To boo?

By James Jorden

The opening of a new production of La Traviata at the Met tonight offers an ideal opportunity to address a fact of modern operatic life, the booing, apparently reflexive, of the director and production team at the first night’s curtain call.

Now, booing and other expressions of disapproval have a long history in the opera house. Likely the public was booing opera singers long before anyone booed professional wrestlers or baseball players. I’ve always thought that the famous climactic scene in Dangerous Liaisons, when Marquise de Merteuil gets read to filth by the audience at the opera house, gains in power when we remember that their hissing actually has a specific meaning in the context of a theater.  

When an audience boos, that’s a clear and unmistakable sign of violent disapproval. Booing someone at a dinner party, or on the street, would clearly be understood as unfriendly, but the meaning would be obscure.

Now, the booing of performers can be justified (if any booing can be justified) by fairly straightforward reasoning: there is an expected quality or event in the performance, and the singer failed: the tenor cracks Rodolfo’s high C, the mezzo sings Amneris’ judgment scene flat, the bass has a wobble you can drive a truck through.

To this list of possibilities, I can add a reason I personally found valid for booing a singer. About a decade ago, the Met presented a new production of a middle period Verdi opera, and the leading soprano seemed to mark the entire performance, singing barely audibly except for an occasional high note, and sleepwalked thought the part dramatically. She was just overpowering dull for three hours, and when she took her solo call, I did let out a loud boo. Very audible it was, too, among the tepid applause.

Nowadays nobody would think of booing a singer, but stage directors are considered fair game; in fact, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Willy Decker will be booed tonight at the Met. But the question here: does booing Decker mean the same thing as booing a singer?

I don’t think so, actually. If you ask someone who’s booed a director why he did it, the answer is most likely not going to be “he didn’t tell the story clearly” or “he didn’t hold my interest” (both, I would say, valid reasons for disapproval of a director) but rather “he didn’t respect the libretto” or “he showed his disdain for Verdi.”

Well, okay, I’m all for respecting the libretto and I figure Verdi has earned our esteem if anyone has. But what I don’t believe is that the “respect” booers are really booing for that precise reason.

It comes down to what is actually in the score and libretto and what the veteran operagoer has come to assume is in the score and libretto because he has seen the work performed on particular way over and over again. But what is traditional is not always, indeed is not often either the original creators’ vision of the way the work should be performed, or else (more important, I think) a valid director’s reaction to the work as it is being presented to a specific audience.

We might look back at La traviata, Decker has the performers costumed in what is recognizably modern fashion: a knee-length cocktail dress for Violetta, “Black Tie Optional” evening suits for the men. The traditional way to costume the opera, of course, is in the crinolines and tailcoats of the era of its premiere, i.e., the early 1850s.

It is true that Verdi asked asked for the opera to be set in that period, though the original production and many following it into the late 19th century followed the bowderlized stage direction in the libretto fixing the setting as “Parigi e sue vicinanze nel 1700 circa.” The thinking, perhaps, was that by pushing back the story a century and a half, the difficult subject matter of prostitution might be glossed over enough to avoid censorship.

So, setting the work in 1850 violates the letter of the libretto, but it honors the spirit of Verdi’s intentions. Or does it? Call it quibbling, but I say that Verdi never said or even implied “1850” as a fixed date, but rather as an indication of “the present.”  It’s hard to imagine, for example, that if Verdi saw a revival of the work in the 1870s he would object to Violetta in a bustle, or, twenty years later, his heroine in a princesse tea gown.

After that, what with Verdi no longer being on the scene to vet ladies’ fashions after his death in 1901, producers of Traviata are forced to make a choice: the indicated 1700, the implied 1850, or the more broadly understood “present.” Decker, it seems, leans toward the third choice. But that “third choice” is not, I think, disrepectful; rather, it simply respects a different interpretation of Verdi’s stated intention.

So, boo if you must, but please let the boo be a boo of reproof for a job badly done, not a simple expression of disagreement with the director’s ideas.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.