27 February 2011

Graham-O-Rama, or Susan au Cinéma

I long ago learned one of the most important rules in French society today: whenever something goes wrong, it must be the fault of an American. So I wasn’t surprised when a young employee of the Gaumont Aquaboulevard cinema stepped out to explain why the high-definition simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride was delayed. There were technical difficulties, he said, hastening to add that these difficulties originated in New York.

What did surprise me was that the audience — primarily older, bourgeois opera-lovers — didn’t buy that explanation. They challenged it, demanding to know whether other movie theaters in the area were experiencing the same problems, insisting that the kid tell them what steps were being taken, whether we’d get our money back, whether we could listen to the music, at least, even if we couldn’t see the pictures. They were downright hostile, and the poor kid was overwhelmed. Imagine the typical American high-school student working in a shopping-mall multiplex (which is what the Aquaboulevard is): how would he handle such an unruly crowd?

Just when all hope seemed lost, the screen flickered, and we saw the pre-overture pantomime that begins this production, already underway. “Where’s the sound?” people were shouting, not realizing that there isn’t any, at this point in the show. But then the overture began, and we were able to enjoy the proceedings more or less without further incident — notwithstanding the unscheduled intermission feature, namely an appearance by the theater manager, who confessed that the technical difficulty had indeed been one of projection, not transmission. In other words, the fault of a French person — though of course he didn’t put it that way.

But my pleasure in viewing could hardly be diminished by such minor irritations. After all, the leading lady for this performance was my beloved Susan Graham.

Having seen Susan in the high-tech Damnation of Faust at the Met a few seasons back, I knew already the thrill of seeing her face projected on a huge scale. She’s pretty, she’s one of my favorite artists, and, as you have surely deduced by now, I’ve got a sloppy crush on the woman: what’s not to love?

So I knew in advance that this simulcast of Iphigénie would be well worth the expense (my ticket cost 27 Euros, substantially more than the $20 charged for a comparable ticket in New York) and the trouble of finding tickets (the French really don’t publicize these simulcasts, and yet most theaters were sold out) and getting to the theater (in a remote neighborhood where I’d never before set foot).

Still, I went in with apprehension. Susan’s famous power over me is to induce a sort of tunnel-vision, in which I see nothing but her. Now I would cede a certain degree of control to the video director in New York. Also, I wanted to be sure I chose the right role, and I knew that her previous HD outing, Der Rosenkavalier, would be too much.

Susan in Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming

Long before I knew anything about Susan, I wrote a piece of fiction about a man who watches his wife sing Octavian: he’s so transported by her performance that he starts to hallucinate, until all the voices in the Trio become hers, her singing mouth becomes the proscenium of another stage, and he passes out. It was a strange little tale, but I knew that my life would imitate my art if I got too close to Susan’s Octavian, already one of her most potent creations. So I went to the Met and saw her in person, instead.

Iphigénie was the right choice. I first saw her perform the role in Paris, in a terrible production, set in a nursing home, in which she was costumed alternately as Bernadette Chirac and as Bettie Page. I saw her Iphigénie next in San Francisco, in a superior staging by Robert Carsen: Susan was liberated and really dug into the music more deeply than before. I was eager to see how her interpretation had evolved in the Met’s production, by Stephen Wadsworth.

I heard the same vocal freedom last night, and I caught new details, too. In the first scene, for example, Iphigénie observes the calm after a storm (some of Gluck’s most thrilling music), and yearns to find the same kind of calm in her stormy soul. The way Susan caressed that word “calme” couldn’t have been more poignant or true. She was suffering from a cold, but you could hardly tell, and whether Iphigénie was raging or grieving, this was a complete performance.

Unbeatable: Groves, Graham, and Domingo

The video close-ups gave me a chance to appreciate her physical interpretation, too. She was completely absorbed in the character, in contrast with her co-star, Plácido Domingo, whose acting remained superficial (albeit effective enough); her expressive eyes constantly sought out answers to the mysteries that haunt her. We saw flashes, too, of the noble authority of the princess Iphigénie was born to be, notably in an exchange with Pylade (Paul Groves), even as Susan limned the character’s more pronounced traits, her desperation and her wounded, traumatized soul. You don’t often see acting this good in opera — or at the movies, for that matter.

Domingo just turned 70, the first impulse is always to wonder how he’ll sound. He was suffering from a cold, too, but he sounded magnificent. It’s a modern marvel. Groves sang with such sweetness and tenderness, yet also summoned up the necessary heroics when the time came. During a backstage interview at intermission, Wadsworth talked about the dynamic between the passionate emotions in the plot and the restraint in the score, and conductor Patrick Summers accordingly managed to keep real feeling in the lilting, elegant music.

However, Wadsworth’s staging didn’t always translate well to the big screen. He’s divided the stage into three playing areas, leading to awkward crowding and milling, especially when the dancers are doing their odd, aerobic, intrusive business. And the intense naturalism he elicited from the principals sometimes clashed with the more stylized direction of the chorus. Iphigénie’s women had a series of ritualized gestures, which makes some sense — they’re priestesses, after all. But these were deployed haphazardly, severally, and intermittently, so that I never really understood them.

His biggest gamble was the depiction of the family drama that precedes this tale: actors mimed the roles of Agamemnon and Clytemnestre, sometimes popping up onstage when we least expected them. (I most expect them in Oreste’s dream, with the chorus “Il a tué sa mère," where they seem almost necessary.)

