I drove over to an AMC Theater in Burbank (of all places) today to see the live simulcast of I Puritani
from the Metropolitan Opera. As readers of this blog know, I saw this production while in New York last week
and I had purchased these tickets mostly out of curiosity about what this experience would be like, given all the media attention lavished on the first movie theater broadcast of The Magic Flute
. While I loved Ms. Netrebko’s performance last week, I didn’t really feel the show as a whole was worth a second viewing.
Anna Netrebko as Elvira Walton
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2006
Much to my surprise, the simulcast was far more enjoyable than it was actually being there. Some of this, of course, is due to the presence of Eric Cutler’s far more pleasant Arturo compared to his stand-in last week, Gregory Kunde. But frankly the biggest difference was in seeing the performance through the eye of the camera, allowing for different angles at different times. In short, the video allowed the viewer to focus on the best parts of this performance, the vocalists and their acting and singing often at very close range. The worst parts of the production - the stupifyingly boring sets and complete absence of on-stage activity from the chorus - vanished. Suddenly, a performance viewed through a series of cameras over a thousand miles away was more interesting and stimulating that sitting through the same performance in the center of the orchestra just yards from the stage.
This has changed my mind about some of the issues around watching performances on DVD. Of course, there is always a special thrill to seeing live music and performance, and I, like many others, have always believed that a live performance in general is unquestionably superior to any kind of reproduction of that same event. But now I realize that in fact, there may be exceptions. Despite what some would have you believe, a significant part of the opera experience is visual. The static setting of the viewer's single visual field forces extreme importance on the overall tableau of the stage and set. In video, this is lost with a myriad of close-ups and follow shots. But in situations where the visuals are as weak as they are in this Puritani
, this can be a distinct benefit.
I also got to thinking again about what a great job Mr. Gelb has been doing by injecting some life into the oftentimes stale atmosphere of the Met. He’s barely half-way through the season and I think in sheer terms of PR and opening up the institution, his first year has been a huge success. Now the question is, with all this great technology and access, will he have anything artistically worthwhile to show off? He certainly still has access to the world’s greatest singers and one of the world’s great orchestras. But with the sheer number of ponderous, boring, and woefully out-of-date productions the Met has come to rely on over the years, it will take far more than radio broadcasts and big screen projections to bring some much needed vitality and fresh air to that institution. The early indicators are that he is moving in the direction of increasing the house's artistic relevance - co-productions, works new to the Met's repertoire, and inclusion of designers from other parts of the theater world are all excellent ideas. Here is wishing him well.