One of Renee Fleming’s stand-up numbers: it’s of a magical child who has left the singer: “how could you leave me alone” the refrain – stop and click and listen ….
Dear friends and readers,
When today while Yvette and I were watching the HD opera broadcast of the latest new HD production, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, starring Fleming as Hanna, I recalled to mind one night years ago. Jim and I were in a live audience somewhere and had been listening to a live act on stage of male rock-n-roll well-known singers; they ceased, and Pavarotti came on stage and began to sing. It was startling, just felt like he was knocking you off your seat. Jim began to laugh aloud so superior were they to all this noise, microphones and all. We were in the first row, and I may have imagined it but I thought he caught Pavarotti’s eye for a moment.
So too after I don’t know how many minutes of trivial supposed funny dialogue (some of which thudded badly or was not pointed enough, especially between Sir Thomas Allen as the count, and Mark Schowalter as the winking perhaps gay servant, Njegus), and Fleming was brought on. Kelli O’Hara (playing the count’s perhaps unfaithful wife) was just pathetic in comparison, her voice one reedy stream, until towards the middle of the third act she came out with a can-can costume amid the chorus of Broadway dancers and did a powerful effective wry playfully sexy number
What depth of feeling was pulled out of this production (and there was some) was mostly the result of Fleming’s songs, Fleming’s singing when she intones “The Merry Widow Waltz” and “Off to Maxim’s” her voice vibrates with alluring trembling trills. She just outdistanced them all. I fell to crying three times, real crying, the yearning for romance, and the lied refrain “how could you leave me alone” just entered into me.
Somehow the love story between the two aging principals, Nathan Gunn as Danilo and Fleming does start to move us gradually — alas Fleming’s face and neck are starting to show her age and she is uncomfortably stiff when dancing just a little or being pulled back to be kissed; Gunn is none to lithe. The waltz music helped — on the way home Yvette began to hum or sing the musical line; how lovely her voice sounded.
A finer rendition than anything in this production: Placido Domingo (he sings with delicacy) and Ricio Martinez, Rio, 2014
Towards the end of the second act the rousing dance numbers begin, some by the men in a kind of mock chorus: what is it that makes women so strange — and yes, not to be trusted (that stereotype duly trotted out). Gary Halvorson, the director for live cinema (never mentioned in any of the increasingly hyped interviews), took all the right shots. It was fun to watch the stage change from a garden to Maxim’s while the curtains remained open — through keeping our attention on the dancers as all around them the props and settings moved.
Susan Stroman, whose origins as a Broadway choreographer were repeated too often (as well as her and everyone else’s endless awards), nonetheless deserved credit for the risqué nature of the dancing which was suggestive as well as exhilarating.
The production’s hard-working dancing grisettes — in 19th century France grisettes were also hard-working women, sometimes milliners, or seamstresses who made ends meet by quiet prostitution on the side (it paid for your lodging)
At its best moments this operetta is a slightly heavy-handed but effective comedy with occasional brushes with romance that can still, just, reach us.
So, mark another highly conventional opera done traditionally for HD (“embalmed” said one critic). I remarked to Yvette that we were told before the broadcast began 37 school districts from around the US were watching. Before the intermission, the lack of any actuating believable emotion made for tedium. But after well-timed performances and “mistakes of the night” kind of humor also kept things going. Perhaps they could have used a bit more stylization. It’s too much to hope for re-thinking and making it contemporary (which they might have done in a European house — who knows?)
I also thought (once again) of Downton Abbey. Was this not the same kind of pastiche, pastoral of upper class life, where hardly anyone can be seen doing anything transgressive for real, though they are all running about as if they are about to; where we are told the characters need huge sums of money because their “country” is threatened by bankruptcy, but far from deprivation, all there is in sight is luxury. In the house on camera shots, Yvette spotted the dress circle seats she and I had occupied while we saw the Death of Klinghoffer — at considerable more expense and effort.
It is grating how each time a hostess begins her major spiel for money to an HD audience, she emphasizes that no matter how wonderful the experience of this broadcast, it is nothing, NOTHING, to being in the house. The obtuse tastelessness and dishonesty (for the movie experience is in some ways far better and interesting, except for the irritating false upbeat pseudo-depth talk in most of the interviews) of this is matched by the reality of opera as an elite entertainment; if occasionally it crossed your mind (as it did mine in this production) to wonder about the parallels between street life in Austro-Hungarian cities in 1905 to street life today in New York or other cities across the US, it became harder to push the thought away. Capitalist bourgeoisie at play. Satieted rhythms in the songs.
When I cry at these movies for real, I find the people near me get uncomfortable quickly. People can bear very little reality. I could go on about the falseness of this stereotype of the merry widow. But Lehar was not a fool, and the story concerns a very young woman, a farmer’s daughter, poor, married off to a very old man who died on the honeymoon. If she marries, her fortune reverts to her husband. And in life in the 19th century widows often could not control who would inherit their money. So no possibility of grief? and yet these haunting lyrical lines recur starting at the end of the first act.
I’ll be teaching the Poldark novels and film adaptations (now we’ve got two!) this coming March at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University, and browsing the catalogue discovered a course in the Met opera seasons (apparently given regularly) where the practice is to watch those Met operas available on DVD not made into HD broadcasts (this year The Death of Klinghoffer, called “controversial”). Discussion then includes HD broadcasts as a comparison plus local operas (complete with a few guest speakers). An effort is made to discuss those operas not broadcast: I hope it is not on behalf of the idea that we must see the opera live to experience it most wonderfully as after all they are going to be using DVDs but rather to look into the choices and the different kinds of presentations HD-broadcast leads to.