24 April 2006

Voigt's Tosca

Puccini TOSCA, Met 22.IV.2006; c. Rizzi; Voigt, Farina, Morris.

After a Forza Leonora that tried her instrument in such raw relief, Debroah Voigt graduates into a thoroughly legitimate Italian spinto with a passionate and surprisingly personal Tosca. The opera's second act was received with a fiery ovation she hasn't heard at the Met since the Empresses two seasons back. But first things first: nothing in the first act flatters the soprano except for the diva entrance, and on this evening Voigt made no serious argument. Tosca's lines are cute but jagged, the orchestra is relentlessly loud, the evening's conductor is anxious, and there's the matter of Zeffirelli recreating the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle at the Met, the similarly cavernous nave of which sucks up much of the sound of any poor singer not within 10 feet of the foot of the stage. (Note to Debbie: ignore Cavaradossi; love us instead and sing close to the prompter's box.) The costumes are pretty (but, while period, appeared oddly dated), church ritual is forever awesome (can't wait for the pope to die again), and the Te Deum is actually memorable, but we don't attend Tosca for these things (unless the likes of Giordani were singing "Recondita armonia").

So we move our interest to the second act. Anthony Tommasini observes that Voigt's "bright and penetrating sound recalls Birgit Nilsson's Tosca." It was, indeed, a laser show. Those who fear that Voigt has lost that "fat" creamy lustre (me included) can now mourn its passing full blast, for she's no longer in possession of those purely orgasmic, lavish, round full-frontal sounds that in the past elevated her Empress and her Ariadne into pantheon. We can also slowly move on, and experience another kind of force, this time with a more earthy, feminine, committed, human face. As observed previously, the lost poundage, while accompanied by lost cream, marked the emergence of a woman vulnerable in love's inevitable prison. Voigt constructed Tosca's confrontation with Scarpia with seething, single-minded passion, with none of the kind of helplessness other Toscas deploy to buy sympathy. And her voice follows suit: laser high Cs, ff's that humble brass, sobs and moans that puncture the music, chest tones that gargle in blood: a kind of sonic commitment to mad desperation. This is why her "Vissi d'arte" appears out of place: her instrument, fully expanded thus far to subdue her attacker, is asked to deliver a pathetic prayer. (Didn't Callas hate this interruption too?) Voigt's difficulty in sustaining those ending top notes (specifically, minute flatness and a tired flutter) is ostensibly another proof of a fundamental alteration in her sonic physics, but it's also strangely alluring. We want to witness the diva suffer. And despite our declated taste for "beauty," the vocal precipice has always been an ally to the Italian spinto. Soon after that interruption, Voigt is back to form, trashing books and thrashing furniture, including the imposing Scarpia of James Morris. Who is sixty next year. Poor Morris, falling onto the chair and tumbling with it to the floor, after being stabbed by the dinner knife (Note to props dept.: double-check safety of props). Fearing real-time danger, the auditorium gasps slightly. But Morris lives to see a thunderous curtain call, both for him and for La Voigt, who appears exulted and invigorated (and certainly relieved). The third act is comfortingly morose, and everyone's calmed down to a whisper. Voigt puts forth a straightforward account, but we're still shaking from Act II's echo, and greet the final curtain call with another rousing applause.

Clearly Voigt's fans came out in droves, and weekend tourists greeted the show's star with Broadway fervor, but there were those of us who cheered in celebration of a great evening of opera which we initially approached with some caution (and a dash of dread). Interestingly, in the same week as Voigt's success as Tosca, Karita Mattila continues to pump out magnificent Elsas which Voigt (the Wilson production's originator) will almost be hard-pressed to reprise (though she may now be able to do the glacial gestures with less wtf). La Voigt's instrument may still be in flux, but she has found an animal in her that loves the blood and glory of the stage, and that's a diva step in the right direction.