Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Opera Wednesday

By Paul Drew

Those of you with an operatic bent have probably heard about the tumultuous debut of the Met's new production of Tosca on Monday night. I've been talking with Mitchell about this - well, different - production, and I believe he's got something in the works in the next few days.

But in the meantime, let's revisit a piece I did - can it be, over three years ago? It's a look at a real production of Tosca, and (with all due respect to Karita Mattila) a real diva in the role: Maria Callas, at her 1964 Covent Garden performance with the incomparable Tito Gobbi as the villanous Scarpia.


It was said that Callas didn't much like the character of Floria Tosca, whom she thought of as a "weak girl." Here, as her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured by Scarpia's henchmen, she sings one of the most famous arias in opera, Vissi d'arte. "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" – “I lived on art, I lived on love." In other words, it's all about poor me - what did I do in life to deserve this? Forget Cavaradossi - what about me?

(This isn't entirely fair, of course - Scarpia's blackmailing Tosca, claiming that he'll release Cavaradossi in return for one night of passion. I'd probably be inclined to wonder what I did to deserve this, myself.) Tosca goes on to kill Scarpia (in a clip I'll put up later on), and after a desperate attempt to save Cavaradossi's life fails, she commits suicide in despair. I trust I haven't ruined the ending for you.

Reading the YouTube comments on this is almost laughable. Everyone has an opinion on Callas (some of them quite insightful, actually), and a venomous attitude toward anyone who disagrees with that opinion (which doesn't really add much insight at all). What a lot of people forget is that opera is theater, not just music, and theater isn't always about the finest technical performance. It's about the experience. As for me, I don't pretend to be an expert, but I know what I like. Callas may be past her singing peak at this point but she can still bring it, and the drama of this scene with her old partner Gobbi - the experience, if you will - is thrilling.

I've heard the arguments about opera being dull, preposterous, difficult to follow, you name it. There's a lot to those arguments. But I'll defy you to feel that way after seeing Callas' anguish in this performance.

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