Dear friends and readers,
As what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Massenet’s Werther this season is the satellite transmission went silent for the crucial last 7 minutes of the play, so what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème is the scheduled young star, Anita Hartig was so ill with the flu that she could not show (and HD-productions are not missed by star if they can possibly help it). Hartig phoned to say so at 7:30 am the morning of the performance so that Leonard Gelb and company, frantic to substitute a powerful singer, phoned Kristine Opolais, the effective beautiful soprano who had sung Madame Butterfly in the house (so was close-by) the preceding night to see if she might agree. As Opolais said during the interview, although after a performance she does not fall asleep for a long time and had been sleeping only since 5 am, she felt it was an offer she could not refuse. 2 and 1/2 hours of sleep.
So up she got, was driven to the Met opera-house, rehearsed a part she had not been practicing, got herself into the outfits the Hartig was to wear, these were re-sewn, and the company and she worked together and at 1 o’clock the show went on. The excitement of going to these HD-transmissions is while they are films, while the production is shaped to be a brilliantly projected and understandable movie, they are live. As I sat (alone in the sense that I had no one I knew on either side of me), and Joyce DiDonato came out as hostess in an absurdly over-tight bright royal dress (not her fault, the hosts and hostesses are dressed by the Met staff) and announced apologetically that Anita Hartig could not make it, I felt and heard the disappointment around me. Then before the opera commenced, she said there was a special announcement and out came Gelb with his story. He asked the audience to be flexible, patient, understanding at the same time as trying to assert this would be as powerful and wonderful a performance as Hartig’s had been — he hoped and trusted.
In the event it was. I have no idea what Hartig is like, but Opolais to my ears sang beautifully poignantly and her exhausted appearance, strained face, and all that went with enacting a young woman in the early and then last stages of TB were as good as one can hope for in a singer whose body was strongly healthy in order to undertake such a part and who was wearing exquisitely cut, lavishly swathed, evocatively-colored Victorian dress and shawl. I have seen La Bohème many times, sometimes unconventionally done (as several years ago now at Wolf Trap with Jim and two friends it was set in Brooklyn circa 2000), and knew this was a traditionally-designed performance, heightened into the romantic picturesque by Zeffirelli, the sets going back to 1981. Yet I wanted to go, even though when we three (for Jim was alive when we talked about going to this year’s season), both Jim and Izzy were unenthusiastic. Izzy walked with me to the movie-house but went into another auditorium to see Captain America, The Winter Soldier.
Why? because I find the music exhilarating and wanted to understand it better. Among the various lies the hostess tells the audience, the one of those most irritating is the insistence that the experience of the opera in the house, live, is superior. Nonsense, or it’s only so for those in the first few rows, and I doubt that’s so even then. The large images, the direction which has the movie-audience in mind and shows considerably sophistication over shots, angles, juxtaposition, sets, are intended to reach audiences and do as nothing on the stage in a large house with most of the audience far away can do. The sound I will maintain is as good. Another is the insistence that the people making the opera do not have the film audience in mind, or (Gelb concedes this lest he be absurd) only as an afterthought to a stage production, an enhancement. Again nonsense. For years I’ve seen movie and TV versions of operas before these HD-screenings of the last 6 years and most of the time I fell asleep on the movie just as frequently as the stage production and the movie was never more understandable than the stage even when there were sur- or subtitles. Now I never fall asleep, I don’t even nod off, and I understand what’s happening, including nuances. This would not happen were the film not being done in a new movie-audience directed way.
I know why they insist. They fear the wrath of patrons paying anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars a seat to a mere few hundred to say $100. The HD-seats here in the 2 Northern Virginia and the 2 DC movie-houses we have gone to seats are $25. They fear diminishing the mystic of the voice without microphone, of “presence” and I admit presence probably thrills many people. But there is nothing to compare really having the performance reach you powerfully, directly, with a feeling of no mediation. For the first time I realized with clarity that the story of these lovers is of them getting together because he pretends he cannot find her key, and then breaking up, because of his jealousy; her resort to a viscount because she is so ill and in need of comforts, and with this context their final scene in the attic room where she dies and he at first does not know it, was more riveting. It’s acted and sung in a far more modern way than Traviata where the dying is lengthened out improbably in order to let her sing more and permit a duet. The intellectually intriguing aspect of La Bohème is it combines a Victorian story (with the frankness of a French source) with a modern assumption of death as extinction and relationships as serial without taking this as awesomely sinful at all.
I was disappointed nonetheless and for what seems a strange reason. I found myself remembering Pavarotti singing Rodolpho. And thus while handsome enough and acting finely and even singing his heart out to the best of his ability (I assume), Vittorio Grigolo just didn’t come up to the thrill of Pavarotti. His voice felt reedy in comparison, it had not the timbre, the suavity, was not as stirring as memory told me. During the intermission he was asked about following in the path of Pavarotti, and said Pavarotti had been his mentor, and he knew this role was especially connected to Pavarotti, a signature role in which Pavarotti made his reputation outside Italy, but he (Grigolo) could do only what he could do. He obviously thought he was equally adequate but to me he lacked that plangency Pavarotti had. In contrast, probably because I don’t remember Mirella Freni in the same way, Kristine Opolais seems to have the requisite timbre and resonance he lacked, projected a voice of painful feeling inside beauty.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The famous crowd scene (150 people on stage) at the end of the second act was as effective as ever, Susanna Phillips singing Musetta and Massimo Cavaletti Marcello memorable passionate excitement and thrilling voices. Their two voices and antics against those of our central lovers in the second act snow scenes made the contrasts of vexation and petty squabbling against real hurt of a sick woman and bored and foolish man.
