Dear friends and readers,
We began our fourth season at the Met via satellite and digital technology with an older production of Verdi’s Otello, this season featuring Renee Fleming (one of my favorite singer-actresses) as Desdemona and Johan Botha as Otello, Falk Struckman as Iago. The movie-theater less than 10 minutes away from our house — a huge building which has something like 14 auditoriums — has taken to making the Met HD opera auditorium a wing-side groundfloor corridor, and there were some surprizes for us this season. Not all of them welcome. For example, the benches just outside the auditorium in said wing which allowed the customer (not guest as the employees have been instructed to call people who pay to see movies there) to sit just outside the individual theater while the deafening preludes of relentless glittering screen advertising are going on have been removed. My guess is the management noticed that some of the HD opera patrons were quietly eating food and drinks they had brought from home. Verboten. So I have now to sit in the front main area and be bombarded (though no where as loudly) by advertisements for coming movies on screens placed at regular distances from one another.
I do my best to ignore these TV screens against walls, stuck in corners high up, while reading whatever books or periodical I have bought with me. I noticed that other HD patrons on near-by benches (who are distinguishable from the usual movie-goer and not just by age) were doing the same.
More ambiguous was the change in camera work which defines and shapes, indeed is our experience of the operas broadcast from far away. As I came back into the by-then crowded theater (Otello is provides popular erotic tragic and violent melodrama; Renee Fleming what’s called a Diva) five minutes before the show was to begin, I steeled myself for the usual last minute Bloomberg commercials. For three years now I have heard how I am to be grateful to Bloomberg for this broadcast and then told in very high decibels with continually changing shots on a screen that subdivides and re-divides itself that Bloomsberg and his employees are working for me, watching over the globe everywhere in the globe that counts, every minute of every hour of every day. What am I to do? Huis clos (no exit). This revelling in Big Brother Watching Us All glides into the opera and and start as the theater goes dark. I could boo and hiss, and certainly wanted to when Bloomberg rejoiced over how he owned the police and they were his army to destroy the Occupy movement. (If anyone wanted proof of Vidal Gore’s comment that the top 25% in income in the 1990s despised everyone else, and the real elite spent their political lives making sure there is no democracy, he or she had only to listen to this man sneer at average New Yorkers’ response to his sending “his” cops to beat up anyone assembling at Occupy sites; their racism, only watch a YouTube of police stopping and frisking young men of color — humiliating, kicking, imprisoning them.) Still what good would it do? I’d probably be shouted down by at least a few people (if anyone bothered to protest) and if anyone else booed too, it’d be just silliness. (As the movie-theater for reasons that remained mysterious had no coffee available, and I don’t drink popular soda except in super-heat, I was in no danger of being caught with anything but a medium-sized drink.)
This year though the commercial had vanished, and instead I was informed the Neubauer Family (whose name had been prominently displayed before the Bloomberg extravaganza got going) and Bloomberg were the people (corporations anyone?) I was to be grateful to in a series of silent varied artistic print-outs playing over a screen which metamorphosed gaily from a lovely silk looking cloth (rather like the one that start each episode of the BBC/WBGH BB 1995 Pride and Prejudice), to suggestions of countries across the earth (we were one family of theaters across the globe) to galaxies back down to figure drawing suggestive of Lincoln Center, the Met theater and little people hurrying inside.
But before that we had noticed something else new. From the first year we have been aware that that the reason the audiences far away can enjoy close-ups in ways no one inside the theater can were robo-cams, really small cameras along the side of the stage which had no person attached to or controlling them directly, but which Jim had suggested to me where operated by people in the house at remote points in the house. At the back of the theater are (we have supposed trailers of equipment) into which all this feeds. These robo-cams may still be there. But now they are accompanied by two cameras on long poles positioned from the nearest boxes and operated directly by someone. We could see the two men.
