Sunday, October 4, 2009

Toska b mine 4ever

Traveling a lot has made me into an opera fan—somehow, it becomes the kind of thing you do when you're in a foreign city that's known for opera and you aren't sure what else to do. If that makes sense. Like, the same way I've ended up at random classical music concerts in St. Petersburg and Vienna.....

In Moscow especially, it's easy to get great, last-minute seats at the Bolshoi, and the programs offer both English and Russian libretto, which is often just-possible to read in the dim light. (Making this one of the few original-language entertainments that is also semi-doable for tourists.) What you want in Moscow is a Russian opera deep off the shelf--Ivan Susanin, Mazepa, some impenetrable stuff about wars between Russia and Poland that no one has ever heard of, full of big, whirligig set pieces of apple-cheeked singing peasants. What's to like about this? Maybe that....the Bolshoi hasn't been rationalized? The financial pressures that cause opera companies (along with every other form of modern entertainment) to cater to the wallet of the audience haven't penetrated the deepest cultural corners of Post-Soviet Russia, allowing the Bolshoi to continue to mount these moldering, fabulous, ancient productions. Cultural treasures of a vanished world.

In London, I saw a hyper-modern, monochromatic Macbeth once, alone, and drank pink champagne at intermission & marveled at the Brits' sophisticated opera house and superior design sense. But the voices were like drills to the skull.

New York is warmer. The talent is the best in the world (like London, unlike Moscow), the Met's staging of Eugene Onegin is my favorite ever, but....I tend to find the performances distancing. Don Juan, The Barber of Seville, it's all slick & virtuoso and the music is great but I've never had an emotional connection to the show itself. Opera as art for this world, has never been an issue. Until! Funnily, yesterday, at the critically panned new staging of Tosca. There's been a lot of flap about Tosca getting boos, and people have found the new performance unnecessarily idol-bashing, accused the director of adding stuff that shouldn't be there, etc. I went with dread. I'd dragged my poor father down from Boston to go to a matinee. And you know, braced for the worst is always the best way to be blown away by something. This was the first time I cried at an opera, the first time that I felt the humanity of the characters and found some today's-reality in an opera theme. The story is about a painter (Caravadocci) and his singer-lover (Tosca) who because of love and an old friendship with a political rebel, run afoul of their corrupt and brutal government (manifested by the evil police chief Scarpia). Arts & humanity verses power and corruption is a very relevant theme for today's world, for me, at least; individuality and goodness against faceless systemic evil should resonate with all of us.

The sets, loudly complained about, reference prison, concentration camp, brutalist architecture and I found them to be absolutely necessary to bring in the sense of evil, power and corruption that Tosca and her lover, and the music itself, as a thing of surpassing human beauty, are reacting against. I don't know what Puccini would have intended, since his music is so warm & lovely & baroque, but against the death that the director created onstage, this music became a benediction and a lament, luscious, impossible, like Tosca the heroine herself was intended to be, all passion and frailty. Yum. Anyway. This was a brave thing to do, and is such an exciting sign for the new director and the Met. I cannot wait to see what else Peter Gelb comes up with.

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