We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Johan Botha and Renée Fleming in Othello--photo by Ken Howard
Can an HD surpass the live performance from which it is derived?  That is the question we asked ourselves repeatedly during the 10-night HD Festival offered by The Metropolitan Opera outdoors at Lincoln Center.  In many cases, we answered in the affirmative.  Last summer we wrote about the Live in HD Directors who, by judicious use of varied camera angles and closeups, were able to direct our attention to details which often go unseen in live performances.  We continue our admiration of the fine work of Gary Halvorson, Barbara Willis Sweete and Matthew Diamond.

At the opera house, those sitting in the first few rows of the orchestra see intimate details that others miss; similarly, those in the balcony get a great stage picture plus a view of the orchestra that cannot be appreciated by those down front.  But are there drawbacks to opera on HD?  Of course.  Not every singer looks good in extreme closeup; some make funny faces while they sing, some overact to a great degree, some just look very different from how we imagine the character "should" look.

Let us take a closer look!  In Willy Decker's unfortunate production of La Traviata, (yes, it is striking but it is cold, in spite of Ms. Dessay's regrettable over-acting) Gary Halvorson's focus on closeups was able to remove the distractions of that ugly giant clock, the omnipresent "Dr. Death", and the egregiously inappropriate behavior of Flora's friends.  The emphasis on the intimate interactions was a welcome relief.

Mr. Halvorson's direction of Mary Zimmerman's Lucia di Lammermoor wisely showed Daniel Ostling's moody sets to fine advantage as well as many details of the wedding scene including Anna Netrebko's indifferent and distracted behavior during the photography.  Yet scenes of intimate interaction showed up well in closeups and generated deep feelings for the characters.

In Thomas Adès' The Tempest, Mr. Halvorson's direction focused on the lavish sets by Jasmine Catudal and the imaginative costuming by Kym Barrett, making the evening worthwhile, even if one loathed the screechy vocal writing.  If you ignored the music, you could almost imagine being at a performance of Cirque du Soleil.

Elijah Moshinsky's wonderful production of Otello didn't need much help but Ms. Sweete was right on target.  There were moments early in the opera that revealed much about Iago's character that we never noticed when seeing the opera live.  Closeups of Johan Botha and Renée Fleming revealed a pair of devoted lovers, making the end that much more tragic.

Robert Lepage's La Damnation de Faust was unsuccessful in the house.  The action took place upstage in one of those cubby-hole sets that always make us think of Joseph Cornell's boxes; little could be discerned.  But, with Ms. Sweete's fine HD Direction, we could actually witness what was taking place back there.  We may not have liked it but at least we did not have the frustration of trying to guess about it.

Maria Stuarda is a rather static opera; character development is everything and there is not even much scenery to highlight.  Mr. Halvorson wisely gave us lots of closeups to enjoy the intensely committed portrayals of Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth and Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart.

Laurent Pelly's Manon is an ugly production and almost beyond redemption.  Chantal Thomas' sets are of the post-modern type and give us nothing to suggest time and place, just cement walls without a cobblestone in sight in Act I.  We are afraid that this one was just beyond redemption.

David Alden's Un Ballo in Maschera suffered from the same syndrome and nothing could distract us from the inappropriate concept, awful sets by Paul Steinberg, and off-the-mark costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel.  But Matthew Diamond's closeups of poor Kathleen Kim's white tuxedo with wings gave us the relief of a few chuckles.

About Sonja Frisell's tried and true Aida, we have nothing but good things to say and Mr. Halvorson's HD Direction gave us the large cinematic picture during the Triumphal March (although we would have happily chosen to look elsewhere during Alexei Ratmansky's inapposite choreography); but during the important arias, duets and trios we got the closeups that we wanted.

One final advantage of the HD productions is the elimination of l-o-n-g intermissions which are necessary in the house.  Some operas seem tedious and disjointed in house but maintain their dramatic thrust when intermissions are eliminated.  We further enjoyed closeups of the orchestra during the overtures.  There was a moment during Lucia's mad scene when we were dying to witness the playing of the glass armonica.

And so the HD Festival has drawn to a close.  We saw the good, the bad and the ugly.  But we never heard a singer give anything less than a fine performance.  The Met Orchestra sounded topnotch, as did The Met Chorus.  For that we are grateful, as well as for the fine contributions of the HD Directors.  However, before returning to the fold of Met subscribers, we will wait until the pendulum swings back toward productions more faithful to the intentions of the original creators.  Just call us old-fashioned!

© meche kroop

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