And what a difference these made. Immédiatement. We saw the audience close up as I don’t think we had before. Some of the angles made me slightly dizzy. You felt you were in the theater. When we watched (one of my peculiar delights) the opera crews, riggers, people putting together the sets, electricians, we really saw details I had not before: one man high up on a ladder in a harness holding two parts of stage-y temple like structure together. It was as if we were on the stage with them. This is great fun. But when it came to watching the opera I’m not sure. One problem with a movie is the camera can control what you see as the stage does not in a live theater, and I remember feeling frustrated when we watched the dancing in a Carmen because the film-maker-director had decided I would watch those part of the dance the star was in when I’d like to have seen the whole figure. Now we dived into the stage deeply.
They de-mystified the experience. It was like you were on stage. So we got up close to the extras and very minor singers doing things to pretend they were at a party. When seen from far, the effect is more illusionary. I could see the individual children prancing around Renee Fleming and her smiling sweetly at them. It’s long been known that the close-ups in HD format do not flatter the singers necessarily and they make the older, less attractive, let’s call it fatter people look inappropriate for their roles. This time I could see ripples on skin.
Maybe though it was also like being at a play instead of a movie. When in a small theater and sitting close-up I’ve seen the action at such an intimate vantage point. I’m not sure though that the film director credited does have the final say in what’s done on stage. When I’ve asked (at Castleton’s operahouse in mid-Virginia in question-answer sessions with directors), How does the increasingly wide-spread viewing of operas change the way they are directed? I am ignored, not answered, or told “not at all.” Really? if you believe that … Enchanted Island last year was aimed at the larger auditorium audience at a distance.
At key moments — say when Otello is singing of his broken faith in Desdemona, or that final poignant death scene, the camera stayed at a discreet enough distance to emphasize the tableau of dead bodies fallen on the stairs side-by-side.
It was really the breaking in on of ensembles where a general impression was sought, not scrutiny of particulars going on stage.
However, the photographic presentation of operas are changing, and there is this irresistible urge to use whatever new technology is available at the moment, and that is what we are seeing this year. Last year was the year of the Wagner’s Ring on a dangerous ludicrous machine.
And what about the opera itself? This production manifests a reading Verdi and Boito’s text and spectacle and music that is familiar to me. In Shakespeare Iago descends from the “motiveless malignity” of an idea of evil, pure evil, reveling in itself seen in medieval drama. The destructive nature of nature itself. Othello’s sexual anxiety and humiliating jealousy is prepared for: Shakespeare’s Desdemona is, it’s insinuated, a sophisticated Venetian lady, and Othello a naif from magic-ridden Africa. Yet it’s fantasy too: for swift movement allows for no slow-build up making for believability.
By contrast, Verdi’s Iago is a venal man, sordidly murderous because he has been passed over for promotion and Cassio the up-and-coming man. Verdi’s famous arias for Iago show the figure was to sand for someone who lives his life without religion of some sort. That’s what makes him evil. The language of the opera is Christian religion-drenched while Shakespeare’s is not. Verdi’s Iago is a nihilist. IN both though Desdemona is hated by Iago, despised because she is so good and loving. In both it’s not realistic she would not catch on until too late that Othello is jealous of Cassio and she is needling him unconsciously by in Shakespeare her attempt to exercise power, and in Verdi her innocent appreciation of the sweet young equally good man, Cassio.
So, how what was the take of this 1994 production? Verdi’s and the most powerful arias are Iago’s on nihilism. Falk Struckmann as Iago was strong throughout, sordid and venal and petty when he needed to be, reaching out for allegories of meaningless and against Christian idealism implicitly. Struckman’s voice was ringing strong, nasal in just the right way. The young Michael Fabiano’s tenor as Cassio was very sweet. He seemed the youngest of the principles.
James Morris’s baritone still has an uniquely beautiful sound and he acted the ambassador with asperity; Renee Tatum was a strong mezzo-soprano presence as Emilia. A small but significant role — though too much is cut from Shakespeare’s wry ironic woman.
