03 Jun 2011
The Metropolitan Opera HD Live on DVD
Since 2006, movie cineplexes across the USA have attracted a somewhat unlikely crowd for Saturday matinees, from fall to spring.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
Since 2006, movie cineplexes across the USA have attracted a somewhat unlikely crowd for Saturday matinees, from fall to spring.
Instead of adolescents or youngsters and their parents shambling in to see the latest animated feature or some popular action/horror movie, a polite, more “senior” audience appears (often quite early) for a live simulcast in high-definition from the Metropolitan Opera’s home in Lincoln Center. Earlier attempts of this sort of media exploration had never really been much of a success, making the “Met Live in HD” venture something of a risk. In this case, the bet has paid off, and the so-called moviecasts have become a phenomenon, at least in the world of opera. The number of presentations has increased, the number of theaters hosting the shows has multiplied, and later “encore” showings are part of the program now as well. That first live moviecast remains the biggest draw, as most anyone who has attended one of the movie theater showings can attest that somehow at least some of the energy and atmosphere of the actual live performance manages to get conveyed, even in some suburban multiplex hundreds and hundreds of miles from NYC.
The fact that these moviecasts end up on PBS within a few months (although erratically scheduled) and then eventually on store shelves in DVD format has done nothing to slow the program’s expansion and success. Viewing five of the Met Live in HD moviecasts in their DVD equivalents offers reasons for that. Although the DVDs have at least some of the intermission features and begin with the backstage introductions by one or another of the Met’s singing stars, a true “live” feeling is absent once the opera proper begins. The viewer is left with somewhat ordinary operatic DVD viewing — with the expected variable successes in singing, production, and musical performance. The optimal way to enjoy these performances would have been to see them at Lincoln Center, but the definite next best would be the live HD moviecast. After that, the magic dissipates.
Start with the Sony DVD of the Met Live in HD series’s Simon Boccanegra, filmed on February 6, 2010. In a brief interview conducted by Renee Fleming, conductor James Levine speaks of his high regard for the opera and suggests it is no surprise to him that tenor Placido Domingo would, at this point in his career, take on the title role, which Verdi wrote for a baritone. For all the talk of the “baritonal” timbre of Domingo’s voice, what is striking about his vocalism as Boccanegra is how bright and high-placed he makes so much of the music for his character sound. Duets with a low voice such as that of James Morris, as Boccanegra’s adversary Fiesco, have a tint of Otello and Iago facing off. What cannot be questioned is Domingo’s identification with the role, where he is able to indulge his passion for enduring emotional, if not physical, pain on stage. He projects dignity at all times, however, which strengthens his portrayal. Up against a wily veteran such as Morris, Domingo raises this performance to a high level. The rest of the cast does not reach that elevation. A fine soprano, Adrianne Pieczonka is miscast as Amelia, her solid, hefty soprano sounding blustery and forced. A favorite tenor of the Met, Marcello Giordani is at his best when he can power through a role, and the male ingénue role of Gabriele Adorno gives him few such opportunities. The production of Giancarlo del Monaco would have been at home at the Metropolitan a quarter century ago. Handsome, detailed, almost monolithic in its high walls and expanse, it would be perfectly appropriate for an opera with a more believable narrative. The greatness of the opera, however, is not in its plot but in its score, which Levine and his orchestra play with taste and expertise. Still, when Morris and Domingo are not on stage, the performance drags.
Not dragging at all is the Madama Butterfly in the late Anthony Minghella’s acclaimed production. Here a viewer can regret the TV director’s propensity for close-ups, as the total stage picture offers the greatest reward. Minghella, lighting designer Peter Mumford and set designer Michael Levine put on a master class of how to create dramatically cogent and visually arresting stage pictures on a stark set, through color and effective use of minimal props. The one controversy of the production centered on the decision to use a puppet for Sorrow, Butterfly’s child (puppet theater being a cultural and theatrical tradition in Japan). Viewers will make up their own minds about this, but for your reviewer, the puppet fits perfectly into the theatrical techniques of the entire show and has an impact often absent from productions which use an older child than the libretto indicates.
