in 1979, the San Francisco Opera staged a troubled production of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. It was troubled because the two leading singers — Pavarotti and Renata Scotto — didn’t get along. Or, rather, Pavarotti pulled some of his familiar tricks (showing up late for rehearsals, not knowing his part), and Scotto didn’t like that. She says as much in her autobiography (out of print, but available through Amazon); she doesn’t mention Pavarotti’s name, but everybody in the opera world knew who she meant.
Everybody in the opera world, too, knows some of the other things that happened. Scotto — a powerful singer, but vocally out of her depth in a role too heavy for her — got heckled at the premiere, after her big aria. In the silence just before the applause began, a voice cried out, “Povera Ponchielli!” (“Poor Ponchielli!”) Scotto may have thought the heckler was a Pavarotti plant. She was livid backstage afterwards, even though she’d gotten an ovation at the end. Someone came into her dressing room, and introduced himself as a Pavarotti friend. She exploded at him. She also said she didn’t want to work with “gente di merda” (if I’ve got the Italian right), meaning “people who are full of shit.”
But all this is more than lore. It was captured on two videos, a documentary about the production, and a telecast of the premiere. They’re hard to find; they’re not officially for sale any more, but can be tracked down through people in the opera world who keep such things available. I’ve watched them both, and they’re extraordinary — but at the same time troubling.
The documentary shows the backstage turmoil, or at least the turmoil after the premiere. Scotto, beside herself, has to be consoled by the very diplomatic stage director (and director of major opera companies), Lotfi Mansouri. The “friend of Pavarotti” incident is shown. The gentleman who comes backstage is preening, bragging that he knows Pavarotti, naively thinking that will score him points.
But there’s something missing. There are performance excerpts in the documentary — Pavarotti laboring his way through his big aria, though rising to the climax with tremendous verve, and then Scotto finishing the aria that got her heckled. But the heckler isn’t heard! He was snipped out, so the aria segues directly to applause.
The heckler is heard, large as life, in the performance video. It’s astonishing; we just don’t get moments like that in modern opera houses. Scotto in fact has done a tremendous job with the aria, delivering a true old-school, performance, a piece of intense melodrama that stops just short of going over the top. She can’t hide her vocal problems, though — a bottom range that’s vague and hollow, because she pushes the sound too strongly, and a screechy top that wobbles. As a listener, you have to take it or leave it; the heckler (taking the anti-Scotto side in what then was a familiar debate) can’t take it, and makes his feelings known.
Scotto reacts like a magnificent professional. She holds her pose, maybe flinching just enough for us to see in the TV closeup, but not giving an inch to the heckler in any way the audience would notice. She throws herself into the rest of the performance, and gets, as I’ve said, a huge ovation at the end. But none of this is mentioned in the wolly, reverent PBS performance commentary. The announcer doesn’t say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just witnessed something extraordinary — outright heckling in the opera house. Let’s applaud Mme. Scotto for the dignity with which she handled it.” At the end, as she takes her bows, he doesn’t say, “Mme. Scotto surely must be gratified by this ovation.” These are things that anybody watching the performance would think. Why can’t they be said?
I can understand, or at least guess, why the heckling might have been snipped from the documentary. Scotto, I’m sure, had to sign some kind of release before the footage of her could be shown. She may have said she wouldn’t sign it if the heckler wasn’t cut. Or the opera company, thinking it might cast her again, might have thought discretion was the better part of valor here.
But the failure of the announcer to say one word about the most striking thing that happened in the performance seems ridiculous to me. Must we be so reverent about everything in classical music? La Gioconda isn’t exactly great art (though its libretto, by Arrigo Boito, who later wrote the libretti for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, is surely the most literate text ever to grace such shameless melodrama). And opera isn’t exactly famous for the restraint of its singers. Can’t we enjoy it with a smile, and acknowledge what’s going on — especially when it happens right in plain view?