So, friends and readers,
They sang their hearts out and acted the parts superbly well. To begin with what what is most memorable, second most and so on: Dimitri Hvorostovsky as the sexually betrayed husband best friend to the king, Count Anckarstrom (Renato), baritone in his role in the third act, was shaking from his controlled hysteria at his wife and decision (just) not to kill her when he’d done his magnificent long aria.
Stephanie Blythe as the sybil Ulrica, as her name reveals a Scott like mad prophecy moment turned into the nervous cynical court fortune teller was superb; her entrance in trailing coat and sleuth-woman hat which she then took off they improved on what in the opera has become cliched stuff. She was attention-getting with her pocketbook with its large gold clasp, cigarette and flask (liquor):
Suddenly I wish I knew what Scott was available in Italian and what the Italian texts were like. The graveyard scene (contradictory as were they all with its Icarus ceiling and white walls):
Act 3 is songfest, from extraordinary alluring thrilling melodies, to ominous choruses. The set as a whole, symbolic on top, walls, including the soprano in a slip falling against a white wall with a single large symbolic object nearby reminded me of Willy Dekker’s Traviata. David Alden was the producer and Saul Steinberg the set designer and they have clearly been influenced by Euro-trash (as it’s called operas) as well as Broadway too.
Stark was the aim, simplify and symbolize the mode.
The opera does have problems. One could say of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito there’s more there; they could do this or that. This one is what it is. It feels ungrateful to say that but it’s more dated than Traviata: the complicated plot for example. And the depiction of women’s chastity with the implication that if she had had a full sexual relationship with the king, she would have been abhorrent is deeply anti-women — especially as the opera is ultimately based on a real 18th century king and his court, Gustavus of Sweden who took the wife of his chief supporter and courtier for his mistress. Many plays of the Jacobean era show this was common; other sources show the way a married couple could rise in court was that she become the king’s mistress. They also show inevitably often the “cuckolded” man became humiliated and sometimes killed the wife and/or the king or tried to (e.g., Beaumont and Fletcher’s King and No King). The original, Una vendetta, had political matter which is feebly reflected because of the censorship. At the real court there was a fortune teller, who when she told of the king’s death and it came true, was shunned.
It is true that had Verdi been able to explore some truths about politics at court, this would have been a sizzling important opera. Had he been able at least to present as aspect of where revolutions come from, court coteries, ditto. If we knew something of his preoccupations, something never gone into or rarely during intermissions. As he was not, and they do not, the opera remains contradictory, half-baked partly senseless antics leading nowhere. It feels ungrateful to say this but it should be said. As Clement says in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women or Kerman in his Opera as Drama, the content of the opera matters.
It is what it is, and the Met did its best to make the emotions that are believable effective, resonate. They provided absorbing entertainment through the masque background, costumes, and intermission material.
So I enjoyed it and was glad we went. I really feel it was the first time I truly saw it. I understood it for the first time, the subtitles of course did that, and the staging underlined what was happening inwardly. So for the first time I was roused by the music — having understood the content of the lyrics and what the gestures of actor-singers meant. Sondra Radvanovsky: first time I ever saw her; she effective.
During his interview Dmitri Hvorostovsky swaggered and preened, and looked out at the audience and camera instead of at Deborah Voight, but he sang so well and is attractive. The tenor Marcelo Álvarez had a feel for it as an Italian opera, and that’s what it is, complete with comic fishermen, smugglers, men laughing at a cuckold, patriotic choruses. Oscar (Katherine Kim) didn’t make any sense in his white suit with white wings, the job was to provide a coloratura soprano throughout. I’m glad we went even if in insight into the human condition this was the equivalent of a pop melodramatic movie of 1950s TVm a proto-Sopranos.
It is real fun, an education, fascinating to watch the crews during most of the intermissions. (There are some where there is little for stagehands to do.) The stage is somehow not quite de-mystified. You are in on what’s happening behind the screen. We love that. This time we witnessed (if you were watching a small spat between the chief carpenter, head of the crew, and one of his people protesting apparently against being asked to clean the mirror-glass. Beneath his dignity, not important enough.
It takes hundreds of people to put up the scenes the curtains open up on. You learn a lot about staging as you watch them.
You feel part of the here, now alive aspect of things because the camera shows us the audience. They cannot see us, but we see them.
I can find no shots online of Deborah Voight (soon to be Cassandra in Les Troyens) as hostess for the interviews this time. I didn’t expect to. Nor probably Susan Graham (soon to be Dido in Les Troyens). None of the tech people and crews moving, pulling down, putting up pieces of staging.
The interviews and watching the crew set up the stage are part of what we the movie-house audiences are offered — and cannot be seen by the live people in the house. It adds a lot — pace each hostess’s mantra about how much better it is to be in the house, I’d say from the second tier up it’s not. We are taken to the costume shop, to the dressing rooms, hear taped interviews with composers and directors that can be informative, watch rehearsal sessions.
So a little on these.
This time, as I say, Deborah Voigt did it; she frequently has (as also Renee Fleming). They are personable and seem comfortable, feel like they are ad-libing, are comfortable and can cope with whatever their interviewees say or do. At one point the camera allowed us to see Deborah chatting with the two people she was about to interview from afar (while we watched the sets set up — and hard physical labor it was too) and I could see she had a teleprompter with the words she was to say facing her. That with its words is usually unseen by movie-house viewers.
