Posts Tagged ‘ Tosca ’

The opera audience: a rare two-headed beast

During the interval of a recent production of Mozart’s Cos­­ì fan tutte, my obligatory interval ice cream was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.

“Can you please explain to me why everyone in the audience is either in their 80s or 20s?” asked the woman behind me.

What a stupid question, I thought. Had she never been to the opera before? But of course, she had a point. The modern opera audience is a strange two-headed beast, a Cerberus of the stalls: rich, older people still make up the core but the less wealthy under-30s are increasingly present. And opera houses are tying themselves in knots trying to please this pushmi pullyu of an audience.

Dr Dolittle's Pushmi Pullyu

The Pushmi Pullyu

This odd situation has come about because of opera houses’ fascination with the young: their borderline-unhealthy obsession with attracting the under-30s. Every opera house in Britain – and the world over – has ploughed vast sums into projects and “initiatives” (shudder) in an attempt to “widen participation.”

Only recently the Lyric Opera house in Chicago announced that operatic diva Renée Fleming was to become its first ever creative consultant. Fleming’s role, according to the venue, will primarily be to broaden its audience, come up with education projects and work on their web marketing strategy. In other words, try to get the young’uns in. Which is all well and good, but at what cost to opera?

Opera is not the most accessible of art forms – it is often in a foreign language, the emotions expressed are usually highly exaggerated and the plots rarely dip below the ridiculous. What’s more, characters like Mozart’s Dorabella, who professes undying love to her fiancé one minute and then sort of forgets him – ‘cos she’s a girl – and gets engaged to his best friend, don’t wash with modern, post-feminist audiences. And don’t get me started on Tosca or Isolde.

But there’s no point apologising for this: opera plots are only a vehicle for the music. That’s where the real drama happens: the music, if you’ll pardon the expression, is where it’s at.

Castel Sant Angelo

Opera’s pleasures spring from its difficulties. Trying to deny this does the form a disservice: that’s why last year’s Royal Opera House project to make a Twitter opera achieved little more than a rash of headlines and why terms like “initiatives to widen participation” make me want to follow Tosca in her leap off the Castel Sant Angelo. No self-respecting young person would be fooled by these attempts to be “cool” – the operatic equivalent of a mid-life crisis.

A good opera production will appeal to any discerning culture vulture – young or old.

Simple, gimic-free, well-staged productions will do more to broaden opera audiences than any futuristic, circus-inspired, gangsta-rap version of La Traviata.

By all means make the ticket prices affordable, advertise productions on facebook and Twitter. But don’t compromise on the product. Opera, like theatre, is a great art form and opera houses shouldn’t feel they have to apologise for it.

Tosca, Puccini, ENO

music by Giacomo Puccini
libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
trans. by Edmund Tracey
ENO, London Coliseum

ENO’s production of Puccini’s barnstormer, Tosca, is knowledgeable yet aloof; academic yet distant. This is a “diet” Tosca, where darker shades and richer textures are reduced or taken away completely.

Directed by Catherine Malfitano, a celebrated Tosca in her own right, this production is broadly traditionalist – from Gideon Davey’s unobtrusive period costumes, to Malfitano’s decision to restore contemporary details to the libretto. Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s imposing, geometric set makes the singers look like dolls. The battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo dwarf the singers, creating a sense of loneliness and vulnerability. David Martin Jacques’ lighting design works with Schlössmann’s set to create a visually impeccable piece.

Amanda Echalez is everything you could ask for in a Tosca: fiery and vulnerable; mischievous with a hint of the malevolent. Her voice can simmer with anger or tremble with barely-concealed terror, from its rich lower tones to the bright-as-brass top. Her diction could be clearer but Echalez’s Tosca is a rational, believable creature, laughing at her own jealousy and brimming with the excitement of an adolescent lover.

Julian Gavin’s Cavaradossi, though technically right on the money, lacks the necessary intensity in the famous ‘E lucevan le stelle’ aria and his relationship with Echalez’s Tosca is clumsy and lacking in chemistry. Anthony Michaels-Moore lacks the bile-filled malice which the part of Scarpia demands with the result that his attempted rape of Tosca is unconvincing. Edward Gardner does not help matters at the end of Act One by rushing the final, dramatic chords. Overall, however, his interpretation is youthful and the music sounds fresh under his baton.

Yet the evening feels muted: though this may be deliberate. In a strikingly frank programme note, Arman Schwartz argues the case for a ‘modernist Tosca: Puccini’s music, he says, ‘participates in the stage action without ‘interpreting’ it’. The aim, Schwartz claims, was ‘to build a wall between the audience and the on-stage world.’

As such, Malfitano’s production failed to grip as it should: at times the production seemed to be fighting against the impulses of Puccini’s score. Real, human emotion was lacking and as Puccini himself said: ‘Only with emotion can one achieve a triumph that endures.’