What I learned from seeing Tosca at the Wiesbaden Opera House last Friday night was that it's actually best not to know what they're singing about at all. To set the scene: my father-in-law, in celebration of his eldest daughter's birthday, had very generously invited us all to an evening out at the Wiesbaden Opera House (also known as the Hessisches Staatstheater, or Hessen State Theatre), which was built at the end of the 19th century and is inside, quite simply, exquisite. It may in fact be the most beautiful theatre I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. I took the liberty of taking a few snaps of the bar...
See what I mean? The setting was positively luxurious. The company, of course, was fabulous, though sadly lacking a mini-Dietz, who was arriving as another birthday treat the following morning. And the performance? Well. I have to say that although the whole experience was an enormous treat and the atmosphere, music and the Sekt at half time were all second to none, all in all, this version of Tosca didn't exactly blow me away. Since I wasn't familiar with the story, it was initially rather exciting to discover, upon the curtain rising and the first note being belted out by a small man limping bleeding across the stage, that there were to be subtitles accompanying the performance. Subtitles. At the opera. Who knew?! Following a short investigation, it turns out that it's the norm here, and they were very neatly projected above the stage, line for line, white on black, so that we had some sort of an idea of what was going on. Except I'm not sure they really helped. All that happened was that all those rich and round-vowelled, passionately-projected lines of Italian that I imagined to be deeply poetic and chest-tremblingly moving turned out to be "Do you have a spare key?" "Yes it's on the sideboard" "I painted this lady whilst she wasn't looking" etc. It's also quite exhausting trying to watch what was going on on the stage, read the subtitles 20 metres above it, make mental notes to ask the meaning of words I was unfamiliar with (my German torture vocab isn't up to much, apparently) and then try to combine on-stage action with above-stage subtitle in order to work out what on earth was going on.
And so about half an hour in I gave up trying. Because in my opinion, aside from the fact that my whirring cognitive processes somewhat detracted from an otherwise very comfortable experience, opera shouldn't be enjoyed line for line, it should be enjoyed for its grandiose aurals, extravagant visuals, and the whole over-the-top, escapist, dramatic shebang. The story of Tosca is a fierce one of love, passion, jealousy and death that is hugely dramatic, and if you follow the words too closely (and they've been translated into a less romantic-sounding language, perhaps), somehow when you get to the end of the tale and everyone's either shot in the head and sprawled dramatically stage right or is being kicked somewhat feebly to death stage left, you sort of wonder what the point of it all was. Because in this particular instance, sadly, it wasn't really in the performance itself. To prove my point: the second half of the performance was extraordinarily brief and its end, when it came, was so profoundly limp and anti-climactic that despite the fact that the curtain was drawing across the two lead characters as they lay dead on the floor and everyone else in the audience had started clapping, we still weren't entirely convinced it was over.
Anyhow, just to make sure we're all on clear on this: I may be being a bit rude about it, but I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it. I adored Puccini's score - the orchestra was excellent - and the heaving bosom of Tosca herself was mesmerising. Her solo bit at the end of the first half was also hugely impressive. And of course it was an honour to just be there, all glammed up and seated amongst Wiesbaden's finest (sort of) in such a beautifully ornate auditorium. But still, my favourite moment came at the end of the show after the first curtain call, when heavy red velvet cut off extensive cast from half-filled auditorium, and the audience leaped to their feet and started hurrying towards the doors: when the curtain came back up in expectation of a second round of enthusiastic applause, the poor cast were confronted with several rows of empty seats and a herd of people running for the exits. Admittedly painful to watch (we were still seated and applauding; one or two audience members embarrassedly pretended they were giving a standing ovation), but it rather appealed to my sense of humour.