The video director, whose name I’ve conveniently forgotten, may have needed to sit in on an extra performance or two before setting out, because her cameras were sometimes too close, sometimes too far, often switching back and forth awkwardly, and sometimes very badly aimed. When Pylade is singing his tender love song to Oreste in Act I, we shouldn’t be focused on the Vulcan mind-meld that Oreste and Iphigénie are conducting on either side of an adjacent wall.* When Iphigénie concludes her big aria, we’d like to look at Susan; we shouldn’t spend the next minute watching Domingo, patiently awaiting his cue. And so on.

Also, if the Met is going to continue to produce these live simulcasts, they’re going to need to do a better job of educating the singers and staff. Although Domingo is peerlessly media-savvy and has been the subject of numerous documentaries, he didn’t always seem to know where the backstage cameras were and whether the sound was on; this led to an unguarded, undignified moment when he walked in on Wadsworth’s interview. It wasn’t a major embarrassment, but it could have been worse, and the image-conscious Met ought to snap to attention.

Natalie Dessay was our charming hostess, applauded by her compatriots at the Aquaboulevard, and we got a welcome glimpse of Joyce DiDonato, talking about the upcoming Le Comte Ory. (I wasn’t expecting to see her, and I let out a little yelp when I did — prompting one neighbor to mutter, “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il a, ce type?”) Really, it was a satisfying evening, and for all my quibbles and calls for refinement, I’m ready to endorse the simulcast program unreservedly.

And this is not the least of the reasons: I was happy and excited, in the days leading up to the performance. I used to get this way when I was a boy, when one of my favorite singers was going to perform in an opera telecast on PBS. That kind of excitement led, in turn, to my seeking out more singers and more operas, and learning more. I’m sorry that tickets to the simulcasts are so expensive (though many of these operas are being broadcast on television at later dates), but they’re helping to make opera — the real thing, not crossovers or Il Divo — accessible to more people. And in more countries, too.

Also, did I mention that I got to see Susan Graham’s face on a great big movie screen? I’ve got to endorse anything that makes that possible.

Damnation of Faust: Previously, this was the largest screen
on which I’d seen Susan’s face.

*NOTE: Part of this is Wadsworth’s fault. It’s an interesting choice to show Iphigénie mysteriously drawn to Oreste, but it could be confusing to position her next to that wall. An audience has to spend a lot of time reasoning it out — “No, she can’t hear them, because if she could, then she’d learn that Oreste is her brother” — when we ought to be listening to Pylade. But an audience in the opera house can look away, or back and forth; an audience in a movie theater has to look where the cameras are pointed.

It should also be noted that I’m spoiled: the first Iphigénie I saw was Francesca Zambello’s staging for Glimmerglass and New York City Opera. That production seemed to get everything right.


Janice Hall said...

Re: that weird little Octavian story you wrote---it sounds kind of Black-Swan-ish to me, maybe you should be writing it up as a screenplay???

William V. Madison said...

@ Janice -- Funny you should mention. There are those who suggest I ought to give up writing any fiction for print, and aim for screenplays henceforward. Unfortunately, the ideal actress for the lead role in this story, Vivica Lindfors, passed away years ago. (She expressed interest in the project, too, though it's possible she was just being polite.)

William V. Madison said...

An afterthought: Those who care probably know already that Plácido Domingo, one of history's greatest tenors, is singing baritone repertory these days, and Oreste is a baritone role. (Those who don't know probably don't care.) What's amazing is that he's maintained that wonderful burnished-gold timbre, whatever he sings.

Yohalem said...

Your comments about the camera focus bring up my principal objection to the Met's HDTV program: The Met seems so focused on HDTV these days that all sorts of inanities have been perpetrated in recent stagings there on the excuse that the cameras will look elsewhere. They will -- but the Met is a theater with 3800 seats giving seven live performances a week, and a little more care for the attention of those opera-goers on the part of the management might be hoped for!

In the Wadsworth staging of Iphigénie, which is far from terrible, my main objections are, first of all, those unnecessary and intrusive "visions" of the past (would Oreste really daydream of a cuddly, forgiving Clytemnestre? I don't think so).

Also, in all the thousands of years that mankind has practiced one religion or another, Wadsworth is the only person to suggest that the proper place to make an offering, a prayer, a sacrifice to a deity is to that deity's backside. The face is, surely, traditional, and turning the statue around is, one hopes, not the very least we can expect of devout believers. I can never attend this staging without a shudder, and a devout wish to place the imprint of a boot upon Mr. Wadsworth's own very deserving backside.

William V. Madison said...

@ Mr. Yohalem -- We didn't see much of the gigantic statue, except in overhead shots, but you may have hit on the reason for my discomfort. The Temple of Diana in this opera does also serve as a prison, and yet I had the feeling it was also serving as a sort of storage room: here is where Thoas keeps all the goddess-related stuff (and people) he doesn't know what to do with but isn't ready to throw out.

@ The anonymous commenter who posted yesterday -- I appreciate your remarks, and inspired by Anne Midgette's example at the Washington Post, I'm willing to provide my readers with contrasting perspectives. But this isn't Opera-L, and I don't feel that anonymity (or even a nom de plume) is sporting among amateur critics in a public forum, or ethical among professionals (which I sometimes am) anywhere. Send me your name, and I'll publish your text. Thanks.