paid to more fundamental qualities of stagecraft.