Puccini’s Tosca has a great entrance, a fabulous exit and a fine aria in between, in which she sings of living for her art. There isn’t a soprano out there who doesn’t dream of singing the part of the doomed diva.
If only a few resisted.
I went to the Metropolitan Opera’s production in New York last week and wondered why the opera wasn’t called "Mario," after Tosca’s lover, a painter with a revolutionary agenda. Mario was the thoroughly splendid tenor, Roberto Alagna, a handsome French-Sicilian who brought both swagger and poetry to the role and was the hit of the evening. His last aria, an ode to the shining stars, was met with cheers and lasting applause.
Sadly, Mario makes only the briefest appearance in Act 2, leaving an excess of Patricia Racette, who sang Tosca. Racette sings smoothly, even prettily. And also with very little expression. Dressed in an unflattering red tent of a dress, she barely mustered enough passion to coax a cat out of a tree, let alone bargain for her lover’s life.
George Gagnidze as Scarpia, the tyrannical police chief, spent the act lurching after her and growling. He died convincingly in his ugly quarters, with its plush red couches, mismatched chairs and a giant window -- imagine the teachers lounge of an underfunded public school. This is not one of the Met’s gloriously lavish productions.
Long before Racette scampered to the parapet of Rome's Castel Sant’Angelo to leap off, my mind wandered to the couple next to me, who had paid $310 apiece for the privilege of sitting through the evening. That would be $620 for a 190-minute opera, or $3.26 a minute, more than a cab and even harder to get out of.
The Met’s huge organization includes a vast casting department. Could a better Tosca not be found? Did they really decide that the archetypal tragic heroine should be reliable rather than impassioned?
So here’s my conclusion. If you’ve got money falling out of your pantaloons, go hear Alagna. If not, there’s a great Maria Callas recording with Giuseppe di Stefano, and a set by her rival Renata Tebaldi with Giuseppe Campora. The first can be downloaded from Amazon for $23.99; the second can be bought outright for $21.99. Had my seatmates gone that route, they would have saved almost $600 and several hours of living for their art.