11 December 2010

What a Movie!

Furlanetto as the King:
Why not rename this opera “Filippo’s Story”?

The last time I attended a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera, the straight couple behind me continued their conversation after intermission had ended and the curtain had risen on the prelude to Act IV. The piece contains a painfully beautiful cello solo, leading into Filippo’s big aria, “Ella giammai m’amò,” and for me it’s the high point of the entire opera. When I turned in my seat to admonish the couple, they continued talking — but now began to mock me and to cast aspersions on my sexuality.

So when contemplating my first high-definition TV simulcast of a Met opera in a movie theater, I was prepared for what was likely to be the biggest risk: that movie audiences wouldn’t behave themselves. After all, a certain kind of civility isn’t guaranteed even inside the opera house.

But the Met’s HD programs are the hottest trend in opera today, and I’d waited too long to experience it for myself. Don Carlo, a favorite work in a new production by Nicholas Hytner, seemed an apt choice for my HD debut.

Alagna as Don Carlo

I’m pleased to report that the audience — in a Times Square multiplex — was perfectly attentive and well-mannered. So far as I could see and hear, nobody among us even succumbed to the temptation to munch popcorn! And the simulcast format is thoughtfully organized and executed, yet this former television producer saw plenty of room for improvement, primarily in the hosting segments, undertaken today by soprano Deborah Voigt.

Although Don Carlo’s plot is intricate, we got no explanation and only scant set-up. I can’t understand why. After all, the HD simulcasts run at the same time as the time-honored Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, and while we in the movie audience sat for long minutes watching the cameras pan across the Met’s interior, we could easily have been listening to radio host Margaret Juntwait’s rundown of the storyline and some additional background on the opera.

Our Host, Deborah Voigt

I’m presupposing that the simulcast hosts don’t really want to be glued to a Teleprompter for five minutes at a stretch. Voigt dispatched those duties ably, but in the backstage hubbub, somebody was always standing between her and the text she was reading, and the whole business came across as stiff and unnatural.

That’s by design, I suspect. The Met’s current management — like those that preceded it — isn’t keen on spontaneity. The bosses like to keep a firm hand on the public image, and any public statements released under the company’s imprimatur are rigorously controlled.

Hit Tune: Keenlyside and Alagna sing “Dio, che nell’alma infondere.”

But for these purposes, that caution is excessive, and it leads to a wasted opportunity. Not every singer is Beverly Sills, a natural-born mistress of ceremonies, but Opera World is blessed right now with a number of American singers with the wit, star power, and personality to win over an audience just by talking. In fact, the Met has engaged several of them for the simulcasts so far, including Voigt, Susan Graham, Joyce DiDonato, and Patricia Racette.

What an impact these hosts could have, if the simulcast producers would simply get out of their way! Left to their own devices, they’re tremendous fun to be with, but they’re also serious professionals — first-rate ambassadors for the art form. As Joyce proved not long ago in a video segment for Houston Grand Opera, just an informal conversation between colleagues can be wonderfully illuminating and entertaining: when she “interviewed” her Beatrice and Benedict co-star Norman Reinhardt, the result was good television, even though it played on the Internet.

Inquisitive minds want to know:
Halfvarson with Furlanetto

I promise you that Deborah Voigt has plenty of questions she could ask the Don Carlo cast — in her own words — and the results would be superior to the low-rent reality TV show the Met is producing now. Voigt was visibly straining at her leash, and a well-timed eyebrow here and there, and some clowning with tenor Marcello Giordani, were the highlight of her presentation. The audience in the multiplex cheered her. Why wouldn’t the Met want to foster more such goodwill — especially when all the necessary ingredients are on hand already?

Pretty, good: Poplavskaya as Elisabetta

As for the “real” show we saw, Hytner’s production reflects the Met management’s current taste for stark, modernist architectural scenery; pretty, period costumes; and pretty singers not entirely suited to their roles. Though both the evening’s leading ladies warmed as the afternoon went along, neither Marina Poplavskaya (Elisabetta) nor Anna Smirnova (Eboli) possesses the sort of voice one seeks in Verdi sopranos and mezzos, with the result that several key scenes fell short of their mark.

