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IT HAS been a while since I’ve had fun here with opera. Having already cited (see www.wp.me/p2ETap-u7) what Sir Peter Ustinov called opera’s “razor edge of absurdity,” it seems not inappropriate to share some operatic chaos.
Johanna Fiedler was the general press representative of the Metropolitan Opera for 15 years (as well as daughter of Arthur Fiedler, long-time conductor of the Boston Pops). Her book Molto Agitato contains wonderful stories about people ranging from stage crews to the likes of Arturo Toscanini, Principal Conductor at the Met, 1908-1915.
When the imperious Toscanini told orchestra members they played “like pigs,” they complained to Metropolitan Opera General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza. “You should hear what he calls me,” Gatti responded.
The 1982-1983 production of Un Ballo in Maschera was a starkly modern one with a radically raked stage. Its tenor lead, Luciano Pavarotti, felt underappreciated at the Met. Conductor Giuseppe Patanè was known to be difficult to handle as well. What’s worse, Patanè trembled as he entered the pit, his forehead bruised and bleeding, he said from a fall on the ice.
Near the opera’s end, in the grand ball scene, Pavarotti misjudged his footing, skidded down the stage and into the wings. Gallantly, he reappeared on stage to an ovation and sang his death scene.
Then chaos erupted during the curtain calls. Pavarotti decided his injury was grave, and the house doctor was called. At the same time, Patanè announced he was having chest pains. When told the doctor was with Pavarotti, Patanè said “But I am having a heart attack!”
Patanè ran toward the doctor; Pavarotti shoved him aside; each shouted “I need the doctor first!”
It turned out Pavarotti’s injury was minor. Patanè’s problem was judged to be an anxiety attack, likely attributed not to “a fall,” but to a pre-performance battle with his estranged wife. (There was this Met soprano.…)
Alas, in 1989, Maestro Patanè collapsed during a Munich performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. He was rushed to the hospital and died, age 57, of a heart attack.
Writes Peter Ustinov in his introduction to Great Operatic Disasters, “There is no art form which attempts the sublime while defying the ridiculous with quite the foolhardiness of opera.”
One of my favorite examples is a 1961 San Francisco Opera production of Tosca, an opera ending with a double-crossed faked execution that turns out not to be fake. It’s said that the (non-singing) firing squad of four young men came from a local college, evidently with only hurried instruction.
“Okay, boys,” the director told them, “When the stage manager cues you, slow-march in, wait until the officer lowers his sword, then shoot.”
“How do we get off?”
“Oh, well, just exit with the principals.”
Come the final scene, the firing squad marches solemnly on stage—only to find two people, Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi, both looking extremely agitated. Which to shoot??
The officer slowly raises his sword. The firing squad hesitantly takes aim at Cavaradossi. He casts a conspiratorial glance toward Tosca across the stage, and the guys get nervous.
So they point at Tosca, who now looks even more distressed. Well, why not? The opera’s a tragedy with her name on it.
The officer’s sword drops. The firing squad shoots Tosca—and Cavaradossi drops.
Tosca rushes to the top of Castel Sant’Angelo battlements and jumps to her death.
As the curtain comes down, the four guys follow her. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013