The ability to be hostess (or host) takes a very different kind of talent to that of singer-actor within the opera play-world. Sondra Radvanovsky was the hostess I saw for the Otello, whose behavior was so cliched and absurd, so frozen. She could not get herself to react spontaneously enough — or seem to — the interviewed. So as a singer-actress I’d never have identified her as the same person. She certainly didn’t remind me of the stiff cliched inappropriately (for her body) overdressed, over-sexed hostess. Joyce Didonato was marvelous as Sycorax and in the interview done “at sea-level” in this production of her practicing Maria Stuarda promises a stunning performance. She was a very poor hostess, dull, lifeless.
As hostess (or host), you don’t have the mask of “being in your character” and you come out as partly yourself. So no or not-as-much hiding. Since inveighing against Radvanovsky’s super-tight, super-sexy outfit, I’ve since realized that the clothes the host or hostess wears (and jewels the hostess wears) are provided by the Met. There are credits saying Miss so-and-so dressed by. I didn’t know that. So Radvanosky was dressed by the Met that way.
Jim tells me that Radvanosky is said to have a gay following (fans who refer to her as Sondra); this kind of thing is known. Maybe she was dressed that way because of this perceived following. Renee Fleming by contrast has not. I’ve noticed what I’d call snobbery towards Fleming among people who go to opera; they call her vulgar! vulgar. Opera itself, the whole thing, including house is an extravaganza of vulgarity on one level — crass, unashamed revelling in luxury, in the apparatus of wealth: let’s pretend to be aristocrats going to a palace. But I grant Fleming may be is perceived as “wholesome: and her roles and outfits as hostess are all traditionally feminine.
I would believe that the women singers especially have some say in what they are going to wear too. The older ones do have this problem of ideals of youth and real slimness. I’ve been told that Deborah Voigt had the operation where you have your stomach stapled to make herself thin enough to do the heroine role in the Ring. I can see that Radvanosky is still playing sexy young or youngish women. She may feel — as some women do – that dresses that are youthful and tight make her look younger and thinner. I should probably on principle sympathize (feel for “my sisters”), but I’ve a real distaste for clothes that announce people as super-rich and glamorous and my experience is looser things that swirl around your body make you look smaller at least and maybe thinner. But these sort of looser clothes are not glamorous. Those who dress the actress-singer and she collaborating study carefully each choice of clothes.
Deborah Voight is dressed slightly mannishly in suit-like outfits, shoulder-length blonde hair in a flip page-boy.
Telling: the hosts just wear tuxes, much less trouble and yet despite the women having troubles such as I’ve suggested, for the 4 year period we’ve been going I can count on one hand how many times there has been a male host. Three times is all I remember. The first time we went: Thomas Hamsen was personable, handsome, but he never did it again of those I’ve gone to. We have gone to a concert of his at the Carnegie.
Eric Owens, the brilliant black singer who was so marvelous as Alberich in Wagner’s Ring: he seemed embarrassed to do it, determined to come out all sweetness and light, utterly harmless. So he was countering myths about black men — by contrast, let’s recall he had played Alberich using from deep within himself his own felt resentments as an outsider. On the stage as singer he has a mask; not as host.
And once Placido Domingo. He was charming and unashamed in asking for money. I could imagine his pitch at fund-raisers. But he was a bit unusually stiff, watching himself. Too much is riding on the success of these HD productions? more than money perhaps?
To conclude, I had an exchange of email letters with a friend who has been going to these HD operas for about 6 years and (like us) goes to the European operas transmitted by HD. He buys a season ticket to the Met nowadays and this year is going to several operas from La Strada, the Royal Opera House and elsewhere in NYC movie-houses. He wrote: “I have the busiest opera schedule this season I’ve ever had.” He’s even nowadays going to the New York City opera “something I haven’t done in years. Most of this is due to the fact that HD productions are the greatest thing since macaroni.”
Us too. Jim is planning several of these Eurocinemas. We’ll get to see Lohengrin, two more operas with the very handsome Jonas Kauffman, two more with the magnificent Simon Keenleyside. We nowadays go to Opera Lafayette, in summer Castleton in Virginia and Wolf Trap. I seems we hardly have a month without an opera. It’s hard to find time to go to an ordinary movie. And I remember years where we never saw one opera, especially when PBS goes through periods of not doing them — lest they put off an audience who never watch PBS anyway.
I read some in the audience in the Met theater are resentful. They complain they suspect the staging is nowadays done for the movie-houses. (They can see the cameras this year.) Why should they (those who do) pay $300 a seat, when we poor plebs pay $20. This is not the first time technology has made available to many what was once available only to a few. And this has changed what’s available — often with some disadvantages coming in.
I’ve no doubt this new technology and all the new kinds of staging, scenic design, half-Broadway productions will bring in a much bigger traditional audience of classical music lovers, usually older people with time and money to go on weekends and weekdays or evenings. It will bring in younger people too: again and again I see Izzy so charmed by the younger singers in the present productions as well as the more modern operas. She loved The Enchanted Island. Doing so many a year will exert pressure to expand the repertoire into the baroque and modern. It already has. Everyone must really act. The production design must be good and appropriate. All this may cause new 20th and 21st century operas to be mounted, and then more written. These can speak to us the way a Un ballo en maschera can’t.
As to the disadvantages, they have not yet emerged — except the pressure on singers to look conventionally young and beautiful. That was happening already.