Thursday, October 30, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Met's controversial 2009 Tosca

By now, I suspect most people with an interest in this sort of thing have heard about the fiasco at opening night of the Metropolitan Opera: Luc Bondy's new production of Tosca, and what's wrong with it.

Some have commented on the apparent blasphemy of the production, with Scarpia rather sexually fondling a statue of the Virgin Mary during the Te Deum that concludes Act 1. And as the picture below demonstrates, while it’s true nobody knows for certain what Mary Magdeline actually looked like, I feel somewhat safe in assuming nobody ever painted her looking quite like that. I suppose Bondy could claim that his efforts to give us a new Tosca required him to make a clean breast of the whole thing, but I digress.

The thing of it is, I’m not even sure what Bondy did was intended to be blasphemous. Were he to argue that he was merely trying to demonstrate Scarpia’s monstrosity, I might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was probably just part of his larger effort to be provocative, to bring what he would call a new dimension to Puccini's classic.

While the bulk of the critics' appraisal of this performance has been, well, critical, there have been some who've welcomed Bondy's efforts to inject some new blood into what they saw as the moth-eaten Franco Zefferilli production which the Met has been using for the last umpteen-some years. The audience's loud reaction to the production is further evidience, they would say, of the public's unwillingness to accept anything that smacks of new and different. We're just too stuffy, it would seem, to appreciate great art when we're presented with it.

And this brings me to the point of this essay: the question of change. Opera has to change with the times; the theater is not static, but a living organism that constantly adapts to its environment - well, you've heard all the arguments.

Why do people purchase DVDs of movies? Is it to watch them once and then dispose of them like a cheap camera that's done its job? No – you have Netflix for that. People buy movies because they want to see them over and over again – they like the fact they know not only what's coming next, but how it happens. We watch our favorite movies, we know our favorite parts by heart, we delight in the anticipation of hearing “I’m shocked, shocked, to find gambling in this establishment” over and over again; we even nudge your companions as if to say, “Here it comes!”

At the same, however, you never stop seeing something new, even in a movie you’ve seen fifteen or so times. I have a friend who’s watched It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas for decades, and he still finds some little bit he hasn’t noticed before, something that gives him a fresher insight into the movie.

Does that prevent stories from being retold over the years, with different directors, actors and designers? Of course not. Technologies change, things that weren’t possible years ago have now become commonplace, insights – whether into human psychology, history, or filmmaking itself – allow us to try new and different things. Sound and color itself were major innovations, and they were put to good use when the silent classic Ben-Hur was remade in 1959. Sometimes these things work, sometimes they don’t, but often they’re worth trying.

And occasionally the new version is superior to the old – the 1959 Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars, and it’s difficult to remember anyone other than Charlton Heston in the title role. Batman Begins was a reimagination of the beginning of the Batman myth that introduced a much denser psychology into the origins of the Caped Crusader, and along with the sequel The Dark Knight helped elevate this morality play beyond the normal confines of the comic book.

But movies such as Batman Begins are often called “relaunches” rather than “remakes,” and for good reason. It’s not just a story that’s being redone: it’s an entire image of what the story represents. Batman Begins didn’t simply retell the standard Batman story – it became an entirely different story, one that simply shared some elements with the original (and subsequent remakes), but was far more original itself. It’s rather like calling the Ford Mustang a remake of the Model-T – sure, there are some parts that they have in common, an engine, four wheels, a driveshaft – but the new far outweighs the old.

A few years ago the classic thriller The Manchurian Candidate was remade. The decision to remake the movie was less controversial than it might have been, since there was full cooperation from the Sinatra family, but the movie itself was a bomb. The new movie borrowed the title and the general idea, that of a presidential candidate whose strings are being pulled by an outside group, but the entire focus was changed: the evil puppetmasters were not the Red Chinese, but a sinister multinational corporation. Better that they should have changed the name of the movie altogether and settled for being called a Manchurian Candidate-like film, then suffer the comparisions to the original that inevitably come with a remake. The same could be said for Planet of the Apes, Rollerball, you name it.

Opera is no different. I know committed opera fans who have perhaps half a dozen different recordings of the same opera. They have the Callas recording of Tosca, of course, but they also have Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballe, Renata Tebaldi - they all bring something different, some new shading to the role. And although many fans have their favorites, they savor the opportunity to compare and contrast, to debate the merits of each of the leading ladies and their supporting cast. In many cases they may even have multiple recordings of the same singer; there are probably at least a half-dozen different recordings of Callas - live and in the studio, spread over a number of years - and they can tell you how her voice changes over the years, how what she lacks in vocal power in her later years might be offset by her dramatic prowess, things like that. If you were to take that choice away - if you told people there was only one definitive version of Tosca - you'd have a lot of unhappy people.

This applies to the current Tosca, of course. As fabulous and well-loved as Zefferili's staging is, there's no reason it has to be the only one. There's room for more than one Tosca, if you make this important proviso: it has to be faithful to the text and to the psychology of the characters.

