The Modern Opera Experience II

Yesterday mom and I went to our final opera broadcast of the season: that of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, the completion of the Met’s staging and broadcasting of all three of his “Tudor Queen” operas four an a half years after they first aired Anna Bolena in 2011.  It was a season of the familiar on the Met’s screen; they had already had Roberto Alagna and Kristine Opalais singing opposite each other in two of the broadcasted operas, and now they had Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien for the second time this season singing two points of a love triangle and seeming to be more in love with each other than with the woman involved!  Although despite the title the real star was Sondra Radvanovsky singing Queen Elizabeth I.  Throw in Elina Garanca, and some of the most beautiful music Donizetti’s ever written, and one’s in for an afternoon of true beauty-if, that is, you are lucky enough to be a theater where the sound is working.

Unfortunately, my mother and I were not.  Instead we were in one that had continual problems with both the image and sound; they both would sometimes go smoothly for a while, then start freezing and stammering, then there would a loud burst of static and sometimes after that things would get better, but not always, and they wouldn’t stay better.  During those minutes where everything was working, we could greatly admire the singing, the acting, and the drama especially during the second act, where it had better emotional effect, but then would come that stammering again and we’d be knocked out of it.  The climax was intense enough that even with the sound still struggling it was easier to stay engaged with it, and yet one is still aware of how it could have been far better still, had Radvanovsky been the wall of grief and song she’s supposed to be.  Also the finale wasn’t quite over when whoever was in charge of the lights thought it was and raised them!

At the intermission, as I read the Wikipedia article on the actual Robert Devereux and noted how ridiculously unlike the opera the true history was(but it’s opera; one should expect that), we also got a list of next year’s operas.  Mom wants to see quite a few of them, even some of the reruns of operas we’ve seen already.  I’d be for seeing some of them too, but given that apparently the sound issues were even worse when she attended the rerun of Madam Butterfly, perhaps we should look into any other cinemas doing the broadcast, and if there are any that aren’t too far away.

Met Opera Broadcasts: Les Pecheurs de Perles

Les Pecheurs de Perles, a lesser-known composition about a pearl fishing village in Ceylon by Georges Bizet(of Carmen fame), before now was last done at the Met about a century ago, using a corrupted libretto(Bizet’s more authentic manuscripts weren’t found and used until very recently), and then forgotten about for a long time.  Not without some good cause, since the story is a mix of melodrama and 19th-century Orientalism, a depiction of people from the far east who will ritually murder people.  But then soprano Diana Damreau wanted to sing it, and convinced the Met to put it on so she could-while wearing a very light tanface, which was at best a questionable thing to do, and actually turned out to be the most problematic detail of the show that was broadcast Saturday.

One can understand why she wanted to sing it, though.  The music is absolutely gorgeous, from the opening chords(accompanied Saturday by a spectacular aerial show that showed people diving for pearls), to the lovely duets between the three main characters.  But while Damreau was good, she was rather outsung by both her male co-stars.  Matthew Polenzani and Marius Kwiecien were helped there by having the standout number from the score, which they played unafraid of the homoeroticism, but Polenzani almost stole the first act with his passionate solo aria there, and Kwiecien emerged as the true lead of the opera in the third with both his singing and his moving acting, making the melodramatic end truly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, director Penny Woolcock was smart enough to take the opera out of exotic Ceylon and instead put it in modern-day Sri Lanka(the program claimed it was just an unspecified eastern location, but the billboard in the first act and the map of the country on the wall in the third belied that), putting the chorus in a mix of traditional and modern clothes, creating hovels with electric lights, and removing in the third act to a modern office with a laptop and vintage TV.  This put the story of villagers afraid of storms and the rising sea into a whole new context, one where we are aware these are people whose home and very lives are threatened by climate change.  When they put their hopes on Damraeu’s priestess character to stop the storms, one has to figure the most recent years have been bad enough to make them desperate, and when they prepare at the end to kill her and Polenzani, one is quick to realize they’re scapegoating them for more than just the most recent weather, but for everything they in reality can’t do anything about, but are unwilling to accept their helplessness in the face of.  Once, the ritualistic murdering seemed ridiculous to the modern mind.  Now, in the era of ISIS and similar, it feels all too plausible.

Whether or not most of the people involved in this production realized that is an interesting question, although I’d like to think Woolcock did.  But either way, it makes this opera resonate in a way that perhaps it never has before.  This is one production that might stay on for a while.

Met Opera Broadcasts: Manon & La Traviata

It was arguably a little risky for the Met, broadcasting two tragic operas about two fallen women, both advertised on the star power of their prima donna, only a week apart from each other; they broadcast Jules Massenet’s Manon last weekend and La Traviata this weekend.  Though as characters Manon & Violetta are actually pretty different, and the productions were almost opposite in approaches.

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