A few years ago an incident at La Scala attracted considerable publicity. The French tenor Roberto Alagna walked off the stage in a huff when his rendering of a much-loved aria in Verdi’s Aïda met with loud disapproval from certain sections of the audience. Alagna’s high profile meant that the news item was swiftly syndicated around the world, the general consensus being that the singer was guilty of excessive self regard in not accepting the Milanese public’s thumbs-down with more grace.
In fact, the Alagna moment was only one in in a long proud tradition of heckling which thrives even today in the heartlands of Italian opera. Back in the 50s, one tenor leapt from the stage to assault a vociferous critic seated in a box in the Teatro Regio in Parma, a town whose opera audiences are famed for their severity. Even Pavarotti was hauled over the coals at la Scala in his later years, but handled the incident with advanced PR skills by accepting full blame for disappointing the audience.
Opera arouses a passion similar to football in Italy, and in an age where gut-stirring tenors are thin on the ground, the presence of a name like Alagna means expectations are high. Opera-goers are still waiting for a messiah to live up to the golden age of the fifties and the hard-nosed fanatics in the gallery come down hard on any unworthy contenders. I should know: I sat with them in the loggione for twenty years.
Every provincial town has an opera house and a season ticket in the loggione makes sound financial sense – five performances cost about 100 euros in my local theatre. The same seats are renewed by hard core ticket holders every year and it takes decades for neophytes to move towards from the neck-achingly uncomfortable side seats to the centre of the curve as places gradually become available due to death or infirmity (you need to be able-bodied and asthma-free to make the several steep flights from the bar to loggione after the interval). Once in the curve, comfort is only relative. Inhibitions need to be left at home as you shoehorn yourselves three to a bench with other loggionisti with whom you have had intimate (but proper) leg contact for 20 years. After democratic consultation about the amount of knee space required, the velour-padded bench is carefully manoeuvred into position for each act.
Loggionisti are an easily identifiable breed. You will recognise Him from the bobbly pullover and Her from the improbably chestnut permed hair . But don’t be deceived by the homely appearance. These people know their music better than you or me or any glossy magazine critics. Less musically discerning mortals obtain their pleasure on a more holistic level: from the pre-performance buzz, a sense of excitement as the conductor emerges from the pit and shakes hands with the first violinist, the sheer beauty of the music, however unremarkably played or sung; the irreplaceable quality of sound of the live performance; some unexpected dramatic presence, Callas or Domingo style . But few of these considerations cut any cake with the critics in the gallery. They are ‘canary fanciers’,and their primary motivation is to hear fine voices and vocal technique rather than high production values or a charismatic stage presence.
Even in the provincial opera productions, there is no shortage of fine sopranos or mezzos, usually warmly appraised as ‘gioielli ’ by the senior male loggionisti (whose cavelleria may also be stirred by a fetching décolleté). Baritones are assessed carefully but can breathe easily as long as they acquit themselves honourably in those gorgeous Verdi arias. But no voice is capable of hitting the spot quite so viscerally as the tenor. The tragedy for hard core operaphiles is that exceptional tenors are few and far between, and so they are doomed to constant disappointment. The last time I recall unqualified approval among my exacting companions was when a youthful Marcel Alvarez sang Arturo in I puritani early on in his career. The joy in the gallery was palpable and local headlines next day proclaimed: Habemus Tenorum: We have a Tenor.
In our local loggione there were a number of regular characters whose approval was hard won. One mature signorina loved Donizetti and Bellini (all those romantic Scottish castles) but couldn’t stand Verdi. Since one of the Maestro’s works, however obscure, tends to feature for sentimental reasons regularly in this part of Italy, she had to spend a tormented evening shuddering at all that vulgarity, her mouth pursed into a dog’s bum of disapproval.
Then there was our superannuated neighbour who, as a boy, used to arrive at the opera on horseback. He had never removed his cloth cap since those days as far as I could see , but his comments, delivered in a bass timbre from up on high, were always incisive and to the point. If this Man from del Monte said yes then you could be sure the evening had been worthwhile. One year he was particularly offended by an innovative production of Otello during which a wooden cross was broken to the ground. This was met by loud groans from the MFDM, reinforced in an even louder voice by his immaculately coiffed nephew, who grinned ‘ce l’ha con la croce’ (he’s browned off about the cross).
During the interval, while my friend Linda and rushed down to the the bar for a frizzantino, loggionisti would meet to discuss the finer points of interpretation and technique. Conversations in the Ladies’ compared today’s singing with seminal performances of La Horne (Marilyn) in the 60’s. This rigorous analysis was always conducted in the spirit of those interested in maintaining the standards of yesteryear. Loggionisti are deeply conservative and unimpressed by trendy productions of Macbeth with pregnant witches; neither do they have any truck with fashionable directors who require the soprano to sing from a chaise longue in an impossibly supine position. Some of the more sensitive souls were known to leave in disgust if the tempi were not right, but most agreed that this was taking themselves too seriously. After all, in opera, perhaps more than any other kind of performing art, the whole can often be more than the sum of the parts, and a youthful cast or magnificent chorus (and they always are) can often compensate for other shortcomings.
To be a hardliner is to be merciless. When one tenor in a production of Faust attempted some fancy stuff, he was excoriated with cries of ‘falsetto!’ and dog barking from the upper gallery; even the orchestra were moved to put their hands together to swell the thin applause from the rest of the house. Some years ago the pregnant witches in Macbeth had the audience rising as one in a chorus of vergogna (shame on you)! And people loved to recount the story of one wag, who, as a slightly built tenor struggled across the stage carrying a rather hefty soprano, quipped ‘you’ll have to make two trips!’
Such excessive displays of rigour from the experts can spoil the evening for mere enthusiasts, who would just like to enjoy a night at the opera. And it can be destructive for a young artist who has just sung his heart out to meet with a hostile reaction. However, it seems that Italian tradition tolerates a judicious level of booing. So, budding Roberto Alagnas, please take note: in the opera heartland, large shoulders, not large egos, are essential.