Both made their Met debuts with this production. Poplavskaya at least looked good in her close-ups, and on balance her performance was intelligent, thoroughly competent, and earnest. One must concede that Sondra Radvanovsky can’t be everywhere at once. (She was in fact in Chicago, wrapping up a run of Un Ballo in Maschera.) Smirnova, despite a committed reading of “O don fatale,” was utterly at sea in the veil song and the garden scene. I’ll be happy to hear her in other repertory, but her performance here baffled me: was there really nobody else available for such an important assignment?

Dolora Zajick was unavailable?
Smirnova as Eboli, with Keenlyside

The rest of the cast were about as good as one can expect from the Met these days. Roberto Alagna, in the title role, isn’t my idea of a Verdi tenor, either, and his timbre seems fundamentally too nasal and thin for this score. (Worth noting, however, that Carlo is far from the heaviest role he sings.) Yet his limitations work here, somehow. Carlo is an idealist whose ambitions are constantly thwarted, and just as the character never quite rises to the historic occasion, so Alagna’s voice never quite commanded my admiration, much less my awe.

By contrast, Ferruccio Furlanetto, as Philip II, was every inch (and note) a king; he really makes this opera a showcase for his masterful talents. I was particularly grateful for the HD cameras, because his gestures really warrant close inspection: apt, expressive of character, judiciously chosen. As Posa, Simon Keenlyside’s acting was his strongest suit, yet his gestures were imprecise and too busy; Eric Halfvarson’s Grand Inquisitor was a big slice of overripe ham, but he sounded terrific.

Trust me: Keenlyside and Furlanetto

In the pit, Yannick Nézet-Séguin struck a balance between passion and poetry. Frankly, I prefer for this score to tilt more in one direction or another (I’m not choosy about which), but there’s something to be said for a reading that allows a listener to draw his own conclusions. Hytner botched the auto-da-fé scene in Act III, always challenging (especially when Carlo bursts in with his Flemish dissidents), but relationships were clearly drawn and stage pictures often eloquent: I especially liked his emphasis of Carlo’s solitude, stranding the prince in vast, empty spaces. Bob Crowley’s sets looked good on the big screen, though with this production as with others recently featured in the simulcast series, it seems rather a waste of high definition to feature scenery lack in any detail whatever.

We certainly got our money’s worth, though. Tickets are $20, somewhat more than the price of a movie in New York. But at 4 hours, 30 minutes, Don Carlo is quite a bit longer than a movie. (Had I shelled out $20 to watch the simulcast of Strauss’ Salome, 90 minutes long, I might have felt cheated.)

Family Portrait: Poplavskaya and Alagna as stepmother and stepson

What’s most impressive about the simulcast program is its reach. At a time when the Met radio broadcasts and television simulcasts were in decline, and the national tour long since abandoned, the company has found the means to reassert itself, not only in the U.S. but around the world. My godparents in Wichita Falls can — and do — attend the Met regularly now, thanks to the simulcasts.

For my part, I’m quite likely to go again. After all, how can I possibly resist the prospect of Susan Graham on the big screen — when she sings Iphigénie en Tauride in February? Or Joyce DiDonato in Le Comte Ory, this spring? I’m already giving them two thumbs up!

Contemporary audiences demand more movies with sword fighting.

1 comment:

John Yohalem said...

Quite agree with your reservations on the largely decent cast (esp. Smirnova and Keenlyside) and the production (not the conductor though! Loved him!) and on the stiffness imposed on intermissions (I think Joyce D could be another Sills on the talk-up-the-arts circuit). Audiences spot ease/dis-ease quicker than anything on these things, and love the former. What is Gelb's logic?

My principal problem with the HD broadcasts is that too much of Gelb's workday seems devoted to that image and too little towards productions that might appeal to the 4000 people in this live-action theater he is supposed to be running.

The only Met movie theater broadcast I've attended (in Oklahoma City!) was Manon Lescaut; the absence of popcorn in the house (which WAS on sale of course) impressed me greatly. Symphony Space is doing Gotterdamerung from Valencia later today. A lot of coughing in last week's Walkuere, but on the whole a great pleasure.