Shocker little shabby

Last night to Opera Australia’s Tosca.

Some news of Christopher Alden’s production has gone before it, so I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned, though I went without any particular preconceptions and didn’t really think of myself as warned at all.

Perhaps I should have read the note printed on the back of the cast list more carefully when Sarah Noble posted it on Prima la musica. For ease of reference I reproduce that below.

The production is set in a basement strewn with broken pieces of religious tat and, oddly, a confessional at the rear which is later used as the torture antechamber. A bunch of choir boys come in to get changed for a Te Deum in Act I, but what we then witness is the sacristan, for some reason, announcing the amount (but not, it seems, the ticket number) of a lottery jackpot.

That’s Act 1. In Act 2, as already mentioned, Cavaradossi is tortured with power tools in the confessional. The starting and stopping of the torture is rather neatly signified by the plugging and unplugging of the extension chord in the wall socket. He is finally bashed to death (as we subsequently learn) by the torturer in a kind of control room or stage door booth occupied by the sacristan. Tosca does not seem to be aware of this and bargains with Scarpia for a safe conduct and all the usual stuff about the fake execution. Scarpia has stripped down to his undershorts and is getting stuck into Tosca (also by now down to a slip) when she stabs him to death with a Stanley knife. Scarpia’s henchmen sit through all of this facing the back of the stage.

In Act 3, the shepherd boy’s song is sung by a person identified as the Marchesa Attavanti who at some point in Act 2 appeared on top of the confessional box. Tosca sits in a kind of trance next to the grill (the confessional grill, that is) and at some point Cavaradossi also gets up and goes near her. Apparently this is all a dream. The sacristan takes Cavaradossi’s ring and has a bit more business with the cafatiere and cigarettes. Scarpia’s henchmen shoot Tosca.

There is so much in Alden’s program note which infuriates me, that I hardly know where to start. However, see my afterword below. Let ‘s just say, if he has to tell us the last act is a dream (and how lame is that?) then something has gone terribly wrong and it can’t all be the audience’s fault. If you set out deliberately “creating an ambience of low-key banality” you run the risk of simply being low-key and banal.

In fact, that is my main grudge with this production. The second half is better [than the first, that is], as second halves so frequently are, but that is almost synthetically achieved by so lowering our expectations and spirits in the first half. Really, it’s vandalism. And what is even more annoying is that on Alden’s part it is bloody condescending vandalism as well.

Afterword

I have since come across Ninox’s much more detailed critique, which takes to task the second paragaph of Alden’s note as extracted below (which as Sarah has commented already, is lifted from a piece by him in the Guardian). He says, and this was pretty much the point which I was too exasperated to get to grips with:

These days many opera directors are anxious to rob us of these kinds of comforting thoughts: but who thinks them? I have never met anybody under the delusion that repressive despotism has vanished; anyone suffering from it would need to live in comfortable isolation from all the media, even Berlusconi’s media. At the risk of turning moraliser myself, it is not accurate or sensible to equate the Berlusconi government and Scarpia’s despotism.

I wish I could have put it so well. It was what lay behind my accusation of condescension, though it has occurred to me it may be more a matter of a fatuous epiphany which is really just the bleeding obvious.

5 Responses to “Shocker little shabby”

  1. Victor Says:

    I found aspects of the production odd whilst watching this production some weeks back but I enjoyed the singing and the more I thought about it afterwards the more I warmed to the interpretation.

    Every previous production I have seen has been traditional and for some reason I have found each of them lumbering in style.

  2. marcellous Says:

    Victor, I think the important difference in our experiences is that you had Rosario La Spina (Cavaradossi) and Takesha Meshe Kizart (Tosca) and I didn’t.

    Thrilling singing can surmount most obstacles, and I can imagine it could have carried this production of Tosca, which, however, made things unnecessarily difficult for the cast I heard last night. The first act, in particular (starting with a quite underwhelming Recondite Harmonia) crossed the line, as I suggested, from depicting banality (a questionable approach in any event: isn’t Cavaradossi an artist in love with a diva?) to evoking it.

    I did find more to commend in the production when I thought about it afterwards than when I was watching it (such as, for example, the substitution of the lottery for the Te Deum).

  3. Sarah Says:

    Worth noting – since OA has failed to attribute it – that the so-called Director’s Note is actually an excerpt from a larger newspaper article by Alden about his work, rather than a program note per se. So it’s possible that some of the explication (like the “…and it was all a dream”) was intended for people who hadn’t seen his show as much as for people who were about to. Not that that really affects your point, given the purpose for which it’s now being used.
    And as you suggest above, the whole thing worked a lot better (aurally & theatrically) with the first cast. I suspect the length of the season may not be helping either.

  4. Sarah Says:

    PS Since I’m on about attribution, here’s the article:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/oct/03/classicalmusicandopera

  5. Short Notes « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Either Dean or Holden comments that at heart the novel and hence the opera is a love story. After coming to serve Harry Joy’s needs at the Hilton Hotel, call girl Honey B sings something like: “Usually I don’t feel anything, but with you…” Perhaps I just have too much difficulty with the idea of a prostitute-with-heart-of-gold, because that just made me think: that’s what they always say. At the (rewritten from the novel) end of the opera, Harry Joy is in sylvan bliss, planting trees for Honey B. After they roll around in the dirt together for a moment, Honey B gestures to him where the next seedlings are to be planted. My cynicism intruded: I fancied that Honey B should be dressed in her working-girl gear and waving the car keys as she set off to the city to meet the next client. Something and someone still needs to pay the bills. Maybe that will be the Christopher Alden production. […]

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