By Alan Behr
NEW YORK, 4 OCTOBER 2009 Maybe it was a sign that license for
fun was finally to be granted after an austere year, but at the
Metropolitan Operas Opening Night Gala, decorous young women sashayed
through the lobby, carrying silver trays of chocolates by La Maison du
Chocolat. VIPs entered from the south, smiling at the cameras of the
media, coursing through a maze of low barriers. New Yorkers who have
preserved the bulk of their net worth are careful these days not to appear
too flush, but if you cant wear Great-Grandmas Art Deco jewelry, and if
you cant put on a top hat and tails for the opening night at the opera,
when can you? By the ironic code under which these things work, most of
the flash and all the audience-in-costume effect came from the operagoers
outside the barriers; the VIPs largely aimed for tempered elegance.
I found my friend Ken the Socialist, looking dapper in his tuxedo and
white scarf, standing in the plaza beside the lovely Mrs. Socialist. Ken
ruminated on the moral bankruptcy of it all and asked politely after The
Lady in Black, our perpetually chic and perpetually late opera companion.
I said that her arrival was all in the hands of God, Dolce and Gabbana.
Ken should have been pleased this year, because a large video screen
was set up along the western façade of the opera house, stadium style,
before folding seats offered free to those New Yorkers willing to take
their opera electronically and al fresco on a perfect late-summer night.
Inside, along all levels, people in evening clothes and holding Champagne
glasses lined the railing,watching the VIPs stream slowly to their
orchestra seats and cordoned-off playpen in the rear lobby.
Karita Mattila and Marcelo Álvarez in Puccinis
Photo: Ken Howard
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan
Unlike the year before, the performance would not be a star singers
showcase but a complete opera: Giacomo Puccinis Tosca, in a new
production by the Swiss director Luc Bondy, making his Met Opera debut.
James Levine took to the podium;, everyone stood for the national anthem,
and, as often happens in these cases, a professionally trained voice from
way back in family circle rose above the others.
The Metropolitan Opera is known as a conservative institution, in large
part because it plays to a conservative audience. In Europe, where haute
culture to put it as delicately as possible is generally considered
more consequential to the upper and upper-middle classes than in the
United States, governments carry on the princely deeds of subsidizing
opera productions and other culturally significant performing arts. That
leads to a paradox for Ken the Socialist and fellow Fabians to meditate
upon as they adjust their silk bowties: the lower social ranks are taxed
in part to pay for grand opera performed in large measure for the
affluent. American governmental subsidies being comparatively small, U.S.
opera companies depend on nights such as this, in which those who still
have money dig deep into their pockets to help keep it all going. That
means that American opera companies must answer more directly to their
patrons, and unlike governments, which pretty much let opera companies
experiment as they please, private patrons tend to be particular in
Which is a long way of explaining why, by the end of the first act of
the new Tosca, grumbling could be heard. In the prior production,
by Franco Zeffirelli, Sant Andrea della Valle, the church where Mario
Cavaradossi paints his portrait of Mary Magdalene, was authentically
portrayed as a Baroque celebration of the spirit of the
Counter-Reformation. The Te Deum that concludes the first act was
staged as a procession worthy of St. Peters. In the Bondy production, the
church is Romanesque and gloomy, barren of décor except for the
Magdalenes portrait, which has a breast gamely exposed. When Baron
Scarpia, the chief of police and the villain of the piece, makes his
entrance, his men are depicted as goons in fetishistic gray leather tunics
of an appropriate Napoleonic-era cut, topped by Ray-Ban style sunglasses.
The Te Deum is staged not as a procession but as a sullen, menacing
phalanx. The purists in the audience were not pleased.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, The Lady in Black made her
appearance during the first intermission. She had seen the first act in
the screening room for latecomers, alongside several of her friends and
the television journalist Tom Brokaw. No sooner had she appeared than she
disappeared to schmooze with a crowd of prominent New Yorkers.
