Or, I Am Never Going To See Bryn
We bought the tickets as soon as the season came out. For those who aren’t slavish followers of this blog, well, I have a giant fan crush on Bryn Terfel, the Welsh baritone who has made the province of operatic bad boys his domain. (“Bad Boys” is actually the title of a CD he cut, whose tracks range from Verdi to Sondheim.) He was the Hot Wotan of the first Ring Cycle I ever followed in toto, bringing a lower abdominal thrum to the usually soporific and didactic matter that Wagner gave to his “head god, and a crashing bore” [Dame Anna Russell]. Wotan is recycled Schopenhauer, mostly. Bryn made him romantic and, as a father sentencing his best loved daughter to common humanity, heartbreaking. (The by-play in their earlier scenes was globus hystericus to someone who once imagined she had a father’s love and learned otherwise.) The idea of him doing Scarpia — the blow-molded, double acting bastard operagoers love to hate — was slam-dunk irresistible.
And then some sort of shit hit the fan. I’m not sure in what order. Only, Bryn backed out, citing vocal fatigue, which a singer has to take seriously; then the soprano jumped ship; maybe before or after that, Jonas Kaufman, who is always and forever getting the vapors, abdicated the romantic tenor lead Mario Cavaradossi; last but not least, the Met ejected James Levine, who ferfrigsake back in the 80s my connections at the New England Conservatory and the Met knew all about him cornholing little boys and paying off their parents but somehow it took that long for the Met management to tweak on it. Whatever.
So I almost said to the Engineer, Give the tickets away. Glad I didn’t. If I couldn’t have Bryn, Željko Lučić was not at all shabby. I am doomed to see a good singing actor as Rigoletto and then see him in my very next Tosca (starting with Cornell MacNeil, who may have inaugurated the quill pen thing, of which more later). Lučić’s Rigoletto — he testified that he had been told to play the scathing court fool as Don Rickles, but had no idea what was meant — totally did not suck. His Scarpia was dire, all too believable, full of baritone engine vibration, and imbued with the smugness of a man who has been getting his way for long enough that he takes it for granted.
I have this theory about Scarpia — the dreaded police chief of Rome whose word can send a man to the gallows and for whom, as Cavaradossi says, the confessor and the hangman are his procurers. I say he is a commoner. I speculate that, “Barone” Scarpia notwithstanding, he came from humble, even from despised peasantry — reference Anakin Skywalker for people whose fictive milieu is more modern — and that one of the grim joys of his life is wielding the power of life and death over the nobility. The text yields tantalizing tells. “Carnefice,” mocks the tortured but defiant Cavaradossi — repeating the word for emphasis — meaning “hangman,” a job not typically given to the upper class. Archly, earlier in the scene, Scarpia requires Cavaradossi’s attendance, saying “Introducete il cavaliere”: “Bring in the gentleman.” Cavaradossi is a kinda witless, idealistic, well off member of a sort of creative class, working as a painter in the Church of Sant’ Andrea for sure, but also the owner of a secluded villa with all kinds of grounds, if you listen to his arias about snogging with Tosca therein. A bit young for that not to be inherited. And Scarpia: you sense him enjoying the harvest of Tosca, the fiery artiste, only so much more because she is the favorite of the Queen. These are the passions of an arriviste, a man with something to prove.
But whatever. It was Cavaradossi who stole the show, which is a funny thing to say about a tenor lead, but I have always found the character a giant snore. He is noble, he loves Tosca, he gambles and loses his life, he should be a romantic blockbuster, but I’ve always found him a stiff, the kind of preux chevalier that we are told we ought to idealize zzzzzz. Bad-boy Scarpia always got my sidelong glance instead. Then along comes Grigolo, pawing over the soprano like the boyfriend who used to forget my parents were in the room, and most delightfully, bouncing up and down during the intermission interviews like a Golden Retriever puppy, extolling the idealism that goads Cavaradossi to tell the escaped political prisoner “I will save your ass!” and volunteering to continue the conversation after time’s-up you-have-to-prep-Act-II because “I am fine! It’s only Tosca!” At the curtain call I was half convinced he was going to leap down and possibly crowd surf his way through the orchestra pit. Watch this one.
Yoncheva was the Tosca — at long last — who really came across as a naive, sweet, vulnerable but brave kid versus a narcissistic high-maintenance diva, and the Met found its feet again after a grotesque production full of crass crap like lingerie-clad bimbos and statue-snogging. Does every opera production owe us a resurrection of the original time period? Not necessarily, but this one should be labeled “Welcome Back.”
But I still need to see Bryn before I die. There’s a Vienna Opera recording, and bits from Britain, but it’s not the Met live. Exophthalmic expressions notwithstanding, and the weird costume and signature fuck ’em Bryn hairdo: just listen to the oil and glycerine:
Oh. I said I’d get back to the quill pen. A bit of stage business. Scarpia writes a safe-conduct note for Tosca and her lover as exchange for her submission to him — all in vocal silence, over a slow orchestral vamp — and approaching her to collect his part of the bargain, runs the feather along her bare neck and shoulder, to her visible shudder. It looks like the schtick has been retired, but MacNeil did it and so did Diaz, to Renata Scotto, whose eyes widened in rivalry to Terfel’s here. Brr. Love dem bad boys.