A series of unfortunate events cost the New Year’s Eve staging its original heroine, hero, villain and maestro
New York: There is never a shortage of backstage drama at the Metropolitan Opera. But in the company’s 137-year history, there has likely never been a production with a birth as tumultuous as that of the high-stakes new staging of Puccini’s Tosca, opening on New Year’s Eve.
With opulent sets evoking 19th-century Rome and a starry cast, this Tosca was meant to appeal to operagoers still lamenting the loss, nine years ago, of a beloved Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza that had been playing since the 1980s. But the company watched in horror as a series of unfortunate events cost the staging its original heroine, hero, villain and maestro. In a field in which singers are typically hired up to five years in advance, the Met had to quickly draft a pair of fast-rising stars, soprano Sonya Yoncheva and tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who have never before sung the roles.
But the most severe blow landed this month, when James Levine, who in July had stepped in as a high-end replacement conductor, was suspended amid accusations of sexual misconduct that rocked the classical music world.
“I’ve never been in a situation like this in my entire career,” David McVicar, the production’s director, said during a recent rehearsal break, tilting his head back and slowly sliding off a couch for dramatic effect. “It’s been like Groundhog Day sometimes. Just when you think you’ve made progress, someone else is gone, and someone else is coming in. The sheer stress of it is something I’ve never been through.”
McVicar confessed that during one particularly low “night of despair” he had considered quitting the production, too — but said he was happy he had stayed on.
“I’m very glad I had a few stiff drinks and talked myself around, and then came into work the next day,” he said. “There is so much positive energy inside the production. Theatre people are kind of great in a crisis. It’s cliche, but we just are. The show must go on. And it does.”
Losing old fans
The new Tosca was being closely watched even before its cast began dwindling. One of the most contentious decisions Peter Gelb made early in his tenure as general manager of the Met, where he arrived in 2006 as a modernising agent, was replacing the ornate Zeffirelli Tosca with a starker, grittier, more sexually explicit staging by Luc Bondy in 2009.
It was something of a fiasco. The Bondy staging was booed on opening night, and while it had its admirers, it appalled many long-time operagoers and some on the Met’s board.
The kerfuffle quickly became about something more than whether people disliked the staging. It emerged as a flash point in the raging debates over traditional opera productions versus modern ones, and was never far from the surface when people discussed Gelb’s tenure and the pluses and minuses of a 21st-century Met.
So when Gelb announced that he was replacing the Bondy staging with a new one by McVicar — one that would feature sumptuous, identifiably Roman sets by John Macfarlane — it was widely seen as a bid for redemption with a core constituency.
What audiences want
“I have learned my lesson from the Bondy production,” Gelb said in a recent interview. “When it comes to a classic piece of repertoire, beauty counts — and that’s what the audience wants.”
So the Met’s armies of artisans set about recreating the Rome of the Napoleonic era to realise MacFarlane’s painterly designs. They used 77 rolls of gold leaf to gild Sant’Andrea della Valle, the dazzling Baroque church where the first act is set. They painted a 1,557-square-foot fresco to adorn the Palazzo Farnese in the second. And they sculpted a statue of the Archangel Michael to stand atop the Castel Sant’Angelo in the third. Gelb engaged a gilded set of singers to populate the finery.
Then things stopped going according to plan.
One of opera’s biggest stars, notoriously cancellation-prone tenor Jonas Kaufmann, withdrew just weeks after the production was announced in February, saying he did not want to spend so much time away from his family. Gelb, aware of Kaufmann’s history of no-shows, had already lined up Grigolo as a backup.
That turned out to be just the overture. Soprano Kristine Opolais, the original Tosca, withdrew in June, citing “personal reasons” after receiving mixed reviews in the role elsewhere. Yoncheva, who has recently emerged as one of the Met’s true prima donnas, stepped in, cheering many operagoers.
Then another shoe dropped: The production’s conductor, Andris Nelsons, the dynamic music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Opolais’ husband, followed her out the door.
Levine, who began his legendary Met career with a performance of Tosca in 1971, agreed to replace him, only to be suspended this month when the Met opened an investigation into accusations that he sexually abused four men decades ago, when the men were teenagers or his students — accusations he has called “unfounded”. Emmanuel Villaume, music director of the Dallas Opera, became the third maestro to take the job.
McVicar said that the news about Levine had shaken the company. “We’re visitors,” he said of his production team. “But for our colleagues who are here all the time, that was such a profound body blow. So we had to get over that.”
The last of the original leads, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who had been set to play the villain, Scarpia, left the production soon after arriving for rehearsals this month, saying he had been forced to “rest due to vocal fatigue”. Zeljko Lucic, a Met fixture in recent years who sang Scarpia with the company in 2015, replaced him.
There have been plenty of star-crossed productions in Met history, including the premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra that opened the Met’s Lincoln Center home in 1966 (amid serious last-minute technical glitches and labour woes) and Robert Lepage’s recent “Ring” cycle (built around a 45-tonne set that had a habit of breaking down).
But Gelb said that he had never before had to recast all the leads in a new production. “Luckily, there are only three principal roles,” he said drily.
McVicar said he had rethought aspects of the production to suit fresh-faced Yoncheva and Grigolo, envisioning them as young lovers in the early months of a passionate love affair.
“It’s a sort of polar opposite to the way that the show was first conceived, and I almost have welcomed these changes,” he said. “Because now we’ve got something younger, more organic: the real thrill of those two making their role debuts.”
First time for everything
It is rare for opera singers to try out new parts at the Met — and even rarer for them to take that risk in a major new production. But Yoncheva is getting used to it: She has sung several roles for the first time with the company, including Desdemona in the new staging of Verdi’s Otello that opened the 2015-16 season. This season she is taking on a series of new challenges: Elisabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlos for this first time this autumn at the Paris Opera; and, in the new year, parts in Verdi’s Luisa Miller at the Met and Bellini’s Il Pirata at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
“It’s hell!” she joked during a phone interview from Paris, where she sang in two productions while studying Tosca in her spare time. “No, not really. I try not to think about it — to go for it, and that’s it.”
Her go-for-it attitude was evident as she practised Tosca’s final leap off the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo, landing in a large box filled with foam cubes. But she, too, caused a few jitters when she missed several performances of La Boheme in Paris this month because of bronchitis. While she sounded radiant in rehearsal, she paused during breaks to sip herbal tea.
Grigolo, who had a breakout run at the Met last season in Romeo et Juliette and Werther, worked on the role of Cavaradossi this autumn while appearing at night in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
One afternoon he strode into the studio of John Fisher, the Met’s assistant general manager of music administration, pushed “record” on his smartphone, placed it on the piano and began working on the piece. As he tested passages quietly, working on their complex rhythms and the nuances of the text and music, Grigolo, a sports car aficionado, likened the practice of learning a role before singing it in full voice to the way drivers prepare for a race.
“It’s like you’re testing the circuit, learning the circuit,” he said. “And then you give gas.”
At a recent rehearsal, there was little evidence of the months of chaos. McVicar helped the singers fine-tune their connection; Fisher and Villaume jumped in to shape musical phrases. Stage managers in headsets choreographed entrances and exits. Extras playing riflemen fired their guns to test for volume.
“I think we have turned it around,” McVicar said during a break. “So long as there’s no more sickness, or no more acts of God, or a war with North Korea, or something like that. I mean, anything could happen at this point.”