Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Defending TOSCA (sort of)

I suspect it should be clear to those who read this blog regularly that I am far from the greatest fan of Giacomo Puccini. I appreciate that opera singers adore him, and I have even heard many good things about him from some of my informants in the orchestra pit. So it is clear that from the performer's perspective, he has some virtues; but, since my own "performer's point of view" is that of a hopeless amateur at a piano keyboard, I have to approach him strictly from my seat in the audience. Within that constraint I might find a concert performance of an aria or duet acceptable, but in such a setting I would probably have little patience for an entire opera or even an extended suite, such as the one James Conlon prepared for Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. If I am going to get my Puccini, then the only place to get it is in an opera house, where I can pay as much attention to the staging as to the singing.

From this point of view, I found myself reflecting on what I had written about the recent San Francisco Opera performance of Tosca while reading Scott Foglesong's thoughts about the 1953 Maria Callas recording of this opera in his latest SF Classical Music Examiner piece. Let me focus on a few of his sentences:

One hears gush about the "utter truth" of Callas's performance as diva Tosca, but let's get real here: how much "truth" can there be in a trashy, shabby, grubby little potboiler? The fans hear "truth"; I hear cheap histrionics. Tosca is full of great tunes and some nifty choral writing, but intellectually it dwells in a realm somewhere between reality TV and The Perils of Pauline.

I sympathize entirely with this text; but I feel that, when one makes that transition from listening to a recording to watching a production on the stage, one can put a more positive spin on it. It was not out of merely trying to be clever that entitled my own post "Dare to be Vulgar." Indeed, vulgarity had been on my mind when I experienced Conlon's Shostakovich suite, as was the precept in Aristotle's "Poetics" that tragedy is concerned with noble men, while comedy "is an imitation of baser men." If there is any nobility to any of the characters in Tosca, we see precious little of it; and I suspect this was the case in Victorien Sardou's version as well. This is why I came to the conclusion that Tosca is a "comedy of distress," appropriating the language that Alexander Pushkin summoned for the full title of his play about Tsar Boris Godunov.

Having said all that, I suspect that Puccini himself would not have been very happy with his opera being called a "comedy of distress;" but I am not sure that, were he still alive to give it, Puccini's opinion would matter very much. My argument is the same as the one I advanced in considering a composition by a composer who is alive and who does not seem to take very kindly to some critics (including myself), Steven Gerber. Here is how I expressed it back in April:

The basic premise is that, once a composition is presented to an audience, it no longer "belongs" to the composer. Each of us has a unique way of listening, and there will never be any guarantee that any listener will hear a composition the way the composer intended it to be heard. That is part of what makes all of us human, the subjective nature of cognitive interpretation of sensory impressions. The composition leaves the objective and subjective worlds of the composer's working environment and enters the social world, where it becomes part of a vast network of listeners and listenings, very much in the spirit of the social networks that Randall Collins postulated and investigated in The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. From such a point of view, it would seem natural for any composer to experience some sort of past-partum depression with such a departure; but, hopefully, at some point the composer can take pleasure in being the parent of a child that has now left the womb, so to speak.

Once Tosca was turned loose on the audience, it was no longer Puccini's affair, regardless of whether or not calling it a "comedy of distress" involved malice or ridicule (which, in my case, it did not). However, my point of view is still provocative to those targeted by Foglesong's text. If there is any "truth" in a performance of this opera, it is the truth of the baseness of all of the characters and the consequences of their base behaviors. This is why I began "Dare to be Vulgar" with the suggestion that both the play and the opera would have been better titled Scarpia, were it not for the need to publicize that "celebrity" status of actresses and divas!

No comments: