When a new production of “Tosca” opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Sept. 21, the audience booed.
Critics threw verbal acid.
The creator of the previous production, a warhorse the Met rode for 25 years, called his successor “third rate.”
Opera lovers in Southwest Florida will judge for themselves whether this “Tosca” is a giant bird with a snood or a sensational streamlining when the Met beams “Tosca” live to three participating theaters here Saturday. (All three are said to be sold out, but occasionally there are resale tickets available at the door.)
I actually saw “Tosca” live — no HD — on my first visit to the legendary opera house Oct. 3. But it’s impossible to extrapolate from seat 17G at the Met to any cushy armchair at the Hollywood 20 what kind of experience Saturday’s performance will be.
What cinemagoers will be seeing Saturday is the video director’s interpretation of “Tosca.” Cameras for the high-definition, life-size performances home in and pull away at the discretion of the videographers’ director. They, and not director Luc Bondy, will have the final say on what the largest audience for this opera — an estimated 1.5 million ticket holders around the world — will experience that day.
From HD operas we’ve seen in the past, we’re betting that means operaphiles here will see star Karita Mattila as if they were standing on stage next to her. That’s an intimacy we didn’t have at Lincoln Center. They, unlike we, will probably dive into the orchestra pit via video camera to see who’s playing the luminous violin solos director Joseph Colaneri couldn’t.
If the director has any sympathy for the viewers, they also won’t have to endure a wide angle of the bilious yellow walls in Scarpia’s lair for the entire second act. Nor will cinema audiences have to wonder, as I did during Act III, what the commanding executioner was handing Tosca.
Was it her lover’s ring, offered to the man to deliver a letter the doomed Mario Cavaradossi planned to write? Or was it Tosca’s gloves, eased off gently by Mario during their final rendezvous in the courtyard? (Report from Met media relations: It was the gloves.)
There’s a growing market for live broadcasts of events, from Hannah Montana concerts to boxing matches, and a quiet subgenre of artist-technician known as an HD video director has sprung up. Although we won’t see their names until the cast credits Saturday, no institution has done more for the image of HD video directors than the Met, which is broadcasting nine of them in its fourth season of live transmissions.
The skill and discretion of its HD directors isn?t lost on cinema students, who praise the re-energizing of opera and bicker about who are the best and worst HD directors. These aren’t colorless filters for the piece; many of them earned their chops on TV work with high visual challenges, such as the Macy?s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
With robotically maneuvered cameras that move on a crescent track around the front of the stage, a pair of cranes that can hover above set changes and a raft of Steadicams that can follow the sweating stars backstage, Met operas are the pinnacle of live broadcast. What viewers in Southwest Florida will likely get, from our experience of 10 of these, is the distillation of “Tosca” to its performers and music.
And as Judy Collins offered in a long-ago indie song, something’s lost, but something’s gained.
“Tosca” in high definition and close range may exaggerate the subtle symbols Bondy likes to mortar his work with:
n Gloves — Scarpia’s in fresh-blood red, of course; Tosca’s, in twilight blue.
n The fan, which returns at ominous junctures like William Randolph Hearst’s Rosebud. It is used for its cooling function only once, as a traumatic catharsis after Tosca murders Scarpia. (A warning: Tosca’s traditional candles-and-cross ritual over Scarpia’s body has been eliminated from this production, but without noticeable loss.)
But the video format also can gloss over Bondy’s era bending, which confused me and alienated my opera companion. In one scene, Scarpia’s martinet appears outfitted in oval John Lennon shades. An oil drum, a 20th-century phenomenon, supplemented the scaffolding in a 19th-century setting. Even the cathedral in this production was a 13th-century mastodon of style; by 1800, most of them had become frou-froued bastions of stained glass and painted embellishments.
The anomalies stick out a foot to trip the consciousness as we elbow our way among characters and music.
If the HD director wants to do the viewers a favor, those will disappear.
There are some aspects of live opera, of course, that even the video director can’t control.
All I can hope for Saturday viewers is that Karita Mattila is still up to her surprisingly satisfying portrayal of the tempestuous Tosca. She displayed a vigor up to Bondy’s intensely dramatic staging and was vocally resilient.
Last Saturday, Mattila had her match in Marcello Alvarez, who was even more compelling in his restrained, but wrenching, Act III requiem than Mattila was in her emotionally snowballing “Vissi d’ arte (I lived for art).”His “E lucevan le stelle” (And the stars were shining)” was the Perfect Opera Moment.
But given the opportunity for close-range performance, the cameras could pronounce a new winner this weekend. It’s a thrilling competition, one that prevails even after the visual noise has been turned to high.
Or, as my companion told me: “I can always close my eyes. It’s still divine music.”
If you’re going, don’t miss the last 30 seconds of “Tosca.” And tell me what you think: 213-6091 or firstname.lastname@example.org