A strong cast exhibits high professionalism, if lacking in the aura on inspiration that makes for truly great performances. Patricia Racette’s soprano can begin to wobble under pressure, and your reviewer, like some others, finds something external, or generic, about her acting. But this is one of her best total performances, no doubt. Much the same goes for Marcello Giordani, who gives us a strong portrayal of the classic very-Italian B. F Pinkerton. Dwayne Croft’s Sharpless and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki give fine support. Reliability would seem to be the key word for conductor Patrick Summers, but one only has to endure one less than reliably conducted performance to understand the virtues of a conductor such as Summers. He does well by Puccini’s magnificent score.
Summers has the baton again for the October 11th, 2008 recording of Richard Strauss’s Salome. One might have hoped for some more distinctive musical leadership. When Karita Mattila first took on this role at the Met in Jürgen Flimm’s spooky, modern dress staging, she sang for Valery Gergiev, and the radio broadcast gave evidence of the visceral excitement of those performances. Years later, in 2008, Mattila is working with slightly less secure vocal resources, but the brazen aggression of her princess still makes for a startling show. She also had Bryn Terfel as her Jochannan in that earlier run. Here Juha Uusitalo takes the role, and he cannot match the stage charisma or vocal authority of Terfel. Some viewers may be grateful that neither Kim Begley as Herod nor Ildikó Komlósi as Herodias overact in their roles, as singers in many another production have, but sometimes it is that extra element of risk that adds to the total frenzy a great Salome can produce. This production, therefore, ranks as respectable, rather than great. Too bad the cameras were not there in 2002, for that first run.
A strongly conducted performance appears in the Carmen, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin bringing out distinct colors and etching a sharp rhythmic profile. He has two superior leads — the well-established exuberance and commitment of tenor Roberto Alagna as Don José, and the warm, sensuous tones of mezzo Elīna Garanča. Often one reads references to the “clichés” of a Carmen portrayal, but any performance that doesn’t acknowledge what the libretto establishes — the sensuality and wildness that make Carmen stand out — won’t pass muster. Garanča herself, even in a dark wig, doesn’t have to stretch to evoke this reputation, and the intelligence with which she sings the role cuts against any cry of “cliché.” In the key supporting role, Barbara Frittoli manages to be beautiful and yet clearly not much competition for the Carmen, especially as the soprano needs time to warm up and even then, a persistent beat appears in higher lines.
Richard Eyre’s staging was new to the Metropolitan when filmed in January 2010, and while far from innovative or evocative, the sets establish the sultry, threatening mood of the piece, and scene changes are easily accomplished. A performance of this quality reminds everyone of why this masterpiece never loses its appeal.
For all the above titles, numerous competitors on DVD might lay claim to being superior in one category or another. For John Adams’s Dr. Atomic, the only DVD competition also features Gerald Finley in the title role — the Peter Sellars staging of the premiere production (originally seen at San Francisco Opera, later filmed at De Nederlandse Opera). For the Metropolitan Opera , Penny Woodcock took over the production responsibility. Her work is more formal and naturalistic than what Sellars opted for, but it has enough stylization to support the atmospheric effects of Adams’s score. Seeing this opera again (your reviewer caught the premiere run in San Francisco, twice), the strengths seem just as distinctive as ever, but the weaknesses only grow more persistent. The libretto seems to be modeled on Nixon in China, with Oppenheimer a more sympathetic figure than Nixon, but just as troubled and conflicted, and with Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke) being the equivalent of Nixon’s sadly sympathetic Pat Nixon. There is even a comic villain character to match Nixon’s Kissinger in General Leslie Groves (an excellent Eric Owens here), with tints of that same color in Richard Paul Fink’s Edward Teller. But Sellars’s libretto remains a mish-mash of various prose and verse texts, so that unity Alice Goodman brought to the Nixon libretto fails to appear.
Whatever one’s opinion about Dr. Atomic, the DVD has to be seen to catch Finley’s great performance of the title role, caught at its zenith at the end of act one, in the solo of Donne’s “Batter My Heart.” New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert crossed the plaza to conduct, and he finds all the idiosyncratic power of Adams’s score. Your reviewer has his doubts about the long-term prospects for the work, but Finley’s performance will always be worth viewing.
The 2010-2011 Metropolitan Opera season of Met in HD moviecasts will undoubtedly all be out on DVD soon enough. However, the real treat lies ahead, when the 2011-2012 season opens in movie theaters — that’s where the glory of this venture lies.