Yesterday’s Met Live in HD broadcast of Parsifal was one of the best I’ve seen. The production is highly effective, the starry cast lived up to the hype and the video direction was sensitive and true to the staging. Any reservations I have about the experience are due to the work itself but that may be matter for another day. It certainly reinforced my belief, consolidated by seeing Tristan und Isolde twice recently that these big Wagner operas are high risk, high reward. When they come off they are incredible. When they don’t it’s six hours of one’s life gone missing.
Today’s MetHD broadcast of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was a bit of a mixed bag. There were some really good performances. Joyce DiDonato in particular gave what may well have been a truly great performance and I would have loved to have seen it live. David McVicar’s production was much better than his Anna Bolena; visually interesting and with some strong dramatic ideas. However the good was pretty seriously undermined by another really awful piece of video directing by Gary Halvorson. I guessed it was him after about ten minutes. The incessant use of the nose cam and the incredibly irritating low level tracking shots were a dead give away. It was a big disappointment since the last two shows I saw, La Clemenza di Tito and Les Troyens, were filmed by Barbara Willis-Sweete and had given me some faint hope that the Met was capable of self analysis and improvement in this area. Hope that was, alas, sadly dashed today.
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is opera on a grand scale. Only a really big company like the Met could possibly afford to stage it. Yesterday’s performance used a chorus of 110, a larger orchestra, at least twelve soloists and a bunch of dancers. It also lasted 5 1/2 hours including the intervals. Was it worth it? For the most part I’d say yes.
I despair. I really do. Yesterday’s MetHD broadcast of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera had so much going for it. The singing was brilliant and David Alden’s production seemed to have plenty of interesting ideas. I say “seemed” because we only got the briefest of brief glimpses of it in between the succession of close ups served up by video director Matthew Diamond. On the odd occasions we got to see more than a head or a body it was usually from a weird angle. It’s particularly irritating because the two elements of the production that seemed to be most important were the ones most ruthlessly undermined. Alden’s movement of chorus, supers and dancers and the contrast between what they do and what the principals do seems to be important but who knows? Similarly his use of contrasting spaces, especially in Act 3, is obviously important but when the viewer gets only a couple of seconds to establish the context before the camera moves in and loses it the effect is fatally weakened.
Today’s MetHD broadcast was Mozart’s last, and arguably best, opera La Clemenza di Tito. J-P Ponnelle’s production has been around for a while and offers nothing to offend traditionalists. There’s not a baked potato, muscle suit or child sacrifice in sight. The set, maybe more Italian Renaissance than Imperial Rome is elegant, undistracting and very singer friendly. The costumes are a rather eclectic mix of late 17th century and Republican Rome with a bit of Lady Capulet thrown in but only the black number with the big panniers that Vitellia gets in Act 2 would excite much comment. Direction then focuses rather on the characters and their relationships.
Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has had something like eight runs since its premiere at Covent Garden in 2004. It recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by Robert Lepage which was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series this afternoon. It’s an interesting work musically. Some of the vocal writing is reminiscent of Britten. It all tends to a high tessitura for the voice type concerned and goes to extremes in that direction for the soprano part of Ariel where parts are so high that clear articulation of the words is impossible. Writing for voice and orchestra ranges from dissonant to extremely lyrical (the act 2 duet between Miranda and Ferdinand). Key and time signature changes are legion and many of the intervals for the singers are extreme. It must be extremely difficult to perform but it’s rather lovely to listen to.
Today was the first MetHD broadcast of the season and we got Bartlett Sher’s new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. It’s what I would call a “steakhouse production”. It’s like a meal in a top end steakhouse. Your steak is a fine piece of meat, they don’t mess it up and ditto your baked potato. And it’s all served in luxurious surroundings with attentive service. It’s a terrific steak dinner but it costs the same as the tasting menu at a place with two Michelin stars and it’s still just a steak dinner.
So, a brilliant cast; Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien and Maestri, singing and acting up a storm in a production that was pretty much devoid of ideas beyond a few odd costuming choices. Since when did Italian peasant girls get to dress like they are attending a ball in a Jane Austen novel? Still the girl singing Nanetta was cute and had the best dress. Gary Halvorson’s video direction was about par for the course in terms of virtually incessant close-ups. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon but ultimately forgettable.
Just back from the HD broadcast of the Met’s Götterdãmmerung.
Musically, I was really quite impressed. I thought Luisi’s take on the score was original, valid and enjoyable. His tempi were generally quite quick and there was a taut, sinewy quality to the strings that really brought out the shape of the music. No romantic wallowing here! I really liked the Gibichungs; Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune, Iain Paterson’s Gunther and, especially, Hans-Peter König’s Hagen. All were well sung and characterful. Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried and Deb Voigt as Brünnhilde were really exciting in the Act 1 love duet and Deb nailed the Immolation scene, almost managing to overcome the staging. So much for the music, what about the production?