In the closing scene Patrick Carfizzi sang the melancholy adieu to his coat as the philosopher Schaunard with the right tone of despair, and when they got to the dying, I lost it altogether. I cried half-hysterically, responding at a personal level to some of the lines, crying over Jim’s extinction, the meaningless waste, the pain, the silence, the helplessness, an agon, perhaps disquieting those around me though they seemed a singularly phlegmatic bunch. They had not clapped when any arias came to an end; two over-dressed women on one side whose conversation consisted in talking of how much money they were spending on daughters socializing at expensive private colleges performed sighs to one another over the scenery and picturesque romance. That’s all it was to them — much of the audience seems to have bought their tickets at the last moment, came precisely because this was seen as unreal silly romance. I would agree the poverty of the principals was not very persuasive — nor was the experience presented as an escape to real gaiety.
On one of my list-servs someone had gone to La Bohème for the first time the week before (a Pittsburgh opera company) and she had asked fresh questions of it:
I found the Pittsburgh interpretation a bit flat, but have no context to know if that is “normal,” whether or not I am being too critical or what. The opera is very Victorian, with the consumptive seamstress Mimi openly described as an “angel.” I had a bit of problem with the singer portraying her being quite overweight and much as I tried to suspend disbelief, it was hard for me to accept this large woman in her death throes as consumptive. The set was very somber, done in grays and browns, and while the opera depicts both the joys of being a bohemian artist living in a garret–one’s art make one a millionaire, etc — and though the poor artists are shown rejoicing happily in Dickensian fashion over bread and wine, the opera also underscores that poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. However, I thought a brighter set might have helped counter the sadness of the opera–might literally have highlighted — some of the joys amid the poverty. This is important, I think, as I am seeing a tendency (Mad men comes to mind) to depict the bohemian, the hippie, the alternative lifestyle, as unrelentingly miserable — rats, poverty, drugs, etc., and yet we have ample testimony that, at least in the early days, the hippie movement was often also a joyful experience. I also was a bit bemused that in La Boheme we go from Mimi and Rodolfo falling love to Rodolfo wanting to end the relationship because he is too poor to care for the dying Mimi — he can’t keep her warm, etc.–leaving us to rely on narrated backstory about the entire middle, ie substance, of the relationship.
For my part I like the productions which are far less fancy … It is true that the way the story is presented is anti-hedonism and in effect a condemnation of living in poverty — see how miserable they all are. No sense that departing from the mainstream for art gives one some strong compensation. If it is presented with gaiety, the gaiety is not attached to any ideas beyond the stirring music and voices.
Most the opera is deflected over to dwelling on tuberculosis and there we have this beautiful woman dying of TB — itself a subject worth our attenion — for again it’s a fragile woman we are encouraged to dwell on as a poignant ideal. A woman I met at the ASECS conference told me her paper was on how this ideal of fragility and sickness (which Austen mocks way before she got ill) combined with TB was really presented as somehow wanted, admired — as long as it was respectable. It was respectable as long as so many people got sick and died — but apparently once it became attached to myths of prostitution and also once the medicine began to be better understood, it was no longer an ideal for readers or viewers to emulate. So Mimi would be rejected as someone not to identify with.
We don’t see the middling parts of their story (presumably going on for months) except as back story; there is no emphasis on joyful experience (escape from grinding jobs), but only how poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. This was the perspective of the Wolf Trap production set in Brooklyn. In this HD-one Rodolpho and Marcello don’t even take their writing and painting seriously: he burns his play and Marcello paints walls in taverns. True.
What emphasis I have seen done seriously is the story of the TB; TB in the era was a taboo subject, not treated at all realistically (except by daring people who then were condemned and castigated): presented fatuously in art (perversely) as an enhancer of a “fallen” woman’s beauty; when respectable women became ill it was to be hidden. Mimi is a milliner, seamstress and is assumed in Victorian myth to be susceptible to seduction so it’s fine to present her as dying of TB.
I’ve never read Henry Murger’s stories. I have never seen Leoncavallo’s so don’t know what verismo brings to the story. If one were to do the opera more seriously, one might switch the illness to cancer, now an epidemic killing and maiming thousands of people, breaking their finances. Perhaps then one would not have a full house unless one did the setting somberly – a sort of Breaking Bad in operatic masque terms.
Given the philistine atmosphere I felt myself in, I escaped (fled from my seat) while the applause at the end was (in the production) still going on and hurried out of the awful theater lobby for the last time this season. I had a cold windy walk home — not being able to use my car. I did show myself that I can be deeply engaged by opera myself — it’s not just a matter of going with Jim. In his interview with Joyce DiDonato Gelb said some truths: one, that each year the Met tries to broadcast a representative set of operas: and next year there will be brand-new productions, unusual pieces (John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer; Iolanta, (alas with Anna Netrebko, a guarded cold woman, stilted and stiff in my estimation), and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), traditional pieces with great singers (Verdi’s Macbeth); in new productions, Lehar’s The Merry Widow with Renee Fleming, Leoncavallo’s Cavallero Rusticana and Puccini’s Pagliacci (with a great tenor singing both).
I’d like to see some of them, so too would Izzy and were it not that Netrebko is in two I’d like see, Izzy and I might manage far more of the season than we did this sad year.