I just loved Renee Fleming (so beautiful in one of her dark red dresses and swathed in lovely shawl around her white nightgown — I love in her aging), but her character was given much more depth as the opera went on, and she consequently had more to act out and was more and more effective as the opera went on. How scared she gets of Otello. How much she wants to live. I was surprised how moving, poignant was Johan Botha as Otello; his dream of this person lost. The two of them in the last part were breath-taking. At first they seemed too old but then since the first act is left out I just saw them as an older couple (like a 1948 movie with Ronald Colman as an actor who plays Othello in a play and really murders his wife – in the film story) who have had the crux of their belief in one another successfully undermined. I did have to forget Andrew Davies’s modernization of Othello where the principals were searingly Shakespeare’s in allegorical reach as well as contemporary relevance.
Which gets me to the staging. It creaked. Too much fuss. Too much tawdry when up close phony attempts at apparently luxury and power seen in the lavish costumes and then the temple-like settings. We did see how scratched the bed-boards on the side of the bed were by this time. The opera needs to be re-conceived along the lines of last year’s Willy Dekker’s Traviata. The power of this opera is not in the politics, or the crowd scenes, but in the transformation of intimate life so aptly shown most readers and viewers can enter right into it. This was the focus of Andrew Davies’s updating of Othello. And the best moments in this opera and for the actor-singers too were in the initial love duet of Desdemona and Otello, the gradual poisoning, disillusionment, her growing terror, and his obtuse madness.
I recommend seeing it as a traditional production.
A word on the interviewer to this one and these interlude interviews in general. Sondra Radunovsky. Dressed in this too tight-for-her big body glamorous-polyester scarlet red low cut gown, Miss R was not talking to anyone but enunciating a memorized speech filled with cliches at us, and making hardly any eye contact with the interviewees. it was sort of funny, especially when Radunsky interviewed Thomas Ades, composer of the new opera The Tempest. He half made a little fun at the way she was mouthing her cliched pronouncements. I suppose it was bad of me not to feel for the person slightly mocked but I found Sondra R’s whole demeanor grating — it felt so false, so mindless. I detest false glamor, false cheer. How happy and lucky everyone is, and all the interviewees insisting on the genius of everyone around them. Jim maintains there are cue cards and the “host” or “hostess” is partly reading these, and even that those who come out to be interviewed are given suggestions (partly scripted). If so, Renee Fleming and Deborah Voigt are very good at simulating conversation when they are hostesses.
A friend on facebook suggested it was a sort of culture clash: Ades was not prepared with canned replies or not used to be asked canned questions, and his discomfort came out in ironies that distanced himself and half-made fun of the conversation. In the HD Euro-operas we’ve seen in DC theaters, there is nothing like this Met hype. The talk may be scripted but if so it’s kept a lot more low key. The Met is continually selling itself, positioning itself. It’s the American opera house. I much enjoy seeing some of the singers; they do give themselves away and I especially enjoy watching the crew people but I know that when I go to a Euro opera I have thought to myself, I’m glad to be left to myself to enjoy or react however to the the opera in a quiet screening.
I confess I find laughable when the hostess suddenly turns round on you and tell you the only truly “real” experience of an opera is when you are at the Met theater. The “local” ones count too of course (but since when is the Met not also a local place.) Go there rather than sit where you are. (Actually another aspect of the implicit elitism of what’s broadcast.) If so, why are you now so determined to make us feel we are there with your cameras, up on stage with the performers? or is this just an unexamined development of technological innovation overdone.
I now know what these operas are about from the subtitles. I’ve really seen and taken in 3 seasons. Still the occasional wince & sense of aggravated ostentation is not a bad price to pay for these richly artful experiences of song, music, drama, costume, production spectacle, a friendly non-pretentious audience all around you. $20 for each of us a time. We are from the 99% in the movie-theaters.