Does the Metropolitan Opera Hate Whites?
The Met Live in H.D. performance last Saturday was Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment. The comic opera, which premiered in 1840, tells the story of a Tyrolean peasant, Tonio, who's in love with Marie, an orphan adopted by a regiment of the French Army. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, when an insurrection by the Tyrolese briefly liberated the region from French rule. Tonio is torn between his patriotism and his love of Marie, for in order to marry her, he is obliged to join the hated French Army.
The Met version begins by taking a gratuitous swipe at Catholics. In the opening scene of Act I, the peasants prepare for a battle with the invaders. They pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Director and costume designer Laurent Pelly has dressed the guerrilla army as guileless hicks, armed only with pitchforks and shovels, with buckets and pots on their heads instead of helmets and silly expressions on their faces. The women of the village pray to the Virgin with extravagant gestures. The scene ends with the announcement that the French have retreated, and the hapless villagers don't have to fight.
How could Napoleon's army have been driven off by pious, pitchfork-wielding bumpkins? In fact, the Tyrolese guerrillas were sharpshooters who knew the Alpine terrain and repeatedly ambushed the invaders. The French retreat from the Brenner Pass was the result of a ruse by the Tyrolean commander.
You don't look for verisimilitude in a comic opera, but the opening scene is meant to show the peasant army in a sympathetic light and establish the conflict Tonio faces in having to renounce his comrades. Pelly preferred to belittle Catholics.
The director also decided to set the action during World War I. Perhaps he liked the art-decoish French helmets. The fact that the French were hunkered down in the trenches during World War I (with one army in Salonika) and were never near the Tyrol naturally didn't trouble the historically illiterate Manhattan audience or New York critics. Neither did the difficulty that pitchfork-wielding peasants would have in scattering troops armed with machine guns and artillery.
Marie, it turns out, is actually the illegitimate daughter of the Duchess of Berkenfield. The mother, reunited with Marie, pretends the girl is her niece. She arranges that Marie marry the Duke of Crakentorp. The regiment arrives at the Duchess's chateau shortly before the wedding. Marie sings an aria explaining her debt to the soldiers, who rescued and raised her. The guests are moved, and when the Duchess returns to the party, she permits Marie to marry Tonio. Writing for liberal Parisians, Donizetti opted not make Tonio the long lost illegitimate son of an aristocrat, though he is now at least an officer.
Pelly decided to portray the guests as a pathetic group of elderly white men and women. The men wear tuxes and have long gray hair; the women are in gowns with coiffed hair. Everyone wears black-framed glasses and heavy white makeup, and they dodder around the stage with supercilious expressions, bracing their backs and staring myopically at the floor. The caricatures of white middle-class seniors are confronted not by pleading soldiers, but by armed troops with rifles raised. Tonio arrives in a Dukakis mini-tank. The terrified guests raise their hands.
Épater la bourgeoisie (to shock the middle class) is still a venerable tradition. You'd think the urge would be passé after 150 years, and this is an age when we are supposed to be hypersensitive to negative stereotypes. Much of the Met audience, of course, consists of elderly Anglos with gray hair and glasses. If they were offended, they didn't show it.
Marie was sung by the brilliant South African coloratura Pretty Yende. The outstanding Mexican tenor Javier Camarena sang Tonio, effortlessly hitting the eight high Cs in "Ah! Mes Amis." Everyone wants to see the best singers in lead roles, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity. But the casting gave an additional twist to Pelly's anti-white animus in the final scene.
The director of the Met is Peter Gelb, whose painful interviews are always a feature of the intermission programming. (Hosts: For a less fatuous chat, one Saturday, ask about Jimmy Levine.) Gelb backed down over The Death of Klinghoffer five years ago. The opera by John Adams, glorifying jihadist psychopaths, was not shown in theaters, though it continued to run at the Met. The opera company has taken its revenge in small ways ever since. The whiteface scene in La Fille du Regiment was one of them.
Every opera-lover is grateful to the Met for its telecasts of lavish productions featuring some of the best singers in the world. But the more the company respects the intentions of those dead white males, the librettists and composers, the better the performances are.