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The rape of Opera

Last updated Oct 2, 2016 | Published on Jul 7, 2015

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.

The recent production of Guillame Tell at ROH marked a threshold: the literalisation of a woman’s rape on stage. We all know that opera is a violent artform: Gilda gets stabbed, Tosca kills Scarpia who has Mario tortured and killed and then in turn she kills herself (meanwhile Angelotti is also suicidal), Turandot has people decapitated. The list is quite long.

Yet, even when some violent acts are suggested by the libretto, they are rarely explicitly acted out on stage: Mario is accompanied off stage to be tortured, you hear some screaming coming from him and then he comes back with a blood stained shirt on. What’s so special in being literal?

The rape scene in Guillame Tell is not even in the libretto, I double checked. Could it be suggested by it? Sure. Soldiers at war raping women is no news. Does the audience need to be told literally? I do not think so, give them some credit.

This type of approach to directing opera has two effects: it shocks people, for good or bad, thus giving 15 minutes of fame to the production, and takes away from the music. While I may consider the first point a semi-positive one as it fights art’s worst enemy – apathy – I cannot defend the latter.

The music is not fit to represent that in this case. I could try to justify that better if the Rite of Spring was performed underneath. But what it does to Rossini is to make his music sound out of context and out of time, creating a huge gap between stage and music and destroying the very basic principle of opera: a wonderful balance between the two.

Cover photo by Thomas Hawk | Flickr

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

  1. Joanna Sleight

    Hi Gianmaria,
    I agree that context is everything and if it adds nothing to the music and drama of the piece then it adds nothing (I have to admit that I haven’t seen the production). I am surprised that anyone would find this particularly shocking in these days of violent TV though – perhaps that says something about opera audiences? I am interested in your thoughts on The Rape of Lucretia – is that something you would stage suggestively or explicitly? Best wishes.

    • Gianmaria Griglio

      Hi Joanna, sorry for the late reply. I do not find it shocking. I remember a production of Parsifal in Bayreuth where sex scenes were fairly explicit and nothing was really left to the imagination.
      As far as the Rape of Lucretia goes, or any other opera that would call for explicit violent actions, I am not against anything, it could work in both ways. The music actually does call in Britten’s opera for a more violent and explicit staging. After all Tarquinius rapes Lucretia threatening her with a sword. It’s part of the story. In Guillame Tell it was completely made up and unrelated to the score.
      My only point in this post, is that music and stage in an opera should always work together in order to have the most coherent outcome. When that is unbalanced it leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Or just bitter.

      • Joanna

        I agree 100% – this comes back for me to one of the central problems in the opera world, which is the dearth of new operas in circulation. Producers are so desperate to find new ways of presenting the same material that it can seriously interfere with the drama, but then opera audiences can be so conservative and unsupportive of new works… It is a fundamental issue I think!
        Best, J

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