Review: ‘Tosca’ Is Sondra Radvanovsky’s Show at the Met Opera

Posted October 31, 2018 7:53 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera’s “Tosca” was plagued by drama when it was new last season. The lead singers canceled; the conductor, Met music director James Levine, was suspended amid accusations of sexual misconduct (and later fired by the company). The director, David McVicar, said he considered quitting.

This season’s revival has been quieter. But this doesn’t mean things are dully business as usual. The drama is, thankfully, now onstage.

At the performance Monday, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky charged into McVicar’s production and never let go, following a grand entrance with an evening of strong singing and fervent dramatic purpose. Detractors sometimes cite a brittleness in Radvanovsky’s sound as off-putting. I tend to view this occasional harshness as something she is conscious of and uses dramatically. And her intonation on Monday seemed more consistently secure than in some past appearances at the Met.

During some ascents to high notes, there was a sense of careful planning. But Radvanovsky got there at the climaxes. And I have not seen her act so well since she appeared in a 2015 revival of David Alden’s production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

Her Tosca thrills — and coheres. In the first act, when the character must prove an able seductress while also showing traces of jealousy, Radvanovsky came up with ingenious ways to make these facets flow together. With discerning placements of breath, she seemed, early on, to laugh at her own insecurities and propensity for distrust, at least in front of her lover, painter Cavaradossi (here played ably, if not particularly deeply, by the honey-tone tenor Joseph Calleja).

When Cavaradossi’s back was turned, however, this Tosca dropped that lovable, self-conscious mask in brief storms of fury. These quick transitions make this Tosca seem a little jumpy — but Radvanovsky’s performance is thoughtful, never busy for its own sake. And her approach planted the seeds for a brutally effective second-act showdown with the villain Scarpia.

When this chief of police accuses Tosca of acting a role when she pleads for Cavaradossi’s life, we know he’s wrong: We’ve seen what it looks like when this diva is in machination mode. The stakes are appropriately high for Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte,” and Radvanovsky delivered a subtle and affecting rendition of the aria, using her practiced soft-into-loud vocal tricks only sparingly.

Making his Met debut as Scarpia, baritone Claudio Sgura muddled through some lower passages, turning the character into something of a functionary, instead of an evil force of nature. This Scarpia’s sadism is more courtly than glowering; some more supple singing from Sgura in the second act gave intriguing glimpses of smugness. Still, this was always Radvanovsky’s show.

It was more difficult to say which character ruled the Met’s revival of Bizet’s “Carmen” on Tuesday. By the third act, it was clear that top singing honors belonged to soprano Guanqun Yu, as Micaëla. Her showcase aria, “Je dis que rien,” had true glamour thanks to a tone of lean, quick-witted elegance, as well as the occasional, well-placed touch of luster.

Much of the rest of the show felt rote, or wobbly. Though she appeared in this production last season, mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine seemed to struggle with some of the blocking during the Habanera. While she focused on hitting her marks, some descending flourishes strayed off pitch. As Don José, tenor Yonghoon Lee had enough volume for the Met. But the ringing quality of his voice was too often pushed to strident ends that blotted out the potential for varieties of color.

This Carmen and this Don José collaborated effectively in more tender exchanges. But the garishness elsewhere — and the boisterous pulse of conductor Omer Meir Wellber, making his house debut — did not enliven Richard Eyre’s staid staging.

Additional Information:

“Tosca” continues, with this cast, through Nov. 17, and “Carmen,” with this cast, through Nov. 15 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.