x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tosca fails to hit the right note

When Luc Bondy and his production team took to the stage, the audience made their displeasure felt with such loud and sustained booing that the curtain had to be brought down.

People watch the opening night performance of Pucciniís classic opera Tosca by the Metropolitan Opera September 21, 2009 on big television screens in New York's Times Square.
People watch the opening night performance of Pucciniís classic opera Tosca by the Metropolitan Opera September 21, 2009 on big television screens in New York's Times Square.

Being booed off the football field is to be expected for the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. And everyone from Britney Spears to the Gallagher brothers have been booed off stage after a lacklustre gig at some stage. But a chorus of disapproval at the theatre? That's a much bigger deal. This is why the reception that the director Luc Bondy received last week, after his new production of Puccini's Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera Of New York, has caused such waves world. Booing is usually the preserve of crowds who perceive that the stars they have paid to see are not trying hard enough. You certainly couldn't accuse Bondy of that: the Swiss director has basically ripped up the Tosca template that the Italian director Franco Zefirelli set in 1985 - a version New York audiences loved - and went instead for a stripped down set. At the end of the Met's gala performance on Monday, the cast took its curtain call to cheers and applause. But when Bondy and his production team took to the stage, the audience made their displeasure felt with such loud and sustained booing that the curtain had to be brought down. Still, Bondy should take heart from the reaction for two reasons. First, there is nothing so entertaining as annoying dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. And secondly, he is in good company. Unruly audiences were par for the course for the greatest storyteller of them all, William Shakespeare. The groundlings (the "stinkards" standing on the floor of the theatre) would shout, cheer and boo - and often at the wrong moments. One can only imagine how annoyed The Bard must have been when one of the soliloquies he had spent hours delicately crafting was ruined by a member of the unwashed masses yelling "rubbish". At least Bondy only got this at the end of the show. But such antics are not the sole preserve of 16th-century ­audiences. The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky in 1913 is widely acknowledged as one of the finest 20th-century ballets. However, Stravinsky's score was more complex than classical ballet fans were used to, and Nijinsky interpreted this with a series of violent, untraditional dance steps. Both shocked that the audience at the work's Paris world premiere - and booing was just the start of it. The crowd turned on each other and a full-blown riot ensued which French police struggled to contain. It is said that Stravinsky was so upset that he ran from the theatre crying. Bondy knows his opera history, so he may not have even been that surprised by the reaction at the Met. There is quite a tradition of the tolerance levels of opera audiences being much lower than most. In Italy, La Scala crowds treat performances like football matches involving AC Milan - every missed note comes with loud grumblings of the sort that greet an opposition goal. Like the "groundlings", there is even a name for them: the "loggionisti". They are often wrong, though. In 1955 Maria Callas had radishes thrown at her when she took over a performance from the much-loved diva Renata Tebaldi - and she did all right in the end. Such petulant displays are not limited to Italy, ­either. In London's Covent Garden in 1992 the audience booed the Italian tenor Walter Donati during the performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore. The poor man had a sore throat. Donati's case stands out as it involves a performer. Opera audiences do boo, but these days they almost always boo the producers, composers or designers. Until the point that Bondy arrived on stage there had been nothing but standing ovations for the soloists - who were, the reviews said, excellent. Should he worry? Probably not - and he was absolutely right to say afterwards that the reaction was "very, very violent because they have had a [Zefirelli] Tosca since 1985 and they don't want to see something different. To think one work exists and it has a final interpretation, is a problem". The traditionalists need the rug pulling out from them every so often, otherwise all forms of art would quickly stagnate. As for the Metropolitan Opera Of New York, they won't mind the publicity either. Let's be honest, aren't you fascinated to see how shocking Bondy's Tosca is now?