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by Michael Portantiere

Boo Who?

  • Tosca-edit.jpg

    Boo Who?

    When I was lucky enough to interview the great John Raitt several years ago, he made the following cogent observation about Nicholas Hytner's direction of the mid-'90s revival of Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork in which Raitt had created the leading male role in 1945: "One minute, you're watching the show and thinking, 'That's a great idea." The next minute, you're thinking, 'What did they do THAT for?!'"

    The same might be said of Luc Bondy's new production of Puccini's Tosca for the Metropolitan Opera, but let's be clear from the outset that the director's ludicrous misjudgments outnumber his sensible innovations by about 50 to 1. Bondy was roundly booed when he took a curtain call on opening night. I wasn't there to add my voice to the chorus on that occasion -- I saw the third performance, a week later -- but I certainly agree with the sentiment expressed.

    Yes, there are some nice moments of character interplay to be found in this staging. I was impressed early on when the director smartly had Marcelo Alvarez as Mario Cavaradossi address one or two pertinent lines of his first aria ("Recondita armonia") not to himself or the audience but directly to the fussy Sacristan, played to perfection by Paul Plishka. Act I of this Tosca also contains a nice little coup-de-theatre: Because of the way the set was designed, the evil police chief Scarpia (Carlo Guelfi) is able to make a very sudden and very frightening first appearance.

    But oh, the innumerable stupidities of this production! Elsewhere in Act I, Tosca becomes so insanely jealous of her lover Mario's portrait of Mary Magdalene that she first attempts to repaint the image's blue eyes to match her own darker-hued eyes, and later she destroys the canvas by tearing a huge hole in it. In the final moments of the act, Scarpia embraces a statue of the Madonna in a blatantly sexual way that causes the congregation of the church to recoil in horror -- an act which would result in his excommunication at the very least, this being Italy circa 1800. And at the beginning of Act III, while Puccini's lovely, lyrical music depicting a sleepy Roman morning emanates from the orchestra, Bondy has a firing squad marching about on stage in drill formation; but when the time comes for them to actually shoot Cavaradossi, they simply walk into place before aiming and firing. WTF?

    Set designer Richard Peduzzi aids and abets Bondy in his folly. One typical example is the re-setting of Act II in a stark, generic, office-like interrogation room rather than in the opulent confines of Scarpia's apartment in the Palazzo Farnese, as specified in the libretto. And why on earth should there be two incongruously plush couches on stage in the midst of all that institutional drabness?

    Such nonsense is particularly galling because, in a program article, Bondy claims that his approach to directing Tosca was based on "trusting the music and the libretto." Oh, please! He trusted neither, and the sad result is now on stage at the Met, where it will remain until such time as general manager Peter Gelb has the courage to face facts and consign this production to the scrap heap.

    By the way: In the midst of the madness, a musically compelling performance of Puccini's glorious score took place on Monday, September 28. Maestro Joseph Colaneri (subbing for an ailing James Levine) skillfully conducted the fabulous Met orchestra and a cast led by the superb Karita Mattila as Tosca in addition to the excellent Alvarez and Guelfi (subbing for George Gagnidze), with Plishka as the Sacristan and David Pittsinger (who recently appeared as Emile DeBecque in Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific) as Angelotti. If ever there was a night at the opera that an audience member would enjoy far more with his or her eyes closed, this is it.



    Booing is far less common in the theater than at the opera -- practically unheard of, in fact, at least in the U.S. This is partly because, generally speaking, theatergoers are not quite as passionate as opera buffs about the art form they love. But the main reason for the disparity is that, on opening nights, opera productions grant curtain calls to stage directors, designers, and composers (if living!), who almost always bear the primary responsibility for any debacle that may have occurred. On Broadway, curtain calls for creatives just don't happen, and audience members are presumably reluctant to boo at the conclusion of a bad show because they don't want it to seem that they are unhappy with the efforts of the hard-working, usually blameless actors.

    The only show I ever booed was Sunset Boulevard, because I was appalled that such a shockingly bad musical was being showcased on Broadway and was amazed that it had not been universally savaged by the critics. In my opinion, it's more acceptable to boo a bad show if it's the work of established artists rather than neophytes. Glory Days was dreadful, but it would have seemed pointlessly cruel to direct catcalls at a musical that represented the efforts of very young writers and should never have been brought to Broadway in the first place. (The show closed on opening night.) At the other end of the spectrum, if anyone seated near me at Twyla Tharp's The Times They Are A-Changin' had chosen to boo -- or, for that matter, to throw ripe tomatoes at the stage -- I wouldn't have been shocked in the least.

    What of the actors? If someone is terrible in a role, should we blame the performer or the person(s) responsible for his/her casting? I didn't get to see Jerry Springer during his recent turn as Billy Flynn in Chicago (if you blinked, you missed him), but a friend of mine who did said that Springer was painfully ill-equipped for the assignment in terms of both his singing and acting ability. So, should he himself be reviled for having had the temerity to set foot on stage in a role created by Jerry Orbach? Or should producers Barry and Fran Weissler, whose penchant for stunt casting is well known, be the focus of the audience's aesthetic rage? And if that's the case, how do you boo producers?

    Then there are directors, specifically those who have committed felony crimes against theater classics from Macbeth to The Glass Menagerie to Guys and Dolls. I doubt that anyone actually booed Des McAnuff's G&D, but word of mouth was so poisonous that this revival of a normally fool-proof show ran only four months. If theatergoers feel that Arthur Laurents and Robert Longbottom have respectively wrecked West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie, two more beloved musicals that have played like gangbusters in countless school and community theater productions over the decades, what's the best way to express their feelings?

    Finally, in my book, the shows that unquestionably deserve boos are those which are morally reprehensible. They don't come along very often, thank heaven, but I can think of two recent examples: Sarah Kane's Blast, seen at Soho Rep last year, and Daniel Goldfarb's The Retributionists, which somehow made it to the stage of Playwrights Horizons last month. The former sucker-punched audiences with its ultra-graphic depictions of male-on-male anal rape, a baby's corpse being cannibalized, and other disgusting behavior, while the latter trivialized the Holocaust by turning a story of Jews seeking revenge on Germans during the years immediately following WW-II into a turgid, boring soap opera about who was sleeping with whom (see photo above). I refrained from booing when I saw these shows, but only because they were both in small theaters and I didn't want to cause a scene. So please allow me now to boo them retroactively. BOO! That feels better.

    Published on Friday, October 2, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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