George Gagnidze and Karita Mattila in a scene
from Act II of Puccinis Tosca
Photo: Ken Howard
courtesy of Metropolitan Opera
The gongs sounded, we returned to our seats and it was back to the
business of Act II. According to the libretto, Scarpia is in his room at
the Palazzo Farnese, where he boorishly tries to seduce Floria Tosca, the
title character and sweetheart of Cavaradossi. His technique of wooing is
to consider then dismiss the idea of rape, choosing instead to have her
lover tortured within earshot; Tosca responds by stabbing him to death. As
shown tonight, Scarpias place is an office appointed with the stark
brutality of a Fascist headquarters. Three hookers lounge around with him,
one of them simulating a sex act with him the one that Bill Clinton
insisted isnt really sex.
When the curtain closed this time, from the Loggione came
audible boos. The natives were growing restless. During the second
intermission, things were rather subdued in the Belmont Room: it was
becoming clear that the opera or at least the reception of it by some
was getting in the way of the fun. However, the Champagne flowed well
enough to keep spirits reasonably high.
The third act of the opera brings the deaths of Cavaradossi and Tosca,
the former by firing squad and the latter by a suicide leap off the
ramparts of Castel Sant Angelo. There is no cutting-edge way to get blown
away by musket fire, so the artists death is presented traditionally
enough. In a bit of technical mastery, however, the last second of the
opera catches Tosca in freeze frame, poised forty-five degrees from the
tower, halted in mid-leap. I thought that was a clever twist, but no
sooner had the music stopped than boos from the rafters filled the
At La Scala and other houses in Italy, booing is a long tradition,
rather as heckling the prime minister is a tradition in the British
Parliament. But for all its first-name-using, open-collar informality, the
United States has some fairly stiff rules of etiquette. A congressman may
not heckle the president while he is speaking to Congress, and it is
considered bad form to boo a new production when you know full well that
the director and his team are in the audience and are going to take a bow.
Marcelo Álvarez, George Gagnidze and Karita
Mattila of Puccinis Tosca
Photo: Ken Howard
Photo courtesy of
The boos definitely werent for the performers. All of them, from those
with the smallest roles through the leads (Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi,
Karita Mattila as Tosca and George Gagnidze as Scarpia), as well as Mr.
Levine, received approbation, but the boos became merciless when Mr. Bondy
led his production team on stage. Maybe it was because it was ten oclock
and everyone was getting hungry, or maybe it was just because bad manners
had been shown, but those in the expensive seats had finally had enough.
Within seconds, they had organized themselves into a counterrevolution of
applause and cheers. A duel of boos and cheers continued for a couple
minutes, until it was time to close it down so that the gala dinner a
perk for those paying the highest prices could finally start. The brief
class war had ended with a small but audible victory for the dinner
As we were leaving, I asked a man in a tailcoat who was seated in the
balcony why he had booed. He said, "I hated the church, there was no real
procession, and that wasnt a leap." Which is to say, tradition had been
violated. Loyalty to tradition can ossify the performing arts, but I could
sympathize with his assessment of the Bondy effort even as I disagreed
with the way he expressed it. The Zeffirelli production had worked because
the staging always followed the score. That staging had been criticized
for grandiosity since its own debut, in 1985, but it never interrupted the
performance. Sunglasses and some extraneous lust are hip, but in Tosca,
they are not cool. Opera plots can be challenging enough, so anything
added to Tosca ideally should aid exposition. At the Met, no sooner does
Scarpia, a middle-aged man, finish with three call girls than he tries to
force himself on Tosca. (As long as we are trading in anachronisms, at
least leave the Viagra in plain view.) Additions of that kind come
off as contrivances; they make you aware not of Puccinis opera but of the
cleverness of the director.
The counterrevolutionaries streamed out for dinner, but I had a baby at
home, so I escorted The Lady in Black to a taxi and let what, in the world
of opera, counts for raging controversy disappear behind us.
Alan Behr is a partner in the New York office of Alston &
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