For the soprano, mark it down as a work in progress. Give the tenor extra credit for a save-the-day substitution. But the highest grade goes to the baritone, for masterfully stealing the show.
That's the report card on Monday night's opening performance of Puccini's "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera, a revival of the production by Luc Bondy that launched the 2009-10 season to almost universal critical scorn.
Most of the advance attention focused on Sondra Radvanovsky, an American soprano who has been impressive in Verdi roles and who was singing her first Tosca at the Met. She started off shakily, sounding flat in her offstage calls to her lover ("Mario! Mario!"). And she remained tentative through much of Act 1.
In Act 2, she hit her stride, riding the orchestral crest with some shimmering high C's during her confrontation with Baron Scarpia. Even better, she shaped her aria, "Vissi d'arte" ("I lived for art"), with exquisite control of phrasing and dynamics. But the pitch problems returned in Act 3, and she ended the night on a high note that took a while to settle in.
Radvanovsky's voice, especially on top, has a vibrant edge that can be thrilling. But it's not a naturally warm sound, and that's a liability in portraying Puccini's impetuous heroine. Dramatically, she deliberately underplayed the diva side of her character, perhaps too much so since Tosca is, after all, an opera singer. Her personality never seemed larger than life the way a memorable Tosca must.
Part of her uneasiness may have been due to a sudden switch in the tenor singing the role of Mario Cavaradossi. Marcelo Alvarez, who was scheduled to perform, canceled because of a cold, and the company pressed into service Roberto Alagna, who had sung in Bizet's "Carmen" just two nights earlier.
Alagna, whose compact, resonant tenor has sounded terrific in recent seasons, gave a thoroughly winning performance, capped by a third-act aria, "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the stars were shining"), that throbbed with tenderness and regret. Though he had never sung the role at the Met, he knows it well and fit into the production with ease.
The most polished performance came from German baritone Falk Struckmann, who brought strong vocalism and a new level of mocking irony to the role of Scarpia. With his tall, menacing figure and shaved head, he mixed brutality, lechery and a kind of sneering elegance into a memorable portrayal of a sadist who thoroughly enjoys his work.
Bondy's production remains drab in visuals and directorially aimless at key moments, such as the conclusion of Act 2 after Tosca has murdered Scarpia. There's one major change from last season: a restaged opening of the long orchestral prelude to Act 3. Cavaradossi no longer lies sleeping near the apron of the stage. Instead, he plays a halfhearted chess match with his jailer, before sweeping the pieces to the ground in disgust.
For once, things went smoothly with the final coup d'theatre in which a body double for Tosca appears to leap from a parapet just as the lights go out. The timing worked perfectly, and the effect was properly stunning.
Marco Armiliato conducted with a nice feel for the dramatic flow and harmonic richness of the score. Some coordination problems with Alagna were forgivable given the lack of rehearsal time.