Sunday, February 8, 2009

Opera by Satellite

Advances in communication technology never cease, and it seems there is something for everyone to enjoy. Much ink has been spilt about the fact that billions of people now have the opportunity to sit at home watching scratchy two-minute videos of their Facebook friends playing the guitar in the bathroom. Of greater interest to me, however, is the fact that anyone with twenty dollars to spare can now sit in the comfort of a modern theater and watch a live broadcast of the Metropolitan opera on a screen that’s thirty feet high and seventy feet across.

I’ve been going to operas since my college years, when the Met was still coming to town to perform at Northrup Auditorium and parking its fourteen semi-trailers full of sets and costumes out back. I have attended the Minnesota Opera from time to time since the days when Vern Sutton and Janice Hardy were singing The Abduction from the Seraglio at O’Shaughnessy Hall; and I’ve enjoyed more than a few Ex Machina productions of baroque operas in intimate venues. I’ve seen a few operas at the Met in New York, a Don Giovanni at the New York City Opera, an Otello in Germany, and a production of La Clemenza de Tito from the nose-bleed section of Covent Garden n London.

Based on this varied, if spotty, exposure to the medium, it seems to me that the new Met simulcasts are better than the real thing in almost every way. The use of multiple cameras allows for close-ups and sophisticated mis-en-scene that no one in the live audience benefits from. The sound is roaringly loud, which is seldom the case at a real opera unless you’ve taken out a second mortgage on your home and purchased the very best seats. Between the acts we’re treated to famous singers interviewing the members of the cast, the men and women who direct and conduct the shows, and the honchos of the stage crew, who describe how a Scottish moor gets changed into a lavish ballroom in twenty minutes. I now consider myself almost a personal friend of Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, James Levine, and Marco Armiliato. And they all seem to be such wonderful, gracious, high-energy people!

But the chief draw, of course, is the operas themselves, which the Met can stage better than any other opera company in the world, I guess. Since the program got going three years ago, Hilary and I (along with her parents Gene and Dorothy) have seen Il Trittico, Macbeth, I Puritani, Doctor Atomic, La Rondine, Orfeo et Eurydice, Lucia de Lammermoor, and La Damnation de Faust. Of these, the last named was the least interesting. It was written as a concert opera, and the added staging seemed more like a distraction that an enhancement. Doctor Atomic was memorable, but more for the subject matter than the music, perhaps. Orfeo was beautifully sung and also interesting from the historical point of view, being just about the only opera from that early era (1742) that’s performed today. (They jazzed up the production with some rather modern dance numbers.) And I found Macbeth to be less soaring and tuneful than Verdi can be.

Yet all of these productions were well worth seeing. And with the other four--Il Tritico, I Puritani, La Rondine, and Lucia de Lammermoor—we slip into that sublime zone of soaring music, over-the-top emotion, heart-rending disappointment and gruesome tragedy that makes opera such an all-encompassing experience.

Following the recent broadcast of Lucia, we stepped out into the parking lot of the Regal Theater 16-screen multiplex in Brooklyn Center in a daze. It’s mid-afternoon on a gray winter Minnesota day. But we’re thinking about passion, violence, soaring melodies and the remarkable women and men who bring them to life. Ridiculous duels, absurd miscommunications. It will warm our thoughts for the rest of the afternoon. And beyond.

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