New York — I happened to turn on the Arts cable network recently and caught the production of Puccini's ''Tosca'' that is being aired with some regularity these days.
The telecast purports to be a showcase for soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, but in fact it is a disturbing and vivid example of what is going wrong in the world of opera today. While specifically discussing this ''Tosca'' from the Paris Opera, parallels can be drawn to most of the world's opera houses, for the thought processes behind these results seem to be spreading.
I don't want to dwell at length on Miss Te Kanawa's desperate efforts to bring to life a basically unsuitable role. This fine Mozart-Strauss singer with a genteel, placid temperament will probably never convince us she can be the fiery Floria Tosca.
That Miss Te Kanawa was rather consistently at a loss histrionically and increasingly off the mark vocally as the evening progressed was surprising, given her overall vocal savvy. Yet the role consistently asks her to push her instrument beyond what it was meant to do. One can only imagine the unique tensions created by singing the very first Tosca of one's career in an important opera house with the world watching by way of TV, which magnifies every little blemish and flaw.
How does this sort of situation come about? In Europe nowadays there is a desperate scramble for fame. Keeping an opera house in the news helps ensure a government subsidy. Consequently, managements will think nothing of persuading a Kiri Te Kanawa to try a grueling new role for the first time under exposed conditions. In earlier days, wiser prima donnas would have assayed this role in smaller houses until they had deemed it suitable and had worked out the considerable vocal challenges inherent in merely getting through without serious vocal mishap.
One can easily say Miss Te Kanawa should have been wiser, but it is more to the point to say that the Paris Opera should not have asked her in the first place. Ultimately, it is the opera houses and the conductors who cajole singers - too often not the best judges of their own limitations - into assuming roles they should probably never attempt.
Seiji Ozawa, the conductor of this new production, is a fine symphonic conductor who is slowly learning about opera. He does not speak Italian; he approaches this opera as a symphonic tone poem. He had some idea of what Puccini is up to dramatically. However, Ozawa is not immersed in the Italian vocal-operatic tradition; he would not really even know how to tell a Te Kanawa what sort of tricks to use to help her through difficult passages or to help her make more pointed dramatic effects. In fact, at times, he set tempos that landed all his singers in deep difficulty.
Nor was anyone helped by a production of startling eccentricity. Director Jean-Claude Auvray evidently feared his audience would miss most of Puccini's musical points. Thus, in the first act, when a swelling series of sinister climactic chords ushered in Baron Scarpia - the opera's arch villain - the audience was treated to a parting of the walls of a most unchurchlike chapel to reveal the arches of a peculiar, yet massive, church.
In other words, ''Audience, take note: Something important is happening.'' When Tosca made her second exit in the same act, those church walls parted to reveal more walls, which in turn parted to reveal even more walls, which finally parted to reveal a white opening through which the diva was absorbed by means of an engaging light trick. The music was obliterated in the cinematographic stage trickery.
The second-act set was some sort of marbleized gymnasium masquerading as the baron's room in the Farnese Palace. A huge table dominated the scene, and Scarpia spent most of his time grabbing at Tosca across this arbitrary full-stage-wide slab. One could only conclude that Mr. Auvray saw ''Tosca'' as a drama about running around tables and furniture. In fact, this opera is a very specific musical setting of Victorien Sardou's carefully constructed melodrama written for Sarah Bernhardt.
When a director allows Tosca to wander around the church and remove the scarf from her head, one knows the director has no grasp of the period or of this character. When she is allowed to threaten Scarpia with a letter opener long before she actually stabs him with a fruit knife, one knows the director has no sense of melodramatic conventions. When she is allowed to discover that knife many measures before Puccini tells the audience she has seen it, one knows the director has not studied the score carefully enough.
Why is it that opera houses willingly allow this sort of betrayal of the art form they are mandated to present? When something silly like this happens to ''Tosca'' it is lamentable. But this is happening with regularity to more serious works, such as ''Don Giovanni,'' ''Le nozze di Figaro,'' ''Otello.'' This is desecration - graffiti scrawled on masterpieces. Singers should walk out , conductors should lay down their batons, impresarios should ban these directors from their doors.
But the opposite happens. Singers are afraid of losing a job; conductors are concerned only with matters orchestral (and too often the singers are merely another instrument); management needs the publicity for state subsidies. Who is serving the art form in the process?
At some point, opera houses will have to turn back to directors who love this art form and know something about it as well, who know the limitations the act of singing imposes on singers, and who really know the score - intimately, thoroughly. It is possible to put a beloved work in a new light that reveals an unexpected aspect of the composer's vision. But events such as this silly ''Tosca'' only serve as warnings of where things will go if this trend is not stamped out soon.