Whenever I write about something I really love, I always have this sense that I cannot possibly do it justice. With the Salzburg 2003 Clemenza I have the urge to describe every single little phrase of Röschmann’s that I love, or all the tiny moments when the stage direction was really thoughtfully done, and so on.
But there is one detail in this production that is worth returning to. And that, my friends, is the cannibalism. There is a term of art that may be more familiar to some than to others: the potato. This is a potato. It is in fact the original potato – the Ur-Potato, if you will. This is the opposite of a potato.
Which brings us to the question, raised earlier (thanks, Juha!) about the last scene of that Salzburg 2003 production of Clemenza. Is the cannibalism a potato?
The thing about a potato, in artistic terms, is that it is an instance of using A (the potato) to express B (the emotion, impression or idea being expressed) in which you would never in a million years get from A to B by any normal process of association. And indeed, the experience of sitting there for several minutes thinking ‘what the hell was that all about?’ is intrinsic to the potato.
We know what A (the potato) is in this case. It’s not the music, or the orchestral or vocal performances. This is the finale of the opera, and when I was listening to it the other day and watching it again just now when I made the video clip I find the performance of the music really compelling. This is intense. It’s big and solid — it matches the way the set looks. The music and the drama have been resolved, but not in a way that addresses how any specific person involved might feel – the resolution is structural, or impersonal, somehow – and I think it’s the distance between this magnificent impersonal resolution and all the pain we have just seen the characters experience that makes this work.
So. The potato is the young boys who are dressed — I registered this only now — like Sesto and are stripped of their shirts and placed on dining tables, as if for consumption.
But what is B? The fact that we have to sit here thinking about it indicates that we are firmly in potato territory. What is the implied cannibalism doing here? Young persons, presumably innocent persons, are being consumed. The persons look like Sesto, or at least are dressed like Sesto. Perhaps the idea is that for order to be restored or maintained in Rome, innocent people must be consumed. This would make sense. Certainly Sesto’s intentions were good. Or, at least – well, that’s the thing with Sesto. I’m never sure how culpable he is. But both Sesto’s friendship with Tito and his relationship with Vitellia have been consumed in the process by which we get from the beginning of the story to the end. Neither of those things exists any more.
Actually, I think that this probably it. Rome is a place where human relationships are consumed. And the closer you are to the center of power, the likelier you are to have this happen to you. Tito himself has clearly been in the center of it too long – the expression on Schade’s face as Tito leaves this scene is terrifying. Sesto is miserable, and Vitellia is gray. The human parts of them that connected them to others are gone. All we have left is the massive set and the massive music and, as the libretto says, the “eterni dei”.
So. I think that the cannibalism is a potato in the sense that it took me twenty minutes to work out what I have just said here. It doesn’t hit you with that immediate visceral quality that a really good piece of staging will. Utter bafflement followed by a lengthy heuristic process implies potato, at least in my book. At the same time, I think that the relationship between the cannibalism and what the cannibalism represents is closer than, say, the relationship between Berenice’s potato and whatever that might be said to represent. If we want to maintain that one of the key qualities that make a potato a potato is that residual sense of unease — because think about it as long as you like, it might still mean anything, or everything, or nothing at all — then the cannibalism is not quite a potato. But it’s pretty close.