The destruction of opera has been the aim of opera-house managers and producers for a good many years now. It isn’t too difficult an objective. Ignore the composer’s intention in order to insult and offend the audience, which in any case has no right of reply. Recast the setting to make some present-day social point, most usually to do with sexuality. Design brutalist sets, for instance furnishing a Renaissance palace with tank traps or oil drums, and if at all possible getting in some reference to Auschwitz, with barbed wire or striped prisoner garb. The predictability is boring beyond boredom.
The house managers and producers do all this for fear of being taken as elitists, catering to people with a taste for an art form requiring appreciation and knowledge, and therefore not for everyone. Taking the easy way out, they prefer to ruin the art form rather than perpetuate it. This has led to the formation of the Association for the Elimination of Trendy Opera Producers, and I must declare an interest, namely that I am the ex-officio president. A producer or house manager on whom the Association passes the verdict of guilty faces summary execution, without right of appeal.
The Association attended Tosca last night at the Met. “It’s a New Met. Get Over It,” the New York Times has just declared, and this patronizing sergeant-major-type instruction was a dire warning of what to expect from the house manager Peter Gelb, and the producer Luc Bondy, the latter already on our Association’s books for horrors perpetrated on his Zurich stage.
Gelb is quoted in the paper boasting that he’s always tried to popularize classical music, that he favors “realism” and “theatricality” and “stripping away clutter.” These are all sure signs that he is a populist destroyer terrified of being thought elitist. The previous Zeffirelli production had paid due respect to Puccini’s masterpiece, and so a new production under this regime was bound not to do so. Predictably of course, the sets are hideously bleak, with Scarpia’s apartments in the grandiose Palazzo Farnese reduced to something like an antechamber in the Lubianka. Scarpia, supposed to be the archetypal police chief of an authoritarian regime, here is represented primarily as a crude sexual sadist. Predictably again, this misreading of the character provides the opportunity to introduce call-girls, one of whom shows her breasts. The poverty of imagination at work here is truly stupefying. Puccini was famously angry with whoever took liberties with his scores; he made clear how he wanted this supreme opera to be staged, and small-minded men like Gelb and Bondy do not know better than the great composer. Tosca finishes with a firing squad and a summary execution. My Association is taking note.