Last night, I eagerly tuned in to the BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. It’s one of my favourite operas. I didn’t listen to it till the very end, though, because I wasn’t grabbed by the performance. I found Nina Stemme’s Wagnerian soprano too heavy and too lacking in crystalline quality for Turandot. I felt that her diction was a little sloppy and, on several occasions, I thought I heard her swallow consonants and leave out vowels. Marco Berti’s tenor, for me, was too thin, too deprived of richness, too throaty for Calaf. I also didn’t care for the pace of Paolo Carignani’s conducting. I found it too fast and lacking in drama.
Some of the above comments are a matter of personal taste and preference. However, when the Met audience applauded uproariously, sounding as though they were about to bring the house down, I suddenly realised something: the audience always applauds uproariously at the Met or Covent Garden. It’s almost expected. It’s totally predictable. And I wondered: is it a matter of manners or lack of discernment? Does the audience take its cue from the critics? Does fame equal quality, equal wild applause?
There was a time when audiences would hurl tomatoes, boo and hiss at performances and performers who failed to live up to their standards. I don’t agree with such abusive behaviour. Of course I don’t. My many years working in the theatre has taught me just how hard everyone involved in a production works, and their efforts should be met with respect. But, surely, it should also be an audience member’s privilege to express disappointment with a show or a performer, if s/he feels that the quality is inferior to expectations. After, all, shouldn’t clapping and shouting “bravo!” be like restaurant tipping, i.e. subject to the standard of service received? There are many respectful ways an audience can convey the fact that it doesn’t like something. Not clapping, for example. Another, more drastic, expression could be leaving during the interval. I know some people do that, but then how come whenever I attend an opera or listen to a live radio broadcast, there’s always – always – such roaring applause? Sometimes I almost wonder if it’s pre-recorded.
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I first started going to the opera when I was sixteen, in Rome. The Teatro dell’Opera hadn’t been revamped yet, and much of the upholstery was the worse for wear. The place was drab. On the rare occasion when a famous singer was scheduled to appear, you would have to start queuing for tickets at the crack of dawn. The first person to arrive would take it upon him or herself to tear up little pieces of paper with numbers scribbled on them, and hand them out to anyone joining the queue.
I have fond memories of many a Sunday afternoon spent in the galleria, surrounded by characters who lived and breathed music, and were not afraid to express their opinion, even in voices that carried across the auditorium in the silence that preceded the opening bars of the second or third act.
A ticket in the gods cost less than admission to the luxurious Barberini cinema, where the latest films were shown first, so I went very often. Moreover, since I mostly went everywhere on my own, I found it much less intimidating to go the opera than the cinema. Nobody up in the galleria found it odd that a teenage girl should turn up without parents, friends or boyfriend. Before leaving home, I would wrap a piece of milk chocolate in foil and put it in my coat pocket. By the interval, it would have softened exactly to my liking, and I would snack on it while listening to the other music lovers provide an in-depth, no-prisoners-taken, critique of the performance. Mostly, they were music students from the Santa Cecilia music academy, and other, older, opera aficionados who could not afford a seat in the stalls.
In any case, the stalls were where the fur coats sat. And the fur coats, we galleria regulars all knew, would applaud at anything that moved on the stage.
I remember a Rossini Semiramide with a spectacular set, and a Massenet Manon (which, my galleria betters, assured me, sounded far better in Italian than in French) where Raina Kabaivanska’s dress caught on the banister of a staircase, preventing her from walking down until rescued by a slow-on-the-uptake Des Grieux. Then, Italy being well known for its art, its fashion, but also for its frequent strikes, there was the time when I attended a chorus-free performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
My first opera was Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. My heart pounded at the opening bars. The singing was excellent. The set, however, was another matter. At one point, the curtains swished open on several plywood or cardboard cut-out horses. One of them had an unusual pattern of pink and orange stripes. The conductor raised his baton. The man next to me was watching through his binoculars. His voice carried loud and clear across the void.
“Look at that – they’ve even got zebras!”
The conductor lowered his baton amid a crescendo of shushing from the fur coats down in the abyss, and supportive giggles from the galleria occupants.
Now that‘s what I call audience power.
Please also read ‘Turandot – a Story of Redemption’