Case in point: Bondy's Tosca omits a number of nuances, gestures and the like. For one example, after Tosca fatally stabs Scarpia, she places two candles next to him, one on either side, and a Crucifix on his chest. Bondy omits these gestures. They're very familiar, as familiar as Hamlet carrying that skull while muttering "To be or not to be." One has to be tempted to make a change, just to be different if nothing else. But Tosca's Catholicism is an important part of her character. Her gestures with the candles and Crucifix are entirely in keeping with it. Remove them, and you haven't just tampered with a stage direction - you've started to mess with the character's psyche.

Another case in point: the stabbing itself. Traditionally, Tosca finds a knife or letter opener on a desk in Scarpia's office. As he comes to complete his "seduction," she stabs him with it. The killing is, in other words, anything but premeditated. If Tosca winds up getting hauled into court, she can claim self-defense. Bondy's production (as well as some others) portrays Tosca bringing the knife with her into the room. We then are subjected to her frantic begging with Scarpia, knowing the whole thing is a ruse if she's just going to stab him anyway. Not only does it mess with the character's motivation, it changes the entire dramatic dynamic: Tosca winds up looking even more manipulative than Scarpia.

Again, my point is that while some aspects of a production are there for no reason other than tradition (check out the many versions of A Christmas Carol to see what I mean), some of them are more than that - they play a crucial part in character development, the evolution of the story, what have you. When you start to tamper with that, for whatever reason, you're asking for trouble.

And that brings us to the ultimate question – does art exist as entertainment for its patrons, or does it exist for its own sake? A complicated question, to be sure, but try this on for size: if it’s functional, or meant to serve a purpose, it had better do it. If you charge money for it, it’s entertainment. If you display it for free, you can call it whatever you want.

Charging admission for a performance means that a piece has to serve a purpose, namely to provide entertainment for the patrons who purchased the ticket. It’s all well and good for an artist to talk about the purity and truth of his art, but if you’re going to ask people to fork over money to see it, you’d better give them something for their money. If you’re going to lecture them rather than entertain them, if you seek to provide education instead of (or in addition to) diversion, then you owe it to them to let them know up front. If your work bombs with the audience, and they stop buying tickets to see it, then it doesn’t matter what you call it, because we’ve already come up with a name for it: failure. Perhaps only in the short term (plenty of the operas we know and love bombed in their premieres), but failure nonetheless.

When that happens the artist has options: he can go back and make changes, trying to identify and deal with the shortcomings identified by the audience; he can withdraw the work altogether, hoping that a later generation will appreciate something that the current generation can’t (or won’t) see; or he can berate the audience for failing to live up to the standards set by the artist himself. It’s our fault, you see, for not recognizing the obvious genius of the artist, which is surely apparent – at least to the artist himself.

(In the same way we can say that any commissioned work has a purpose to serve, at least to the person who commissioned it. We can call a well-designed bridge a work of art, to be sure, but if it proves unable to support the weight of the load it’s expected to carry, then it’s a failure, no matter how cool it looks. And I suspect the taxpayers would agree.)

The inspiration for this essay began with the talk of blasphemy, and to drift off into other areas does not diminish the importance of that. Not only does the blasphemy appear nowhere in the orginial libretto, much of it runs contrary to the common sense of the story. Besides which, it's offensive for no good reason. Lord knows, we have enough in the world that's truly offensive without going out of our way to add more to it.

But I do have a larger point here, and it's this: it's perfectly fine to introduce alternative versions of a story, as long as you're willing to let the marketplace decide, and you don't insult the paying customers if they reject your version. There are two prominent opera companies in New York: the Met may be the bigger and better known, but for many years the New York City Opera was the more adventurous, presenting new works, new interpretations of old works, seldom-performed works, and so on. The two companies maintained a nice balance that way. If you wanted traditional, grand opera, you had the Met; if you were looking for something with a little bit of a twist, you went to NYCO. They both survived, at least until the recent economic downturn. But now that the Met is poaching, so to speak, on the City Opera's turf, what will happen? Good question.

It was with more than a touch of sadness that the Met retired their mammoth Otto Schenk production of Wagner's Ring Cycle last season. The Schenk Ring was classic, traditional, realistic. If you were looking for the abstract, the provocative, or the metaphorical, you were looking in the wrong place. With the exception of Seattle's opera, it was the only such Ring production left. Now that the production has been retired, we wonder what the new Ring will be like. We only know this - that one more option for the opera-going public has disappeared, and that the only alternative will be to retreat to DVD.

So to conclude: there's nothing wrong with change, as long as you don't destroy choice in the process. And if you don't like the Tosca that the public apparently likes, you're more than welcome to write your own Tosca, call it Zelda, and do whatever you want. It doesn’t even have to be better than the original – if it allows you to tell the story your way, and if it finds an audience that likes it, then it works.

Until then, if you're going to do an opera based on Tosca and you're also going to call it Tosca rather than Zelda, I’d suggest trying something more radical – sticking to the original story.

Originally published September 30, 2009

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