NEW YORK — A police chief tells a famous singer he will pardon her boyfriend if she submits to him.
Ripped from the headlines? Perhaps — but in the 1800s.
“It’s resonant because of what’s swirling around right now,” Sir David McVicar said of his new production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which opens at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve.
McVicar’s staging, planned about three years ago, lost its original tenor, soprano, baritone and conductor, and its initial replacement conductor.
“Honestly, it’s a nightmare for me, because we begin with one team and now the entire central team has now changed,” he said.
Conductor Andris Nelsons was replaced in July by Met music director emeritus James Levine. The Met suspended its relationship with Levine in early December pending an investigation by the company of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Levine denied the allegations. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann quit in March, deciding he did not want to leave his home in Europe during the holiday season. Soprano Kristine Opolais withdrew in June, a month after her mediocre rendition of Tosca’s signature aria during a Met gala. And bass-baritone Bryn Terfel withdrew in mid-month because of vocal fatigue.
Sonya Yoncheva as Floria Tosca and tenor Vittorio Grigolo as the painter Mario Cavaradossi both are making their role debuts. Zeljko Lucic is Baron Scarpia and Emmanuel Villaume conducts. The Jan. 27 matinee will be televised to movie theaters worldwide.
Public discussion of sexual improprieties was on the minds of the cast during the limited rehearsal time of 2½ weeks, cut in half because of the personnel changes.
“The tradition of that central act is that Scarpia chases her almost constantly around the room,” McVicar said. “Actually that deflects from what is really going on, which is about power and control. And actually what Scarpia does is much more scary and creepy than manhandling her. He sort of spells out how limited your options are — now what are you going to do about that? Because that is true sadism. He wants to degrade her in every way that he can.”
McVicar’s concept is to avoid playing Scarpia as a cartoon villain.
“He is a gentleman, but so rusty, evil inside,” Lucic said.
And that impacts Tosca’s approach, according to Yoncheva.
“My relationship to him is like my old uncle, and all of a sudden I really don’t get why he wants me that much,” Yoncheva said. “She’s not anymore the stupid diva, as we are used to seeing.”
Grigolo made his opera debut at age 13 as the shepherd boy in 1990 at the Rome Opera — with Luciano Pavarotti in the title role. For him, Cavaradossi is not just a supporter of the Republic, but a women’s liberation advocate.
“He’s a man of great culture,” he said. “We’re not talking of a peasant here.”
The opera is set in June 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars. McVicar goes back to a depiction of the Roman locales for the three acts, a change from a previous, starkly staged version that did not play well with audiences. Met General Manager Peter Gelb says stagings of certain compositions can be accepted by his audience without resplendent milieus, mentioning Strauss’ “Elektra” and Berg’s “Wozzeck” as examples. But not “Tosca.”
“The audience wants to see things that are beautiful. I’ve learned my lesson,” Gelb said. “And I believe we should give the audience what it wants, without pandering, but we shouldn’t deliberately make them feel like we’re assaulting them.”