For a night at the opera, a reasonable expectation is that the plot twists remain on the stage. Rarely do they spill over the fourth wall, drenching New York society and the opera world in a juicy dose of melodrama to ring in the new year. But such was the case for the trouble-ridden production of Tosca that premiered Sunday night at the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve Gala at Lincoln Center. Even Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, admitted to feeling the tension: “I felt the stakes were high, partly because of the press and because of the audience,” he told Vanity Fair in between courses at the dinner following the performance.
Indeed, the press had been buzzing for months about the tribulations of what was sure to be an ill-fated staging of Puccini’s tale of two ill-fated lovers. After star tenor Jonas Kaufmann dropped out months ago, they dropped like flies, with the star baritone and soprano following suit. Then, James Levine, the maestro slated to conduct, was forced out amid allegations of sexual assault.
Unsurprising then that the world’s largest opera house was filled to capacity on Sunday evening, without even standing room available. The last-minute arrival of Bill and Hillary Clinton through a side door did nothing to dissipate the already-frenzied energy in the house—cameras flashing away up until the curtain rose for the first act. The audience was primed to witness the success or failure of a fraught production, which would have enormous consequences for one of the country’s most venerable cultural institutions.
Minute-long ovations peppered the performance throughout—with the press, politicians, moguls, and even a president gushing during the show’s two intermissions. Of particular note were the debut performances of leads Sonya Yoncheva and Vittorio Grigolo, both of whom were performing their respective roles for the first time on the stage of the Met. Grigolo, the heroic tenor who stepped in at the last minute to lend his powerhouse vocals to Puccini’s romantic lead, was clearly reveling in the moment at dinner: “It feels like I’m on fire!” he said. Asked if he knew the Clintons would be watching his debut on the Met’s stage, Grigolo said of course he did; they’re good friends after all. He met them through Oscar de la Renta in Punta Cana. “They are here tonight for this very important moment in my life. This is [an] incredible debut and I couldn’t have better support than them.”
Grigolo, Yoncheva, conductor Emmanuel Villaume, and the rest of the cast did little to suppress breathless smiles as they took bow after bow during the curtain call, with Grigolo dropping to his knees and kissing the stage to the audience’s thunderous applause. The last standing ovation, however, was reserved for Hillary Clinton as she and Bill exited the theater to woops and chants of “I’m with her!” Perhaps to remind gala guests whom they were there to see, the Clintons both personally congratulated the leads at dinner following the performance on the Grand Tier level.
The Met, in other words, not only succeeded, but triumphed, pulling off a breathtaking production against gargantuan odds. Even Gelb was optimistic: “This was an extraordinary night . . . it was really about as great an evening at the opera as you can hope for.” Grigolo, beaming throughout our conversation, grabbed a reporter’s arm and, voice brimming with emotion, recounted an experience 27 years ago, when he shared the stage with an opera legend in another production of Tosca. “I want to tell you that I started with Luciano Pavarotti as a little shepherd, the one you hear in the third act, and I was frightened tonight to be [back]stage before coming out, and remembered Luciano was waiting there for me a long time ago in 1990 . . . It was 27 years of waiting for that moment.” Asked what Pavarotti would have thought of the night’s performance, Grigolo said, “I think he was there tonight.”
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