At issue in world opera houses; To boo or not to boo - it's a matter of tradition
New York — Booing has been in the news and in the opera houses a good deal recently. The most recent news item concerns a segment of the La Scala audience in Milan, Italy, giving Luciano Pavarotti a piece of its mind when they felt he weakened near the end of a performance of ''Lucia di Lammermoor'' about a week ago.
At the same house last season, Montserrat Caballe caused riots in the galleries. She was to sing Donizetti's ''Anna Bolena'' in the Luchino Visconti production done originally for Maria Callas. She cancelled, and the audience went wild, even hissing down their favorite retired mezzo, Giulietta Simionato. The performance had to be cancelled. It happened again at the next performance; Caballe was announced as indisposed, the audience rioted. At the third performance, Caballe sang but was under form, and was severely booed.
At the Met this season, Placido Domingo bowed out of a performance of ''La Gioconda'' after the first act. His cover, Carlo Bini, went on, and the booing after his aria made the news wires worldwide, as did the fisticuffs in the balcony later in the act. Also, this year, the Met's new production of Verdi's ''Macbeth'' received the most persistent, insistently hostile reception in recent memory. Last season's opening night found Renata Scotto singing her first Met ''Norma,'' to a crowd of booers and jeerers.
Are these isolated incidents? Are they merely outbursts from a splenetic lunatic fringe that populates the world's opera houses? Is there a message in these various scenes? Yes and no to all of the above.
Booing is not new in the opera. Italians are famed for their outbursts, and they spare no one, even their favorites (as with Pavarotti). In Parma, the audiences show up with vegetables ready to throw at the first sour note. Cornell MacNeil made the news years ago when he engaged in fisticuffs during one such stormy evening in Parma.
But in America, booing has always been considered poor sportsmanship. Don't clap, goes the philosophy. Silence is more damaging than rudeness. I remember a ''Ballo in Maschera'' at the Met in which the wildly miscast Katia Ricciarelli missed her climactic high ''C'' and was rewarded with chilling silence at aria's end - very effective indeed. On the other hand, I also remember Barry Morell singing in ''La Traviata'' the first season of the new house. His second-act aria was sung so badly out of tune that the audience hissed him for a good five seconds - still the eeriest moment I can remember in the opera house. In both cases, terrible singing received its just reward from a knowing audience.
These days opera has a larger audience than ever before. More people are going, with less accumulated knowledge about the art form, and they wax understandably enthusiastic about just about anything. Their enthusiasm is highly voluble, and performances that even five years ago would have been tepidly received nowadays garner rousing cheers. In fact, this new, enlarging audience comes to opera at a time when worldwide standards have eroded alarmingly, and when casting (at the Met in particular) is at a new low.
Thus the knowledgeable operagoer feels frustrated when a singer who has spent much of the evening in search of accurate pitch, high notes, or even just the correct notes, receives a bevy of bravos at the curtain call. Those knowledgeables are now beginning to make themselves heard by means of the boo.
This does not explain such outbursts as the Scotto or Bini debacles. Scotto has had a fine following at the Met, and many have put the blame for the opening night row on a cabal of angry Maria Callas fans. But the people I heard booing (or, more damaging - gasping or even laughing in disbelief) were not Callas fans , they were people who had paid a lot of money for that opening-night performance - which used to be a gala plum given to the best singers the Met had to offer - and were genuinely disturbed at the inadequate performance they were hearing.
As for the Bini evening, fans primed for Domingo apparently were not about to accept the stand-in's singing. But those who were there said that even worse than the booing was the laughter - derisive at times - that greeted those moments when it was clear that the tenor did not know his part. At one point maestro Guiseppe Patane stopped the show and lectured the audience.
Spontaneous disapproval was behind the ''Macbeth'' fiasco. Audiences expect intelligent, tasteful productions at the Met, and - at first-night gala prices - they got neither. Even at the fourth performance (the one I saw), the audience was justifiably grumbly and audibly abusive.
There is still the other side of the booing issue: Most of the time it is done with no consistency whatsoever. It is hard to justify booing under any circumstances, but when double standards or no standards are used, it is indefensible. Walton on record
Last year, on the occasion of the late Sir William Walton's 80th birthday, EMI/England released a three-record set of ''Walton Conducts Walton'' (SLS - 5246 - available in stores that deal in imports).
Included in that set are performances of the First Symphony, the ''Partita for Orchestra,'' ''Belshazzar's Feast,'' ''Facade Suit,'' some of the music from the Shakespeare movies, the Portsmouth Point and Johannesburg Festival Overtures , and the ''Spitfire Prelude and Fugue.'' It is, at best, a very odd selection. Walton's reading of ''Belshazzar's Feast'' is one of the better ones around. The Shakespeare selections are part of a record that has been available here on Seraphim (S - 60205). The ''Facade'' music is enchanting, but only a full performance with the Sitwell poems gives a full view of the work.
Sir William's First is straightforward, pleasant, and the Philharmonia sounds fine, but somehow Previn gets more sheer beauty from the score, more texture, more jazz, more mystery, more ambiguity. RCA Gold Seal in England has re-issued the performance (GL 42707 - it pops up now and then in import stores). There is every chance that the domestic Gold Seal label could re-issue it, too. A new recording under Bernard Haitink, with the Philharmonia, released on English EMI (ASD - 4091), is not all that well played. Haitink seems determined to turn struggle into mere brooding; the fascinating, questioning finale becomes a simplistic peroration of triumph.
The Walton box, while useful, is a compromise. Other things might have been included, such as the old recording of the Viola Concerto (the finest work written for that instrument) that he recorded with the eminent British violist Lionel Tertis. There is also the recording, with the Philharmonia, of the Violin Concerto with Jasha Heifetz, (still available on RCA LM - 2740) that would have gained from re-mastering. That said, one can still have both concertos with the composer conducting, if one is willing to have Yehudi Menuhin the soloist in both performances (and not in the finest form for either).
A basic Walton discography should begin with the gorgeous, autumnal Cello Concerto, one of the most beautiful works for that instrument. It was recorded a few years after the world premiere by the players that first presented it - Gregor Piatagorsky (for whom it was written) with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; it has just been re-issued on RCA Gold Seal (AGL1 - 4086) and remains the most poignant, moving performance of the work on records. The sumptuous Violin Concerto has never sounded more beautiful than when played by Kyung-Wha Chung, with Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (CSA - 6819). Mr. Previn also conducts the best available ''Belshazzar's Feast'' (Angel S - 36861) , which offers as a filler the ''Improvisation on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten.'' A resplendent account of the Second Symphony and the engaging ''Variations on a Theme by Hindemith'' can be had on Odyssey Y - 33519, with George Szell and the Cleveland, the forces who gave the symphony its US premiere in 1960.