French Drama At The Italian Opera — With Low Notes Of Politics Too!
Veteran Italian Maestro Alberto Veronesi protested what he believed was the politicization of the La Bohème production that he was set to conduct. In accordance to the opera's tradition of backstage melodrama, the situation only escalated from there.
Oh the opera, with its powerful voices and high emotions.The melodrama built in to the art form has also been known to play out backstage — and then, the rare occasion when it's pushed back out in the spotlight.
This time, the stage was set in the Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio, where the 69th edition of the Festival Puccini, a celebration of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's most famous works, kicked off last Friday with a bonafide coup de théâtre.
The opening opera was Puccini’s iconic La Bohème, a four-act tale set in 1830s Paris following the bohemian lifestyle of a poor seamstress and her friends. But after the French director of the current production decided to change the setting of the story to take place during the leftist student protests in France in May 1968, the Italian conductor protested by arriving on stage blindfolded.
Act of rebellion
Alberto Veronesi, who has long worked as an opera conductor at the Festival Puccini, was opposed to director Christophe Gayral's changing the setting to 1968 as an act of "political propaganda." With his criticism ignored, Veronesi came on stage with his baton in hand and a black blindfold tightened around his head.
The crowd of opera buffs reacted with shouts of “Scemo!” (Idiot!), “Buffone!” (Clown!). Yet Veronesi was undeterred, and proceeded to direct the orchestra through the entire opera — and then boasted of his blind virtuosity after the performance. “Who says that one needs eyes to conduct?," noting that legendary maestro Herbert von Karajan would always perform with his eyes closed.
It was an impeccable night.
"I kept my blindfold on for the first two acts. Afterwards my eyelids started hurting, so I poked little holes through the fabric. Still, from a musical standpoint, it was an impeccable night.”
Gayral, a French director who has worked in both theater and the opera, said he was inspired by the student protests of ‘68 which were fundamental to the country’s recent social and political history, which could be linked to Puccini’s explorations of youth, love, and hardship.
La Bohème at the Puccini Festival.
But the drama has only just begun. With three more scheduled performances of Gayral’s edition of La Bohème, set for July 29th, August 10, and August 25, Veronesi has been dismissed, via an email by the president of the festival, Luigi Ficacci.
Ficacci said his decision would “relieve maestro Veronesi of the embarrassment of conducting a work he does not recognize and also relieve the orchestra and artists from further embarrassment."
Enraged, Veronesi cited his long service to the festival: “When I arrived, 25 years ago, it was barely a campsite.”
The conductor told Italian news network SkyTG4 that he is being punished because he voted for center-right candidates in recent elections. “The acts taken by the Festival Puccini Foundation are a purging of political-ideological nature.”
I will get on that podium to conduct La Bohème with my coat tails and my eye mask.
And for the next act? Veronesi has announced that he will present himself at the upcoming La Bohème performances, blindfolded and ready for action. “I will get on that podium to conduct La Bohème with my coat tails and my eye mask. If the festival has another conductor up there I will pursue compensation for damages to my image.”
A penchant for drama
In their coverage of the incident, Turin daily La Stampa reminds us the opera has a history of melodrama off the stage, and it's often conflicts between conductors and directors. Musical conductors were introduced in the 1860s, and theatrical directors 80 years later.
Traditionally, it is the musical conductor who should be the ultimate authority, the final line of command. Still, in the last decade, the role of the director has gained importance. Thus, the emergence of two warring sides, littered with battles and soldiers: Claudio Abbado v.s. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Patrice Chéreau v.s. Pierre Boulez, or Riccardo Muti v.s. every director he has worked with...
But maybe this is what the opera is all about. Maybe, we can turn away from the prima donna as a stereotype of the high-maintenance diva singers, and look instead to the ego-charged directors and maestros. The rest of us are left to say bravo, bravo — with a slow clap this time.
- Diversity Efforts in Opera Fall Flat ›
- Mozart In Italy: The Journey That Launched A Child Prodigy ›
- True Or Falsetto? When Opera Singers Were Castrated To Hit The High Notes ›