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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 Opera’s 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 can’t wear Great-Grandma’s Art Deco jewelry, and if you can’t 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 Puccini’s Tosca
Photo: Ken Howard
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Unlike the year before, the performance would not be a star singer’s showcase but a complete opera: Giacomo Puccini’s 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 their tastes.

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. Peter’s. In the Bondy production, the church is Romanesque and gloomy, barren of décor except for the Magdalene’s 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 Puccini’s Tosca
Photo: Ken Howard
Photo 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, Scarpia’s 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 isn’t 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 artist’s 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 hall.

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 Puccini’s Tosca
Photo: Ken Howard
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

The boos definitely weren’t 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 o’clock 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 crowd.

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 wasn’t 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 Puccini’s 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 & Bird LLP.

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