I went in not expecting much from the production given the caning it had been getting from just about everybody I knew who had seen it. I wasn’t too surprised then when the video director for the broadcast, Gary Halvorson, showed us as little of it as humanly possible. The use of super close-ups was extreme even by MetHD standards and there were some really weird camera angles. Sometimes we were shown a close up from below and to the side of five or six “planks” from the machine. He must have been absolutely desperate. I can see why. There did seem to be an endless procession of scenes where either flowing water or tree like objects were projected onto a basically plain back drop. The one place where I thought the machine worked was in the scenes in the Gibichung Hall where it seemed to reconfigure quite nicely. On the other hand there were a couple of real horrors. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey included a cheesy hollow horse on an all too literal raft floating lamely on an all too literal Rhine. It got worse when the horse reappeared in the crucial Immolation scene. What should be one of the most breathtaking moments in all of opera was reduced to sheer bathos. Deb Voigt was singing her heart out on this horse thing that looked more like it should have been sitting outside a supermarket and which might have been a bit more animated if she had remembered to put a quarter in it. It trundled off into a funeral pyre that looked more like an ad for fake electric log fires before all was obscured by the Machine, covered with the by now all too familiar flame projections. A few cheap looking statues above the Machine crumbled unconvincingly before we reverted to another flat Machine screen things with wavy bits on for the last few bars. There certainly wasn’t a bang and I, for one, was whimpering.
I think I’ve learned one thing from Lepage’s production. Even if it had succeeded on its own terms, and I don’t think it did, the production would have been weak. I don’t think it’s possible, in 2012, to do an essentially naturalistic ring with no Konzept. But that’s material for another post.
The temptation to review this afternoon’s MetHD broadcast of The Enchanted Island in McGonagallesque (or perhaps more accurately, Samsesque) doggerel is strong but I think I’ve had enough of it for one day and do you really want to read stuff like:
Ten great singers get to sing trash
‘Cos Peter Gelb wants lots of cash
Jeremy Sams goes for broke
Which almost rhymes with baroque
For real baroque would too jazzy
for the New York bourgeoisie
Unfortunately that’s about as good as the libretto gets most of the time.
There are a few moments when one half suspects an opera is about to break out. The lovers’s quartet in Act 1 set to “Endless pleasure” is pretty good and Act 2 starts well with strong arias from Hermia (Liz deShong) and Sycorax (Joyce diDonato). Throughout the excellent cast sing and act with technical excellence and great commitment but the overall effect is still of the Royal Shakespeare Company doing panto with the funny bits left out.
It’s perfectly possible to do baroque in a way that is funny, engaging and accessible. The Glyndebourne production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Salzburg’s hilarious and subversive production of Purcell’s King Arthur show what can be done. The Enchanted Island doesn’t cut it, being one more proof that the Met’s formula of throwing lots of money at a bad idea doesn’t work.
Camera work and sound quality were no better than usual.
If you feel the need to read a proper review Olivia Giovetti’s is very good.
After all the negatives about McAnuff Faust my expectations for this afternoon’s HD broadcast were pretty low. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the production is perfect but I don’t think it’s incoherent let alone dull. It also made me think a lot about the opera and the characters and that’s a good thing. Overall, it’s the sort of production I’d like to see more of. Far better a production that slightly over reaches than dull mediocrity.
I thought it opened quite strongly which is probably because Marguerite hardly appears in the first two acts. The idea of Faust as a disillusioned atomic scientist is a neat one though it might fit better with Goethe or Marlowe’s knowledge seeking Faust than Gounod’s rather shallow pleasure seeker. Still there’s a certain coherence in then moving back in time to the point where the events that lead to Hiroshima begin; in the first world war. It began to unravel a little bit as McAnuff tried to get to grips with Marguerite and I think it’s clear why. Marguerite simply isn’t a real human character which is massively problematic as the story becomes largely about her. She’s a projection of mid 19th century male neuroses about women; the “Angel in the House” personified. That’s not a character that can be sympathetically portrayed to a 21st century audience or easily placed in a 20th century setting. Add on to that the rather repellent religiosity of the final scene and we can that the problem here is not McAnuff but Gounod and his librettist. To McAnuff’s credit what he doesn’t do is fall back on slapstick humour to cover the bits that are essentially impossible to stage as written. He sticks with the core of the libretto story but it’s a stretch to find Valentin’s reaction to his sister’s seduction believable. Similarly the soldiers’ chorus in Act 3 rings hollow. The sentiments are not those of people who have come back from Verdun as anyone who has ever tried to talk to a WW1 veteran will know (my grandfather served on the Somme and at third Ypres). I liked McAnuff’s attempt to desentimentalise this scene but it didn’t go nearly far enough. The Walpurgis Night scene seemed like a missed opportunity too. The element of decadent glamour was completely absent which seems odd to me given the time periods chosen. I liked the ironic use of humour in Mephistopheles character. It was balanced and that’s important again because irony is not a mid Victorian strong suit as anybody who has ever read back issues of Punch will know. I’d watch it again quite happily and I’m sure I would see any number of things I missed first time through.
Musically it was top class all the way through. Nezet-Seguin has this score down pat. The singers were all terrific. Pape was athletic vocally and physically and played his role with real panache. Kaufmann was almost overpowering for the role (though that might be the usual overblown cinema sound) and Poplavskaya was utterly committed to her interpretation. I thought she sang as well as I have ever heard her. Top marks too to the ever reliable Russell Braun and, new to me, Michele Losier.
Technically this was better than many of the Met broadcasts. Mostly the camera direction respected the rather clear way in which the stage picture was set up. Sound got muddy at times but wasn’t too bad (though there were a few drop outs). I suspect I’ll buy the DVD when it becomes available. I want to take another look at the production and better than cinema quality sound will be a bonus.
Final thought; the interval interviews are starting to get utterly tedious. Someone think up some new questions please. Even Danni de Niesse bubbling over couldn’t wring any life out of them.