More about what It All Means, later, but for now...
I was dying to find out: could you really eat JuJuBes? The answer is yes, you really can. You can eat candy, put up the armrest, even put up your feet--just no previews. This is the year live opera came to America’s movie theaters--sticky floors, cupholder seats, curtain calls. For $18 a seat the new medium can feed the rabid fan or ignite the neophyte.
As part of their “Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD” initiative, the Met broadcast six different operas live to HD-equipped cinemas, beginning with a user friendly Julie Taymored two-hour production of The Magic Flute on December 30. By the time the whole series ended two Tuesdays ago, the Met had sold more than 320,000 tickets. In many cities screenings sold out and the lines for seating started Star Wars-early. Some productions, such as the March 24 broadcast of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, were so successful--to put it in Variety context, Barber was the 18th highest-grossing US film that week, with over $850,000 in ticket receipts for 275 screens--that they were rebroadcast.
It was this encore of Barber of Seville that I saw, the last broadcast in the series, and I was dying to know (movie JuJuBes pull my fillings out) what it would be like. How would this alter the unique, visceral experience of attending opera? How would it sound? Would it feel the same?
The brutal fact is no, it didn’t. Not really. Not quite. Opera at its biggest, baddest, loudest, is like the fuzz from feedback, right in your brain and your teeth, and you can’t duplicate it at the remove of any recording, HD or not. The medium in this case still changes what it transmits, mostly, to my mind--without aid of comparison of this particular production--in the area of sound. There were times that big finishes felt muted, times when you could hear turns in tone as performers’ primary mics shifted, and instances when big bell-like tones flattened out a bit (voices with a little more vibrato seemed to sound better). I couldn’t help wondering if fundamental evidence of the slightly diminished power of sound lay in the fact that our movie theater audience never clapped nearly as long or lustily after arias as our parallel audience at the Met was doing listening to the same thing. I have equal suspicions, though, that that was just unavoidable movie audience mentality vs. you-are-there energy--hard to say.
The good news is I didn’t really care that the experience wasn’t the same. This medium really works in its own way. Other problems it might have had were either negligible or entertaining in their newness, such as the nervy goofiness of some of the half-time backstage show (it sometimes reminded me of SNL sketches or silly sports interviewing), and some of them were even kind of interesting. Evidence of humanity that you might think would spoil the experience--sweating singers, little mistakes, huge shoe squeaks on the floor--turn out to be crucial to being engaged in the experience. It made me realize why I find movies of operas so boring: you need to see people genuinely working, feel the tightrope of live theater, sense the technical prowess and musical joy and potential for disaster all happening right now. The Met’s moviecast does provide that for you, even if it can’t convey the parts of the opera-going experience you absorb through your nose and your skin and the vibrations in your seat.
It also didn’t hurt that this production of the Barber of Seville (directed by Bartlett Sher, who just won a Tony for The Light in the Piazza), was astonishingly good, and its merits would have shone through a much less technologically sophisticated transmission. The real star, as Count Almaviva, was Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, the hottest thing in opera these days due to an astonishingly athletic but melting voice that reaches the top of his range (first "Ah, mes amis" encore at La Scala this year since Feodor Chaliapin--first in 74 years--that makes 18 high Cs, I think) with no seeming effort. He’s virtuosic and breath-taking, but human too. Semi-seriously dreamy.
What was not too surprising but still interesting about seeing Florez via pixels is that while we were watching perhaps the best singer of Rossini now alive, demands were made of him as a just an okay actor via close-up camera work that he couldn’t quite meet, not to mention you could see things like just how high his boots were (classic tenor meat, this dude, in some respects). And this made Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, as Figaro, the real star of the show in an all-around MVP sense. Some people have a face for radio; Mattei has a face (and voice) for high-definition broadcasts of opera. He has enormous ease and grace on stage, large expressive features--I know his performance was also reaching the back of the house in New York--a huge lanky frame, a beautiful, creamy voice. Of course he was also playing barber Figaro (as one critic wrote) like Warren Beatty in Shampoo, dripping with babes, but even if he hadn’t been it was hard not to fall a little in love with him. On the other end from Florez, by the way, were the slightly hammy antics of John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo, which occasionally seemed a little too much up close, but engaging.
Casting is clearly very important in this new medium, and the Met did it well. There were no clunkers (I liked Joyce DiDonato as Rosina), no hopelessly wooden performers, no purveyors of fantastic facial tics that would look awful writ big (hard to imagine Cecelia Bartoli cast in one of these things). Costumes are also newly important. I found myself scanning the Galliano-inspired clothes for detail or construction failure over and over as I never could at the theater, even with opera glasses. At one point I almost thought--there were many times during this broadcast that I was reminded of Singin’ in the Rain and its "Dancing Cavalier" sequences--that all the cool medallions and necklaces and cameos hanging around singers’ necks hid mics--a major no-no in opera, but I was just wondering how they were capturing sound--it seemed like there was the occasional chest-thumping echo--but the Met’s PR office firmly disabused me of this idea.
The mics were placed around the stage, as are many cameras, most notably behind the passerelle built out beyond the orchestra pit that let singers be closer to the audience (at the very end Figaro handed out his business cards to front row patrons--hilarious). This meant that the fourth wall was broken more than a few times. It was cool and a little scary, to see from their point of view the vast, twinklingly-lit dark on the edge of which the singers perch. I did wish the Met’s editing had given us more establishment shots--it spoiled a few little bits of stage business to see them happening up close too soon, not to mention it was all a little confusing sometimes--but by and large I wasn’t frustrated at what the cameras were showing me. Not to mention I had the sense their presence provided a kind of additional momentum to the performance, which can be kind of jerky-jerky with a lot of post-aria applause.
All in all, I was high when I walked out of the theater. Excited. Still not quite sure what to call this new animal I had seen, but excited. I felt beautifully opened up and put back together again by the music--Rossini was the real star of this production--which is the best you can hope for at the opera any day.