Times Music Critic

The cognoscenti in New York weren't too pleased with Franco Zeffirelli when the Metropolitan Opera introduced his new production of "Tosca" earlier this month. They found it too lavish, too busy, too fussy.

The vital elements of Puccini's tawdry but usually effective little melodrama were buried, it seems, in superfluous decoration and smothered in gimmickry.

The evil Baron Scarpia got lost at the end of Act I, the cognoscenti complained, because the stage swarmed with a distracting cast of thousands celebrating the Te Deum at an impeccably, hyperexpensively reconstructed Sant'Andrea della Valle.

The nasty, convoluted action in Scarpia's study-cum-torture chamber in Act II ended up seeming less important, we were told, than the director-designer's detailed reproduction of the Palazzo Farnese.

According to all reports, however, Zeffirelli's penchant for overinvention reached its zenith--or nadir--in the last act. Playing with the elevator stage as if it were an irresistible new toy, Zeffirelli placed the first part of the finale atop the Castel Sant'Angelo as usual, then moved the whole massive platform skyward to reveal Cavaradossi below in his dungeon cell, then lowered the scenic contraption again so the hero could ascend to face his executioners on the rampart.

All this was done, no doubt, in the name of good, old-fashioned realism. There was no room here for symbolism, for abstraction, or for stylization. Unfortunately, the more one tries to make make-believe seem genuine on the modern stage, the more artificial it all becomes. This, then, was a luxurious, splashy, let's-pretend "Tosca" designed to delight those who don't take operatic drama very seriously but love a pretty tune and a good show.

It also may have been a good show designed for television.

The "Live From the Met" relay on PBS stations Wednesday night relegated most of Zeffirelli's innovations to the background. During the infamous set transformations of the last act, the cameras actually looked away and concentrated instead on the picturesque emoting of maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli in the pit. Although there was lots of intermission talk about geographical fidelity and psychological penetration, the opera ended up looking pretty much as it always looks in big, bright, conventional productions from Augsburg to Zanzibar. Close-ups of the principals were the thing.

Hildegard Behrens, the new protagonist, does not command a suave, sensuous, Italianate sound, and although the German soprano still is a handsome woman, intimate camera work does not inevitably flatter her. As Tosca, she cannot erase memories of a Tebaldi, much less a Callas. But she does command ample temperament, and she is an intelligent actress who likes, wherever possible, to avoid cliches.

After a rather shaky start on Wednesday, she sang with compelling fervor and luminous tone, saving a dangerously grating, undeniably affecting chest voice to accent moments of extreme agitation. It would be interesting to see her in a production that cares as much about the heroine as it does about the architecture.

Placido Domingo provided an ardent, heroic, mellifluous, occasionally even lyric counterforce as a slightly puffy, matinee-idol Cavaradossi.

At 62, Cornell MacNeil can still make a big, tough sound as Scarpia, and he can still stalk the stage with primitive authority. Scowling, popping his eyes on cue and sporting a putty hook on his nose, he certainly doesn't search for the finesse or subtlety that a Gobbi or Bacquier brought to this potentially fascinating role. But he does know how to score basic points and, as he admitted in a revealing intermission comment, when he delves into character motivation he never does believe in "too much dissection of ant excrement."

The supporting cast was dominated by the veteran Italo Tajo as a nice and seedy Sacristan, and Anthony Laciura as a not-too-slimy Spoletta.

Sinopoli, making his Met debut with this vehicle, kept the sprawling passions in reasonably tight rein.

The intermission features, which seemed to last longer than the opera itself, focused first on an unfocused Roman travelogue with Zeffirelli, then on a politely superficial interview with the three leading singers. Replacing the late Alexander Scourby, Joanne Woodward served as dutiful host.

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