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17 July 2011

A Night at the Opera

Tag(s): Languages & Culture

This week my wife and I went to Madrid to stay with our son and his new wife who live there. Our particular purpose was to take them to the Madrid Opera at the Teatro Real. They had wanted to try opera but not found the right entry point and so we selected Tosca by Puccini as the one to get them going. It was the seventh time my wife and I had seen Tosca.

Based on a French play written for Sarah Bernhardt the work is a melodramatic piece set in Rome in June 1800, with the Kingdon of Naples' control of Rome threatened by Napoleon's invasion of Italy. It contains depictions of torture, murder and suicide, yet also includes some of Puccini's best-known lyrical arias, and has inspired memorable performances from many of opera's leading singers including Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas.

Tosca premiered in 1900 at a time of unrest in Rome, and its first performance was delayed for fear of disturbances. Despite indifferent reviews from the critics, the opera was an immediate success with the public.

Tosca is structured as a through-composed work, with arias, recitative, choruses and other elements musically woven into a seamless whole. Puccini used Wagnerian leitmotifs (short musical statements) to identify characters, objects and ideas. While critics have frequently dismissed the opera as a facile melodrama with confusions of plot—musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it a "shabby little shocker"—the power of its score and the inventiveness of its orchestration have been widely acknowledged. The dramatic force of Tosca and its characters continues to fascinate both performers and audiences, and the work remains one of the most frequently performed operas.

There is no doubt that opera is an acquired taste and I personally took my time in acquiring it. But I have now seen 144 performances of 108 operas by 38 composers in 16 different venues. I grew up with a love of music and have sung in church choirs, school glee clubs and with a traditional jazz band in Chile.  Opera would come, I knew. I already was familiar with some of the music and started to build up a small collection of some of the highlights from Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. Then, at Sony, my wife and I were invited to the Royal Opera House for the first time. The opera, Cherubini’s Médée, was not the most distinguished in the canon, but the occasion, the sense of theatre, the appeal to so many of the senses, all overwhelmed me and I decided to take this up in earnest. I persuaded Sony to become Full Members of the ROH thus guaranteeing access to good tickets and over the next 10 years this became my principal form of customer entertainment. My wife and I saw nearly 100 performances of around 90 operas and ballets. We saw just about all the popular operas with most of the leading performers of the day including all of the Three Tenors and several of their leading prima donnas.

We have a particular love for Puccini and saw the famous Zefferelli production of Tosca no less than four times including both Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi. By now Pavarotti was so huge that in the first act he was too heavy to climb the artist’s ladder and paint the eyes of Tosca. In the 3rd Act when he is executed he fell down in installments before expiring. But he could still sing like an angel. Pavarotti was the better singer; indeed, undoubtedly the best of his generation but Domingo was the better actor. We saw him also play opposite Mirella Freni in Fedora, with Kiri Te Kanawa in Otello, and brilliantly as Cyrano de Bergerac.

However, our most memorable night with Domingo was not in the Opera House but in the Royal Palace at Seville. At a Sony European Management Conference we were shown into a Courtyard where a piano waited on a stage. Eventually a representative of Sony Music explained that Plácido Domingo, who was Artistic Director of the Seville Expo at the time, would sing for us. He came onto the stage with his accompanist and started to sing. Immediately all the birds also burst into song. Domingo said that he would be singing duets tonight and proceeded to sing his favourite zarzuelas. Afterwards my wife was photographed with him and he made great compliments about the beautiful women of Chile.

We have also seen the Third Tenor, José Carreras and particularly enjoyed his performance in Stiffelio soon after his return from a leukemia scare and he revelled in demonstrating his return to health.

Sony was involved in the refurbishment of Glyndebourne so we started to entertain there as well. There are usually 4 or 5 productions each summer and we would book for each one and give favoured customers a memorable experience. However, one year Berg’s Lulu was produced and, not a fan of atonal music, I decided to skip that one. The Christie family who own Glyndebourne must have noticed this and invited my wife and me to join them for a performance of Lulu. Lady Christie was sitting next to me at dinner in the interval and asked me how I was enjoying the performance. I tried to say as politely as I could that I found it difficult. She responded that she had also found it difficult at first but now, having seen it 12 times, she was starting to enjoy it! At least I got to meet the very attractive soprano, Christine Schafer, who was singing the title role.

We then started to venture abroad and went to the Verona festival for a number of years. The first time the weather was not kind and performances of La Forza del Destino and Nabucco were both interrupted by rain. This was somewhat eerie, as when Nabucco is struck by a thunderbolt that was exactly what seemed to be happening.

 I saw a dramatic performance of Verdi’s Macbeth in Savonlinna in Finland. This is a real medieval castle and thus a splendid setting for opera such as Macbeth.  And a few years ago we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Puccini by going to Milan to see three Puccini operas, Il Trittico, at La Scala. The occasion was memorable but we were in a box at the side from where one could only see the stage by standing on stools and peering over those who were in the front row. Even they had a restricted view. When La Scala was designed people were more concerned about being able to see, and be seen by, those in the boxes opposite.

Some complain about what they perceive as elitism in opera but that is not my experience. In other countries there are no such complaints. Tickets can be expensive but that is a function of the fact that while production costs are higher than a West End musical with a 70-piece orchestra and a large chorus as well as highly paid international singers and conductors only a few performances will be made at a time. There is no such thing as the long running opera.

As this blog makes clear not everyone can find opera easy to understand and not all opera is accessible to all. I love Wagner but usually go alone as my wife can’t stand his work. The plots in most opera are banal but the music, the sense of theatre, the drama and the ensemble playing and singing all more than compensate for this.  Some of the great opera houses are starting to develop new audiences by showing live performances relayed by satellite to cinemas and other big screens. Here the famous New York Metropolitan Opera is leading the way. Unfortunately they seek to do exclusive deals cutting the likes of the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne even from British screens.

Performances on the small screen rarely work so well unless they have been specially produced for that medium. In 1992 a television version of Tosca opera was memorably filmed at the locations in Rome prescribed by Puccini, the church of S'Ant Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castello Sant' Angelo. Featuring Catherine Malfitano, Placido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi, the performance was broadcast live throughout Europe at the times of day at which each act takes place.

And what about the critics? Well, judged by these actual reviews they do not really matter.

“As a work of art, it is naught”- The New York Times review of Bizet’s Carmen, 24 October 1878.

"Silly and inconsequential”- H. E. Krebhiel reviewing Puccini’s La Bohème in the New York Tribune, 27 December 1900

“As an opera, Eugene Onegin is still born and absolutely incompetent”- Cesar Cui, Nedelya, St Petersburg, 5 November 1884

“Rigoletto is the weakest work of Verdi. It lacks melody. This opera has hardly any chance of being kept in the repertoire”- Gazette Musicale de Paris, 22 May 1853

“I scarcely think it will be able to keep the stage for any length of time”- E.A. Kelley, reviewing Wagner’s Lohengrin, 2 April 1854

“Sure-fire rubbish”- Lawrence Gilman reviewing Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin in the New York Herald Tribune, 1935

And what of our pupils?  Have they acquired the taste? Well, it’s too soon to say but they enjoyed an excellent performance and afterwards we watched greatest opera hits on YouTube to complete the lesson.

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