The Paris Opéra in New York

The Marriage of Figaro

by Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, directed by Giorgio Strehler, designed by Ezio Frijerio, conducted by Georg Solti

Otello

by Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, staged by Terry Hands, designed by Joseph Svoboda, conducted by Georg Solti

Faust

by Gounod, libretto by Barbier and Carré, staged by Jorge Lavelli, designed by Max Bignen, conducted by Michel Plasson

During the recent New York visit of the Paris Opéra, the opening night Marriage of Figaro was marked by a real-life incident more dramatic than anything that occured on stage. Just before “Vedrò mentre in sospiro,” the Count’s Act III aria, the conductor, Georg Solti, accidentally jabbed his right temple with his baton while trying to evade the glare from a light on the stand. Fortunately his eye was unharmed and the injury slight, though it bled profusely, bespattering the score and temporarily blinding Sir Georg—as sometimes happens to a boxer from a minor cut on the brow. Though failing to stanch the flow of blood with a handkerchief in his left hand, Solti kept going, and, at the end of the number, hurried to his dressing room for first aid, having had the composure to calculate the performance time of the recitative which follows and which could be sung without him. He was back in place to lead the great centerpiece Sestetto, which cannot be played without conductor, at least in the harrowing acoustics of the Metropolitan Opera House. Before his emergency exit, Solti also had had the presence of mind to give a signal to stop the descent of the curtain, which had already begun. These feats of quick thinking and action will undoubtedly be recorded in the annals of opera. No wonder that when Sir Georg emerged to conduct the final act, he seemed to receive a Purple Heart ovation in addition to his usual merely meter-breaking one.

The incident was widely reported in the European as well as American press, with photographs of Sir Georg, patch on forehead. The New York Times mentioned the mishap in a news item, but Mr. Schonberg’s review did not, thereby disappointing those readers who had hoped that he might include a reference to other accidents to conductors, such as that which (no analogy!) caused the death of Lully. But the word “baton” appeared only in a statement about singers “meshing with one another and with the conductor’s baton”—though surely the more noteworthy “meshing” was that of the stick with Mr. Solti.

Mr. Schonberg completely misunderstood the staging, writing that

In Act I at Figaro’s “Se vuol ballare,” he lustily thwacked the Count’s uniform with a cane. In context this was understandable. Susanna had just told Figaro the facts of life, and he was upset. Mr. Strehler’s social commentary…stopped here.

So far from expressing a mere “upset” on learning “the facts of life” (which of course Figaro already knew), the blow to the nobleman’s coat on its clothes hanger is a gesture of deep and violent hatred. Far from ending the social commentary, this begins it, for the focus of director Giorgio Strehler’s interpretation is political. But how could anyone fail to see that the peasants at the end of Act III, flinging the Count’s papers about and seemingly on the verge of seizing the castle, are near to …

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