The curtain call at the Metropolitan Opera’s season-opening performance of Puccini’s Tosca was going as splendidly as any other. Cries of “Bravo!” and “Brava!” greeted the three leads, Marcelo Álvarez (Cavaradossi), George Gagnidze (Scarpia), and Karita Mattila (Tosca). Then director Luc Bondy, along with the set, costume, and lighting designers, stepped onstage. That’s when the boos began.
As an opera neophyte, it took us a moment to register that these were actual sounds of disapproval, rather than the rarefied equivalent of shouting “Bruuuuce” at a Springsteen concert (which always throws us off, by the way). And these weren’t just scattered boos; they threatened to drown out the equally raucous cheers, as, bizarrely, everyone, including the booers, gave the company a standing “O.”
The puzzling booing continued as the audience spilled into Lincoln Center plaza, mingling with the enormous crowd who’d been watching Tosca on a screen affixed to the front of the Met. Again, the crowd roared as Mattila et al. took their bows on the outside balcony, and the boos rose just as suddenly as Bondy et al. joined them. “Go back to Europe!” the gentleman next to us shouted out, his fist raised in a va fangul.
As our angry neighbor explained to us, this had been the first production of Tosca in 25 years to revise Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved, lavish, and faithful production. Swiss director Bondy’s sets are far more stripped-down. But, the gentleman explained, that was hardly the most offensive part. “The production made no sense!” he said. “At the end of the second act, Tosca kills a man and instead of fleeing, she lies on a couch and fans herself?!” Also bad: Bondy’s omission of the part where the very religious Tosca places candles around Scardio’s dead body and a cross on his breast after killing him, and that the painter Cavaradossi is working on a portrait of Mary Magdalene in a church “and yet her breast is just hanging out of her shirt.” Unsurprisingly, Zeffirelli, who calls Bondy “third-rate,” hates it too.
Fellow opera newbie Karolina Kurkova was perplexed. “I was like, ‘What? That was great! What’s happening?’” she said. Newbie Joy Bryant said it reminded her of Amateur Night at the Apollo. “I want to see more and more opera, so I can be like, ‘Boo! It’s not supposed to be like that!” she said, delighted. And Public Theater head Oskar Eustis, who loved the production, said it made him long for more booing on his turf. “There’s never booing at the Public, which I regret, because there’s something so vivifying about having the audience respond,” he said. “My friend said the only time he’s heard booing like that was at a wrestling match.”
For Renée Fleming, who performed at the last Met opener, though, the boos came as a shock. “I don’t really get it,” she said. “I would have expected a couple of boos, but not that many. That surprised me.” According to Fleming, it’s a European — particularly Italian — tradition to boo. “I’ve been the subject of booing myself,” she said. “This was at La Scala ten years ago. It was a very small group of people, but again, one person booing can disrupt a very pleasant experience.” Fleming said that often the booing has nothing to do with the performance. “It’s more a commentary on the past or the tradition. In this case, the Zeffirelli production. I don’t know. I’ve never fully understood it. Because we give our all. And I can understand where someone might not enjoy it or love it, but booing is a very strong statement to make, and I think very few performances deserve it.”
At least the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, had expected as much, which he acknowledged in his speech during the dinner following the performance. “As you may know, running the world’s biggest and most famous opera house is not necessarily a job for the faint of heart,” he said. “Although I feel somewhat less bloody than Scarpia after his date with Tosca, I’ve known for a long time that some members of our audience who have loved and grown up with Zeffirelli might be unhappy with the idea of a new Tosca. But after 25 years of the old Tosca, in order for this theater to continue to stay vital, we must move forward by offering new productions that will stimulate our imagination and that will demonstrate that our art form is not locked in the past.” And for what it’s worth, the Met is on track to make budget; their gala kick-started the year with a $5 million surplus, and there’s no danger of boos or bad reviews affecting their bottom line: The fall run of Tosca has already sold out.
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