It’s not quite a chorus yet, but it’s not a solo anymore: several opera artists are making their voices heard to denounce their frustration with progressive stagings that distort the great works of the genre’s repertoire.
In May 2022, the French tenor Roberto Alagna and the Polish Aleksandra Kurzak—his wife and partner—bowed out of the staging of Tosca scheduled for January 2023 at the Liceu, Barcelona’s opera house. At issue were the aesthetic choices of Spanish director Rafael R. Villalobos, deemed too transgressive and in “bad taste.”
From January 4th to 21st, the Barcelona opera house was to host the love story of Tosca (Kurzak) and her lover Cavaradossi (Alagna) in Puccini’s masterpiece, in a co-production by the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Belgium), the Gran Teatre del Liceu (Spain), the Teatro de la Maestranza of Seville (Spain) and the Opéra Orchestre National de Montpellier (France). The production was first performed in June 2021 in Brussels and indeed ticks all the boxes of transgression in the terms of the progressive catechism. Director Villalobos seized on a pretext—the presence of the Roman institutions of the Catholic Church as the backdrop for the plot, since the story takes place in Rome, a stone’s throw from the Vatican—to construct his own interpretation of the work, entirely focused on the Church as a tool of political domination and moral oppression.
To support his agenda, Villalobos inserts several allusions to Pasolini throughout the opera—to his most sulphurous film, Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom, which depicts the last days of the fascist regime sinking into abjection and sadism. Villalobos thinks he is innovating, but he is merely using the old methods of the soixante-huitards [participants in the May 1968 French civil unrest] who never stopped harping on their bitterness toward the old world. But try as he might, Villalobos is no Pasolini and lacks the form of genius that was capable, alongside Salò, of shooting the poignant Vangelo Secondo Matteo.
In an interview with the Italian website Connessiallopera, Roberto Alagna explains that he and his wife initially agreed to the revival of an old production of Tosca, without being given further details. At the time of the season’s presentation, both discovered that it would be Rafael R. Villalobos’ version. After watching it on video, they decided not to take part. “Aleksandra and I didn’t want to be hostages of a project where we have to deal with violence, sadomasochism, paedophilia and nudity. Situations that are totally inconsistent with Puccini’s Tosca,” said the French tenor, who believes that Villalobos’ work is the height of “bad taste.” In the Polish press, Alexandra Kurzak was even more explicit. “It is disgusting and grotesque. I thought I was going to die laughing when I saw Scarpia [one of the main characters] wearing a sex shop necklace around his neck,” said the Polish soprano.
Alagna and Kurzak’s bloodletting is particularly welcome and can only be warmly received. The performers have had their say and can, fortunately, put a stop to the unbridled fantasies of the directors, who have become types of omnipotent and uncontested tyrants in recent years. It is within the power of opera artists to say no, and to refuse to put their art at the service of any masquerade. Let them be thanked for this.
Indeed, who else but them can raise their voice, no pun intended? For too many years, spectators and opera lovers—including the honourable author of these lines—have been taken hostage by unscrupulous directors of dubious taste and barely concealed perversions, who tampered with and martyred classical works in order to shape them to suit their degraded passions. But what can the poor spectator do, from the depths of his crimson armchair, condemned to endure for long hours the display of the turpitudes of these pseudo-artists? Nothing, or not much, especially since he often has the misfortune to discover the extent of the damage only after he has bought his seat.
Many opera houses deliberately say as little as possible about the staging of the operas on offer and scarcely divulge visuals of the performances in order to avoid frightening the—inevitably bourgeois—spectator, who might well give up taking his seat in the face of so much ugliness and absurdity. The spectator becomes the victim, much to the delight of a whole generation of Brechtian directors who rejoice in torturing poor souls in love with beauty and harmony. They are obsessed with their retarded revolutionary choices and blind to the fact that there is nothing disruptive in their ‘artistic’ choices; such subversion has become commonplace. Watching classical art in its final death throes has become agonising, not entertaining.
One of the co-producers of the famous Tosca, the Belgian Peter de Caluwe, retorted that the reason for Alagna’s withdrawal was to be found elsewhere: for while Alagna was pulling out of one performance he was rehearsing for another— a musical about Al Capone at the Folies Bergère in Paris. De Caluwe made no bones about the fact that he despised this ‘popular’ (populist?) work performed by Alagna, who has never made a secret of his taste for mainstream productions. Is this a sin? To the progressive, a fundamentally snobbish being unconcerned with profitability, since he lives only on public subsidies, yes, it is.
By refusing to work with Villalobos, Alagna and Kurzak have created a storm in the small world of opera.
But they are not isolated cases. This is not a simple diva’s whim. In August 2022, the score was taken up by the baritone Ludovic Tézier, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, on the occasion of his visit to Verona, where he played Germont, the father of the hero Alfredo, in Verdi’s La Traviata. Tézier is obsessed with the question of transmission—helplessly watching the decline in attendance at opera houses that rely on stagings he modestly describes as “extravagant.” In the interview, he admits that he often takes his son to the opera, who comes out “often a little disoriented, because what is sung there seems to have little in common with what happens on stage.”
The youth’s reaction is understandable since the innovation-at-all-costs shown by the directors drains the great works of their substance, and the young audience, for whom these false efforts at ‘popularisation’ are made, does not follow. Tézier recalls a recent performance of La Traviata in Paris, where everything happens on screens and via SMS between Violetta and Alfredo. What’s the point of going to the opera if it’s only to fall back into the same mediocrity that saturates our daily lives?
In Verona, however, Tézier quite enjoyed himself. The staging there was old-fashioned, the costumes were superb and made you dream. As proof, his son loved it:
Zeffirelli’s staging, which is a bit old-fashioned, pleased him and his friends: they understood everything. And they were even entertained because, as in period dramas, the attraction is linked to the charms of an era. Theatres, however, do not understand this. … first-time opera-goers need clarity.
The latest protest came from the world-famous tenor Jonas Kaufmann—who is also a good friend of Tézier’s and has just recorded an album of duets with him. In an interview with The Times at Christmas time, he denounced the harmful effects of contemporary staging, which he believes is responsible for the loss of public interest in opera. “We are now paying the bill for everything we have done to opera over the last few decades. People have discovered that going to the opera is no longer necessarily about having an entertaining evening, but about having your problems constantly thrown in your face. It doesn’t help much,” he says bitterly.
Alagna, Kurzak, Tézier, Kaufmann: does the healthy reaction of these artists herald a new era, when opera will cease to be a place of propaganda and political activism? There comes a time, perhaps, when progressivism reaches its limits. Today, we can hope that the singers, without whom there is simply no possibility for lyrical art, will refuse to continue to play the deadly game of wokeism and ugliness. This would be a fair rebalancing.
Directors today take on inordinate roles: no longer content to interpret the work, to allow it to come to life, they simply rewrite it—a sign that opera has entered an era of decadence. The classical world experienced such a fall from grace, when mediocre writers, lacking genius of their own, sutured together bad compilations of late antiquity, hoping to live off the legacies of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Exhausting the genius of past centuries, they were incapable of renewing and producing works of the same quality. Fortunately, however, the relentless betrayal of a work never succeeds in winning hearts.
Following these singers who make their healthy revolt heard, we must trust in the voice of artistic conscience which will, let us hope, protect the most beautiful operas against the last outrages of fruitless progressivism.