Strange thing I just realized.
The Met Opera celebrated New Year’s Eve with a new production of Tosca. Made sense to me when I first heard about it. An opera people love, some grand singing, if it’s cast well. What’s not to like?
And then it dawned on me. This makes no sense at all, Tosca on New Year’s Eve. Not if you take the opera seriously, and remember what it’s about.
Let’s remind ourselves. (Not that I really need to recount the plot to readers who know classical music, but still).
Blood and torment
A brutal man — torturer, killer, sexual predator, police chief of a tyrannical state — sees an opportunity. Lock up an enemy of his regime. Torture him. Make his lover — a smoldering diva — watch the torture. Tell her he’ll free the man, if she’ll submit to him.
Helpless, she says yes. And true, she kills him. But the sadist has the last laugh. His order to free the man was bogus, and, thinking she’ll see her lover freed, she sees him shot to death instead. And so she kills herself.
And, sure, all of this is dressed up in operatic grandeur, with sweeping melodies, but still! Torture, death, impending rape, and suicide. When Tito Gobbi, the great Italian baritone, famous for his singing of the villain, recorded the opera for the second time with Maria Callas, he said after (listening to the scene where she kills him), “This isn’t opera. This is a real murder!” Or words to that effect.
And all of us, reading that back in the 1960s, said, “Now that’s a great performance!”
So if it sounds real…
…how is Tosca a celebration, fit for New Year’s Eve? It’s as if classical music really didn’t have any content. Oh, we love opera! We love the singing, love the drama, love the high notes. But does it mean anything? Not really.
Like when I realized that we still perform Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, an opera that makes fun of Muslims.
Well, maybe you could say that at least in Tosca, the woman kills the predator. But he wins in the end.
Or you could say, oh, lighten up, it’s only opera. So then let’s take away the funding it gets for being high art, presumably with deep meaning.
(And, by the way, thanks for making my point for me. Or more than my point! I only said we treat classical music as if it had no meaning. Not that it truly doesn’t have any.)
What makes this even more uneasy, in the time of #metoo, is not simply that Tosca’s sadistic police chief is a sexual predator. But that the conductor originally set to lead the performance, James Levine, had to be replaced because he’s been credibly exposed as a predator himself.
So the real world really does force its way into opera.